When will Lionel Messi have had a mediocre tournament? One of the most irritating things about commentariat "common sense" is the way that judgements that are presented as universally accepted are silently reversed. All of Messi's touches have been greated with expectant rhapsodies of awe, even though he has never exploded into anything like the form of which is he is capable. And in the last couple of games, especially today, he has for large parts of the match been a flickering shadow; not as bad as Rooney, for sure, but certainly no better than Lampard against Germany, who did at least hit a shot across the line. Note: I am not, ludicrously, saying that Messi is overrated. But, with its usual bout of self-loathing sado-masochism, English media have been very quick to conclude that Rooney's desperately poor showing here means that he is overrated, often comparing him unflatteringly to Messi. Messi had the advantage of playing in a side that - until today - was winning easily; Rooney was playing in a team that was labouring. Note also: I am not saying either that Rooney is as good a player as Messi, only that Messi has been given the benefit of the doubt far more than Rooney was.
Partly, what I'm describing is due to what McLuhan called rearview mirror thinking. Commentators and pundits filter what they are seeing according to models rooted in the past, bending their perception to fit their expectations rather than adjusting their expectations in line with the facts. This syndrome used to be screamingly evident in the treatment of Brazil, and, twenty years after they converted to dour pragmatism augmented by occasional flair and predatory goalscoring, their reputation for playing Samba football remains astonishingly resilient - even if only the most selective of viewers could eulogise their organisation, backfiring backheels and packed defence this tournament.
Partly, it's a matter of what the big Other is held to acknowledge. With Brazil, the big Other was only supposed to notice their flicks and flamboyance. With Messi this tournament, the commentariat have been like courtiers trying to conceal shoddy workmanship from a monarch, as they sought desperately to keep Messi''s many patches of indifferent and ineffective play from the big Other's gaze. But the defeats of Brazil and Argentina over the last couple of days have been shock moments which have a retrospective impact, shattering the official narrative, and allowing what was always in fact the case to be recognised as such. When I suggested that "Brazil have already won the World Cup" I wasn't saying that they would win it, rather that if they did win, the victory would have been inevitable. Nothing would have happened. The officially constituted (and Nike sponsored) reality would have confirmed itself. But as soon as they hadn't already won it, they couldn't do enough to earn the win.
This brings us back to the role of belief and expectations. Germany started today's game with the evident conviction could beat Argentina, which already sapped the Argentines of much of their power. The same thing happened in the second half of the Netherlands-Brazil game, when Brazil's invincibility crumbled like Ceauşescu's tyranny; there was no gradual transition from inevitability of victory to defeat, just a sudden and total disintegration. But Ghana yesterday and Paraguay today palpably lacked that belief; like many of the less fancied teams, their strikers came up against what was in effect an invisible forcefield when they closed in on the opponents' goal, shooting wildly over the bar or uselessly into the keeper's body. It's no accident that both Paraguay and Ghana went out because they failed to convert penalties. In the penalty shoot-out against Japan, the Paraguay players looked like they could have scored penalties all night - but today Cardoso, like Gyan last night, seemed so paralysed by nerves that it was impossible to imagine him scoring. They had come up against the belief barrier.
Argentina's defeat today was comprehensive by any standards. They probed lislessly without really pressing, and, besides the clearly and indisputably offside goal, they created far fewer clear goalscoring opportunities against Germany than England did. Must we now conclude that there is a "gulf in class" between Argentina and Germany? The one thing that this World Cup has definitively proven is that this "gulf in class" does not exist; there are not South American and Spanish Deities on another technical plane to other teams. What Germany had over England and Argentina was not a technical advantage, but a manifest superiority in pace and discipline. As Zone argued, Germany's destruction of England was a consequence of Germany literally beating England at their own game - and that "English-style" football requires a pace and energy that was physically and mentally far beyond the England players, who, in a horrible vicious circle, tried to compensate for indiscipline and disorganisation with the very bluster that produced the organisational collapse in the first place. Argentina, meanwhile, found it impossible to run the game at their tempo, and, like Brazil, they were unable to adjust to being behind in a game. Spain have survived this far in the competition not because of their vaunted passing game, which has sparked only sporadically in the last couple of games, but because of their tenacity and Villa's opportunism. I'm not sneering at these things - they are exactly the qualities Spain needed to develop in order to face down the very daunting ghosts of their past under-achievement. Ominously for Germany - who by any metric are far and away the most exciting team this tournament - Spain are now playing badly enough to win the World Cup. However, Spain still have massive hauntological obstacles to overcome - not least the fact that Germany have never gone more than twenty years between World Cup wins since they first won in 1954. As I've already pointed out, Spain would be the first new winner of the World Cup who wasn't the host since 1958; they would be the first reigning European Champions to win the competition since West Germany's victory on home soil in 1974 (which was in fact the only occasion so far on which the winners of the European championships have gone on to win the World Cup); and they would be the only team ever to lose their first game and end up winning the tournament (this last fact makes them more closely resemble Argentina in 1990 - who lost to Cameroon in their opening game - and West Germany in 1982, who lost to Algeria in their first game: what do these teams have in common? They ended up losing in the final. Remember also that Holland in 1978 might not have lost their opening game, but they did suffer a shock defeat in the first round - to Scotland - and they too ended up losing in the final.) Spain would also be the first European team to win outside Europe. The Netherlands run up against many of the same precedents, these eerily repeating patterns. As for Uruguay - well, even though they seem to be the underdog of the four remaining teams, they are not similarly ill-starred. And, unlike Spain and Holland, they have won the World Cup before, twice in fact.