‘The intense immersion and heightened dissipate instantly once the tension of competition is over. As a World Cup watcher, I usually start to feel this looming anti-climax once the semi-finals come around - by then, the sense that anything can still happen as hardened into a few determinate possibilities, and the glow of festival time starts to give way to the bleak twilight of everyday routine again.’
What’s thrilling about the World Cup is the temporary suspension of the order of things. For four weeks, the international rankings, the routine of qualifying, the familiar sights and locations of football are gone, and a huge space of possibility is opened up. Could North Korea beat Portugal? What would happen if South Africa won their group while Argentina dropped points and didn’t win theirs? Poring over a blank wallchart gives us a brief, demarcated glimpse of infinity - pure potential.
It doesn’t last. Over the tournament, the lines of possibility wink out one by one. Japan/Korea 2002 was full of drama, easily the most unpredictable, ‘world turned upside down’ of a tournament in recent history, but by the time we reached the semi-finals we saw routine 1-0 wins for Brazil and Germany. This year, we had the flat, energy-conserving progress of Holland and Spain. Sooner or later, probability reasserts itself. Like some three-week-delayed version of quantum wave function collapse: once the dizzying snowstorm of possibilities has been observed, the image coalesces into something clear and (all too) familiar. The kaleidoscope stops turning - the new order is revealed.
Whichever final outcome emerges from the chaos is bound to disappoint. When Switzerland beat Spain, we revel in the improbability of it all, and the apparent suspension of the known patterns of football matches. Their victory was a triumph for neutrals insofar as it muddied the waters, made group outcomes harder to predict, and delayed the moment of resolution. Had Switzerland actually advanced in the competition (as they did in 2006) we would have found ourselves bored senseless by their negativity. When unfancied teams progress, we usually hear talk of fairytales - but wishes granted in fairytales generally turn out badly. Any upset, any strange event, will always find a way to let us down - this is because the uncertainty itself is what we find so delicious.
Once the tournament is over, we can turn to various methods to try and relive the glorious weeks and ignore the drab Restoration that has taken place - most notably, recreating the whole tournament in video game form. Turn the kaleidoscope over and over again, in the comfort of your own home - but somehow it never quite satisfies. Repetition after careful repetition may eventually unlock the most desired combination (your country winning the final 3-0 in immaculate style, perhaps), but the joy is short-lived. Maybe because we know how little patterns of data on a memory card are really worth - more likely because resolution never lives up to promise.
We’ve had our four-week holiday in the liminal state. Time to fold up the wallcharts.