Can this World Cup get any better? Great goals and great saves, drama and heartbreak, the thrill of individual genius and incredible team performances — I won't soon forget Argentina's second goal against Serbia & Montenegro (it seems ridiculous to call it Cambiasso's, since 24 passes made it such a shared masterpiece); nor Mexico storming out of the gate to surprise, and nearly beat, Argentina! There's even, as the novelist John Lanchester points out on his excellent World Cup blog, a gratifying absence of silly hair.
Typically, in London there's a palpable sense of disappointment. Every available surface in town may still be covered with the Flag of St. George, but England have played so poorly that even having topped their group and beaten Ecuador in the Round of Sixteen brings little cheer. This is true to the city's temperment: London always feels to me like it's in the midst of some awful breakup, where a couple can't say anything right to each other — it's a tense town, bitter at others and angry with itself, prone to banging doors and gray-hearted grief. This is part of its enormous appeal, of course, and the always wise Geoff Dyer captures it best in The Thinking Fan's Guide: "Something in the English heart craves defeat, shame, the taste of ashes in the mouth."
England's miserable performance on the football pitch has only intensified the feeling, and nobody but The Sun expects them to beat Portugal in the Quarterfinal game on Saturday. Almost nobody on the team has played well: Beckham is sick, Rooney is still finding his feet after two months out, Lampard looks dizzy and Terry distracted. Only Gerrard has played with any sense of menace — and only briefly. The most memorable moment so far was the bizarre injury Michael Owen sustained in the first minute of the game against Sweden. He has torn his cruciate ligament and will be out of football for at least nine months — the latest act in a career that is beginning to feel like Greek tragedy. He played with such boyish abandon, and had so great a nose for goal, in the 1998 World Cup and for Liverpool. But in the past three years he left Liverpool for Real Madrid (where he mainly warmed the bench), returned to the Premiership in Newcastle stripes (where he promptly broke a toe), and now this. It was such a fluke, and there was the strangest look on his face as he fell — no twisted agony, just slow, sorrowful surprise, like he had already ghosted out of his body and was looking down at the footballer he used to be. Even the BBC commentator struggled for the right words to describe it, eventually settling on saying he had "broken down," as though he were a prize race horse, hobbling in the dust, waiting to be shot.
There is no joy in the Big Smoke, even with England still in it. How about in New York?
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey is the author of The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup