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[Washington Babylon]

World Cup: Hands of God


Because I tend to root for Latin American teams at the World Cup (except for Argentina), I began to worry about the fate of its teams when the media narrative here turned to the region’s early dominance in the tournament, when four of the eight quarter-finalists were from South America. As is the case with political coverage, it’s usually safe to assume that any sports narrative that hits critical mass will turn out to be entirely wrong. Cases in point: President Hillary Clinton and NBA champion (insert New York Knick joke here) LeBron James. And so it was predictable that only one Latin team, Uruguay, survived the quarters.

I knew Brazil was in big trouble against Holland when, on the way to watch the game at The Grill From Ipanema restaurant here, my 10-year-old son, a fervent Brazil supporter, told me he’d dreamed the night before that it had lost to Holland by one goal despite being ahead early, and that in the dream he’d seen Brazilian fans crying after the game. He didn’t say anything about “redrum” but it sent a chill down my spine nonetheless, and his vision proved eerily accurate.

Still, the expectation by its fans and the media that Brazil is going to win every four years is ridiculous. They always have a good team, often a great one, but losing at the Cup requires only a mistake or two in one game, which is what happened most famously in 1982 when its fantastic squad was eliminated by Italy 3-2. It happened again against Holland when the defense gave the Dutch team two pathetically easy headers. Then Brazil lost its composure and that was that.

For Brazil fans like me, the pain of the team’s exit ebbed substantially after Argentina was crushed 4-0 on Saturday by Germany. Headlines in Brazilian newspapers were delicious, getting revenge for the same treatment Brazil got after it lost to Holland. Brazilians sarcastically refer to the Argentine squad as “Los Hermanos,” and one headline ran: “You can buy a TV, brothers.” There was also the simple yet elegant headline of “Hahahahahahahahaha” accompanying a photograph of Argentina’s goalie watching helplessly as a German player tapped the ball into the net.

Brazilian newspapers published sentiments expressed on Twitter, including this one: “Perder é humano. De 4 é hermano!” Translation: “To lose is human. To lose by 4 is Argentine.” Another great message on Twitter, sent to me by a friend: “Hand of god gives Maradona the finger!”

The most exciting quarter-final game was Uruguay-Ghana. I wanted Ghana to advance because it was the only African team left, but I also admire the way the Uruguayans, led by the amazing Diego Forlan, have played in the Cup. It was a painful loss for Ghana, and I felt especially bad for poor Gyan, but I can’t understand the uproar about Luis Suarez using his hands to knock out Ghana’s sure winner at the end of overtime.

In baseball, if a player on the opposing team hits a walk-off homer in the 9th it doesn’t do any good to tackle him as he rounds the bases. But in football, if in overtime the cornerback is beat on a long bomb you want him to draw a pass interference call instead of passively allowing a touchdown. If FIFA changes its rules, fine, but under the circumstances Suarez did exactly the right thing and rightly became a national hero; if he hadn’t, his team would not be playing later today.

In one of the dumber comments, the New York Times wrote, “There was little dignity in Suárez’s over-the-top celebration after the shootout, in which two Ghanaians missed and one Uruguayan shot over the goal. While Gyan wept at midfield, Suárez climbed atop a teammate’s back and twirled his shirt above his head.” Suarez had just single-handedly saved his team’s ass — don’t forget, he made the first save in that sequence as well, using his leg to knock out a sure goal before the handball; what was he supposed to do, not celebrate his team’s victory?

As for the semis, the Dutch are the clear favorite against Uruguay, especially with Suarez suspended and several players possibly out with injuries. Germany looks awfully hard to beat and I still can’t figure out Spain, which doesn’t look nearly as good as it did two years ago when it won the European championship. On the one hand, it keeps doing just enough to win; on the other, maybe it’s just doing as well as it can, and won’t be able to pick up its game against Germany, which would be fatal.

So I’m expecting a German-Holland final, though I want to see Spain play Uruguay. The odds are against the latter but as i have said frequently during the past few weeks, predicting the World Cup is a thankless task. Furthermore, my son hasn’t had any more soccer dreams so I’m truly in the dark.

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