THE WORLD CUP starts today, in the country that made football beautiful. We should thus be preparing for a carnival of passes and goals, a festival of chance. I fear, however, that some of our attention has been diverted — claimed by a messy future, to be precise.
Ever since Qatar was selected as host for the 2022 World Cup, the tiny Gulf emirate has been heaped with disrepute, sullying the entire sport in the process. There have been charges of “political considerations,” which is how FIFA president Sepp Blatter deflected rumors of a “bought” World Cup. One wonders how many euphemisms there are for corruption. Two weeks ago, The Sunday Times and The Telegraph reported that high-ranking FIFA official and Qatari national, Mohammed bin Hammam, bribed officials from Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe to secure the World Cup for the emirate. While Blatter accused the British media of “racism,” the Qataris have thus far declined to comment. FIFA, meanwhile, has ordered a special investigation into the charge, as they were urged to do so by the event’s major sponsors. This one can fairly describe as damage control. Russia 2018, Qatar 2022: coincidentally, FIFA’s executive committee picked the two regions that were investing most heavily in European football teams.
With the world’s press now in Qatar, the more latent corruptions of local society have become newsworthy again, particularly its labor practices. Qatar has a population between 2 or 3 million (depending on the source) but only around 300,000 of these are Qatari citizens, entitled to the lavish welfare of the petro state. The richest country in the world, per capita, most physical work is performed by indentured laborers from South East Asia. It has been common knowledge for some time that these men are exploited, living in dense squalor and dying on the job, but hosting the World Cup invites a special kind of scrutiny, particularly from countries that feel they could do a better job.
That there is more than a pinch of imperial entitlement to this selective outrage shouldn’t distract from Qatar’s unsuitability. The emirate has only one major city, Doha, promising a concentrated World Cup in a country where the game’s roots hardly run deep. Furthermore, Qatari summer temperatures may necessitate a winter world cup, a scheduling nightmare for European leagues. To add rhetorical fuel, Blatter declared in May 2014, just weeks before the World Cup was about to kick off (and before the Times story broke), that awarding the World Cup to Qatar was a “mistake” and that he was in favor of giving the tournament to the United States. Things aren’t looking much rosier for Russia 2018. Does mother Russia still get to host the World Cup if she pushes farther into Ukraine? Will she host games in Donetsk, a large, still-Ukranian city with a world-class football team?
Distractions like this may have come in handy to our 2014 host, Brazil, which has been dogged by concerns about stadium readiness, the death of construction workers rushing to build the stadiums in time, national protests about the expense of the World Cup, and a strike by transit union workers on the very eve of the tournament’s opening game. If Brazil does not win the 2014 World Cup — if, indeed, it goes out in the second round to Spain, Holland, or Chile — one can only imagine the protests at the gargantuan waste of public resources. Nobody enjoys bankrupting the nation’s coffers in the cause of failure, particularly not the Brazilian favela dwellers and its disaffected middle class, who feel they are footing the bill. Even Pele, unarguably Brazil’s greatest player and a renowned conservative, has gone on record condemning the waste of public resources. Brazil’s coach, big Phil Scolari, and his team are on notice; this pressure may be the best argument against their World Cup prospects.
Watching this pile-on, one starts to wonder whether the 2014 World Cup can be saved.
As a way of staving off the future, I find myself, if not exactly looking to the past, then casting a wistful eye on players for whom the present World Cup will be the last hurrah. These players are past their pomp. They are now in their mid-30s, settled intelligently into clearly defined roles and, perhaps because of that, still gifted enough to command our eye as they strut their stuff one more time.
