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In Praise of Nil-Nil: Mexico and Brazil Show How It's Done

No goals? No problem.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The headline in El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper, was direct and to the point: “Nigeria-Irán: Muy Aburrido.” (Very Boring.) And it was. The article itself was short: the editors of the paper, who have a daily pullout section of World Cup coverage to fill, were loath to devote much space to the tedium; in fact, more ink was given to a report that four Colombian fans had been injured in a car accident on the way to a stadium in Brazil. For those who didn’t watch, be grateful. Briefly: neither team seemed very interested in or capable of scoring. Sloppy, lacking in creativity, abject. It was, nonetheless, a well-earned and valuable point for Iran, as well as a disappointing performance from a Nigerian team that just last year won the African Cup of Nations, and was supposed to be far, far better. The highlight for me was probably Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeting out a photo of himself, watching alone with a cup of tea and a box of Kleenex.

Contrast the Nigeria-Iran with Mexico’s thrilling scoreless draw against hosts Brazil. It had everything: silky passing, hard tackles, chance after chance. The wily veteran defender Rafa Marquez (a player I find detestable, frankly) turned back the clock with an excellent performance, though the star was of course Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s goalkeeper. El Tiempo called him “a national hero.” He used the entire repertoire: acrobatic dives, reaction saves, punches, quick steps off his line. In a word: magisterial. Heart-stopping stuff. And it wasn’t as if Mexico didn’t have opportunities either: an unlucky bounce here or there, or a Russian goalkeeper between the posts, say, instead of the steady hands of Julio Cesar, and this match might have ended in disaster for Brazil. But the game, which never lacked for entertainment, stayed scoreless, and we, the fans, were treated to a draw that felt like a victory for Mexico.

I’ve always been a fan of the scoreless draw—the good kind, of course, not the Nigeria-Iran kind. This stems, in part, from being raised in the United States in the 1980s, the dark ages for footballing culture in the U.S., when one was consistently subjected to the mainstream notion that soccer was both foreign and boring. The possibility of a 0-0 final score was exhibit A for that ignorant thesis. A fan knows that this is ridiculous, of course. A fan knows that the score tells only part of the story, that a nil-nil, un empate a ceros, can have all the drama and entertainment of a 3-2 or a penalty shootout. Watching soccer is about expectation, it’s about anxiety. Something is always happening, and unlike other sports, the scoreline is not necessarily an accurate barometer of the quality of the match, nor does the superior team always score more goals. Sometimes, no one scores, and it can be amazing. To put it another way, there are nil-nils, and then there are nil-nils.

Who was it that said tying was like kissing your sister? I’d bet there are 120 million Mexicans who beg to differ.