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Fair Play

If you tell a sad, woeful story in Peru, hoping to elicit sympathy, someone might just respond with the phrase, “Bueno pues, así es el fútbol.” Meaning: that’s how soccer is; soccer, in this context, standing in for life. Soccer isn’t fair. Neither is life. Stop whining.

To understand winning and losing in soccer one must set aside the concept of fairness. The side that plays beautifully might be justifiably proud of its collective aesthetic achievement; but if they don’t score, they’re not likely to win many tournaments. The team that dominates possession throughout a match can be undone by one quick counter-attack. A striker can hit the post as many times as he likes, all of them lamentable, but if at the end, the goalkeeper has a clean sheet, that’s the only thing that matters. A fan would like the side which plays aggressive, crisp, daring fútbol to win, but life is cruel, and sometimes, regrettably, Italy is champion.

Then there are the flukes: a great deal has been written about Robert Green, the unlucky English goalkeeper, but his has not been the only significant gaffe of the tournament—in fact, he’s had lots of company, and we’re not even through the first week. And there will certainly be other momentous, game-changing errors which will give an undeserving squad a chance to win or draw. I’d go so far as to say this, the ever-present possibility of an upset, is part of the allure of the game: an over-matched team, with a little luck, good goal-keeping, and an opportunistic set play, can win. And for the fan, wondering which veteran striker will miss a massively important penalty kick (Roberto Baggio, 1994), and which will commit a costly, foolish foul (Zinedine Zidane, 2006), is, of course, one of the World Cup’s many pleasures. The same notion, I’d guess, animates auto racing—the possibility of a devastating crash is part of the appeal.

Two other games this past weekend featured awful, dare I say unforgivable mistakes, each altering the course of the game. For no real reason—or perhaps just to make Robert Green feel less alone—I’d like to point them out: In the Algeria-Slovenia match, striker Abdelkader Ghezzal did his worst Maradonna “Hand of God” impression, diving to head a ball just beyond his reach, then inexplicably punching it away instead. Only he knows what in the hell he was thinking. Ghezzal was given a yellow card—his second of the match—and was sent off. With a man advantage, Slovenia scored a few minutes later. Algeria, in my estimation, deserved better. In the next match, Zdravko Kuzmanovica, Serbian midfielder, under slight pressure, used his hand to bat away a ball in his own box, gifting a penalty kick and three points to the Ghanaians. Again, one could argue that a fair score would have been 0-0, or 1-1. The defender’s expression when the referee pointed to the penalty spot was high drama—unalloyed shame, guilt-ridden torment. Never have I so appreciated high-definition tv.

The tournament’s most boring match thus far—France versus Uruguay—also had a goat, of sorts. Young Ignacio Lodeiro—the much-touted Uruguayan playmaker came on in the second half, and played less than thirty minutes before earning two yellow cards, leaving his side shorthanded. He’s just a kid, twenty-one years old, and his immaturity on full display. Still, he’s burdened with the added pressure of having been dubbed “The Uruguayan Messi”—hardly fair given that no one, not even Lionel Messi himself, is living up to that name right now. Still, Lodeiro (and many Uruguayan fans who expected more from him) will forever remember the match against France, and his desperate half hour on the pitch. Playing in a World Cup has probably been his dream since he was a boy. Now he’ll be sitting out for a game, and might not get the chance to play again. While he didn’t directly cost his team the game—they eked out a miserable tie, though, in truth, neither team deserved a point—he certainly didn’t help Uruguay’s chances.

It’s often said that in a team game no single player can bear the responsibility for a loss, and while this is generally true, it’s also a platitude which does not correspond to the way the sport is actually experienced. Not by fans, not by players themselves. If you play long enough, you’ll eventually make a mistake that will cost your team a goal, and you will feel unambiguously at fault. For most of us, that mistake won’t happen at the World Cup, before a global audience of millions, with the dreams of a nation on our shoulders—still, no matter the context, if you play with any degree of seriousness at all, whether in a neighborhood pickup game, or in an adult league—it will hurt. The mistake will weigh on you. Nothing your teammates say will make this sense of responsibility and regret disappear. If the game is important enough (and in truth, they all are) your teammates might not say anything at all; they might step back into their positions in silence, so you can think about what you’ve done. And you know what? I still do. I remember—with filmic detail—mistakes I made on the pitch in 1992. Games we might have won. Perhaps I’m not being fair to myself, but así es el fútbol.

Back to the World Cup, to Robert Green and Company—I’m fascinated by the psychological aftermath of these extraordinarily public mistakes: how a player recovers, how a team manages to rebuild trust. Won’t every English player be cringing slightly when Green is called upon to scoop the next innocuous shot rolling slowly toward goal? Won’t their hearts rise into their throats, just a little? And won’t Green be the most frightened of all of them? Especially in the first round, when every game matters, when the difference between three points and no points can come down to a single play—these players have no time to dwell on what has already passed. Algeria, Serbia, England, if they hope to move on, need to summon the willful, determined amnesia of the greats, who fuck up spectacularly, get up, shake it off, and keep playing. And there’ll be plenty of time to think about what could have been once the tournament is over. As far as I can tell, that’s what the interminable years between tournaments are for, whereas now is the time to think about what might be.