This is the last look the football world will get at perhaps the best midfield duo of all time, 34-year-old Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta, only 30, but a player who looks older, who seems to have slowed measurably in the last two seasons. Xavi and Iniesta are maestros both, even in their declining years, purveyors of their club FC Barcelona’s brand of football known as “tiki-taka.” This free-flowing style of possession-based football, featuring short, intricate passes, befuddled opponents from 2008 to 2012; Barcelona dominated Europe and Spain dominated the world. The defending World Cup champions thrilled us in 2010 with their exquisite touches — everything short and quick, the stuff of geometric wonder. With tiki-taka (“touch, touch”), its purveyors caressing the ball, treating it with care, a whole new realm of footballing possibility revealed itself. Angles we never thought possible on a football field suddenly became a matter of a slight flick or a delicately placed pass. The system seemed unbeatable: the best its opponents could hope to do was temporarily disrupt it and counterattack — if, that is, they could get the ball. Today, sadly, Barcelona is in decline, and Spain has aged; strong counterattacking teams have recently pierced the tiki-taka shield on several occasions, breaking the illusion of total control. So, with the imminent departure of Xavi and his longtime collaborator, Iniesta, tiki-taka as a pure form may too be heading for the sign marked “Salida.” Their success or failure — and the success or failure of teams like Germany, who have adapted Spain’s style — will decide the future of their experiment.
Departing with the two mini-maestros is a generation that has been overshadowed by tiki-taka’s success for most of the last six years. But football is not about who has the best cards, but how you play the game. In Brazil, we say farewell to veteran winners and losers like Stipe Pletikosa (Croatia), Rafa Márquez (Mexico), Miroslav Klose (Germany), Diego Forlán (Uruguay), and Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon). But there are two departing players who hold me in the thrall of the present more forcefully than any of their contemporaries: Italy’s Andrea Pirlo and England’s Steven Gerrard. I said Italy’s and England’s, when, really, these two players are special because they belong entirely to themselves.
These two are distinguished not only by their long-running battles with each other for club and country (they will do battle again on Saturday in Manaus, a city in the middle of the Amazon, when England plays Italy), but also, one dare say, by a certain agedness. Maybe it should, more properly, be called sadness, a little like watching Rafa Nadal win the French Open yet one more time and then collapse in pain. Even in their prime, they were old men. Now, Pirlo sports an unruly beard and a shaggy, unkempt mane, and Gerrard has lines around the corner of his eyes that seem at once too deep for a 34-year-old and strangely appropriate.
Pirlo and Gerrard play just in front of the defense, from where they spray passes, converting defense into attack. In Italian, the player who performs Pirlo’s holding role is known as a regista. In England it has, as if to confuse it with “football” of the gridiron variety, been dubbed the quarterback role. Both are masters of the long ball, which almost makes them old-school players: Gerrard and Pirlo play in contradistinction to tiki-taka. They are aesthetic in their execution, but direct in their ambition — a Gerrard or Pirlo pass has its fate inscribed from the moment they put boot adroitly to ball.
Gerrard is that rare phenomenon in contemporary football, a one-club man, although he was tempted to sign with league rivals Chelsea FC after beating Pirlo in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul — their first battle. Trailing 0-3 at the half, Gerrard rallied his team, and orchestrated one of the most unlikely comebacks in football history, eventually winning on penalties. That was the highlight of Gerrard’s career; he was named man-of-the-match. Just a month ago, on the 27th of April, in a game against Chelsea, with Liverpool leading the English Premier with three games to go, Gerrard experienced what might be dubbed his “fatal slip.” In the final moment of the first half, Gerrard produced that rare wayward pass, inviting Chelsea’s Ba to score a decisive goal. Liverpool never recovered their composure, and with it went Gerrard’s only real chance to win the Premier League title, the only domestic honor he has failed to achieve in his 15-year career with Liverpool. Pirlo has had more success for club and country, winning two Champions League medals with A.C. Milan and a World Cup triumph in 2006.
And yet, for all their centrality to their respective national teams, both Pirlo and Gerrard are marked by a reluctance that is physically visible. They are, to succumb to a phrase too tempting to pass on, reluctant nationalists. There is no doubt that they want to be left alone, even as they are irreplaceable to their team. Gerrard will happily drive his Liverpool team on, fiering up his teammates, cajoling, gesticulating, but he seems aloof — not detached, just a little removed — when skippering the national side.
