I've kind of gotten hooked on the strange little ritual of the World Cup, when both teams line up in the tunnel, side by side, shuffling around for a minute or two before marching on to the field.
I imagine what the players are thinking – planning their best I’m-mortally-wounded dive, or discreetly eyeing their opponents. (“Look at the muscles on that dude.”)
On Tuesday I saw John Obi Mikel of Nigeria (6 feet, 2 inches) and Lionel Messi (5 feet, 7 inches, at most) exchange what looked like an authentic hug, between two captains, two No. 10s.
I assumed they go back a ways – and they do.
But I really got into the lineup sideshow a few days ago, watching the Panama keeper, Jaime Penedo.
One of the features of the lineup is that each player marches onto the pitch accompanied by a child. (You guessed it, it’s a promotion, for the fast-food empire that has contributed to the fattening of children, adults, and a chief executive who appears to be neither. The company recruits kids from all over the world to march in this brief ceremony before the lads start whacking away at each other.)
Penedo, a stranger to me, turned to a young girl of maybe 10 or so and began chatting, just like a real human being, not a sports star. He was talking and smiling, and as they marched onto the field, the little girl glanced up at the man in the gaudy outfit, as if thinking, “Did he just talk to me?”
I looked him up – 36 years old, been everywhere, including a few years with Bruce Arena and the Los Angeles Galaxy, now at Dinamo Bucharest. I don’t know what language he spoke to the young girl; one article says he speaks some English, not fluently.
If there were such a thing as reward for grace in this world, Penedo would have turned in what the British soccer writers call “a clean sheet” – a shutout, that is. But life is not like that. Penedo was peppered early and often in a 6-1 loss to England and Panama's first World Cup ever will end on Thursday against Tunisia.
As for Mikel and Messi. It’s true, they go back a ways, to 2005, in the World Youth Tournament, when Mikel seemed to be outplaying Messi for the Golden Ball, as best player in the tournament, until they met in the final, and Argentina won.
“Yeah, Messi stole the Golden Ball off me,” Mikel told the Guardian recently, raving about Messi as not being human.
They have co-existed at the top tier of European football for more than a decade, with Mikel having a long run at Chelsea (he’s now playing in China) and Messi a lifer at Barcelona.
On Tuesday, Mikel gallantly held his team together (and calmed a few younger teammates.) But Messi took a gorgeous pass and found the upper corner of the goal to put Argentina ahead in the 14th minute. Nigeria tied the match, needing only a draw to advance, but could not find a more conservative gear for spreading the ball around the pitch, killing seconds off the clock.
I realized I had seen this match before – 1994, in Massachusetts, when Roberto Baggio saved Italy (remember Italy?) with two very late goals against Nigeria.
Twenty-four years later, the very same lack of patience cost Nigeria all over again, in the 86th minute.
So Messi advances; Mikel’s World Cup is over. More players will line up in the tunnel, escorting a child onto the field, maybe finding the grace to smile and chat.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.