Pirlo is that rare Italian in that he is utterly devoid of the usual cynicism that is almost a prerequisite for representing Italy. Pirlo doesn’t stoop to dirty tackles (in Brazil the Italian hard man duties will be assumed with relish by the thuggish Chiellini), or the ritual moaning at every referee’s decision that goes against Italy, the sly tugging at opponents’ shirts, the theatrics, and the general Italian disregard for joga bonito. Traditionally, the Italians are supreme instrumentalists; they will do what is necessary, and that almost never includes playing the game beautifully. Certainly, there have always been important exceptions — the joyful Roberto Baggio comes to mind — but the Italians play to win, not to please.
Not so Pirlo. His first instinct is to pass with delicacy and vision. It matters not if it is the simple pass to a teammate close by, the ball just rolled across a few meters, or an incisive ball that splits the opposition defense and puts his strikers in on goal. One watches a Pirlo pass, always in anticipation of what he might do and in appreciation of how he does it. It can be as soaring as a Mozart sonata, the way Pirlo puts boot to ball, his uncanny ability to see the pitch and to see what prospects the right pass might yield.
Gerrard is the better tackler of the two, but like his old opponent, his true gift has revealed itself to be passing, a gift now honed to poetic heights as his speed has receded with the years. “The legs have gone,” as they say in England. Gerrard doesn’t just pass a ball on the football field, he orchestrates it: he measures the delivery exactly, knowing just how much weight, height, curve, and speed the ball requires; knowing whether to hit the ball with his instep or, when passing from right to left, to use the outside of his foot to bend the ball into the path of a teammate; knowing whether to hit the ball first touch or to control it and then release the ball. Gerrard’s favorite pass is the ball hit from deep on the right side of the park to the left attacking wing. It dips over opponents, it floats and soars through space, it lands perfectly. At Euro 2012, the last major tournament, Gerrard created all three England goals, more or less by himself. Only when he came up against Pirlo did he fail to carve out an opportunity for his team.
For all their ability to perform on the park, Pirlo and Gerrard strike me as footballers second and intensely private individuals first. Even when they were marauding midfielders in their mid- to late-20s, they both evinced a reticence: they gave their all on the pitch, but they seemed deliberately unknowable, even, maybe especially, in their finest moments. Pirlo’s beard, and all that flowing hair that sways this way and that across his face, enables him to withdraw into himself entirely. But, for his particular hirsuteness, it is Pirlo’s eyes that haunt you. They burn right through that mass of hair. Pirlo’s eyes flash with a sign that warns “Do Not Enter.” “Keep Out.” “Non entrare.” There is no ambiguity in that look.
Gerrard’s eyes, too, bespeak a certain reserve, but it is of a different nature. His intensity matches Pirlo’s, but he seems more vulnerable. A boy to Pirlo’s Zarathustran man, Gerrard squints to keep the world at arm’s length. When he narrows his eyes, it is often accompanied by him putting his hands on his hips and looking down. Not only does Gerrard only see what he wants, but he also keeps us from seeing anything he doesn’t want us to see. An alienating admixture, that aggression and withdrawal: withdrawal through aggression, withdrawal into the aggression that flashes from deep inside him.
Their eyes remind me of Zinedine Zidane’s eyes, in that they glint with the patina of self-protection. No three international players have, in the heat of battle, the fulcrum of their teams, been so adept — so disturbingly successful — at withdrawing from the nation while representing it. In their game, in their simultaneous playing before us and retreating from us, they enact the majesty of solitude. Never has the nation been so deliberately, thoughtfully, rejected, without anyone noticing. The nation may cherish them, but they will not be mistaken for patriots. Zizou’s, Pirlo’s, and Gerrard’s footballing souls belong to them, and to them only.