Listen to this article
My team, Holland, had just completed an improbable victory, and I was floating in a swimming pool in Brasília. Tropical birds chirped in the trees above, and friends chirped in the water around me. It was then that I had a eureka moment: of the seven straight World Cups I’ve been to since 1990, this is the best. And that’s an unbiased Olympian judgment. As Nigeria’s coach Stephen Keshi said straight after being knocked out: “So far it’s been wonderful.” The task now is to work out exactly why, so that we can bottle the Brazilian feeling and reuse it in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
The first element is attacking football. Most games at most World Cups are boring. Sitting through horrors like Japan-Paraguay in Pretoria in 2010, I’ve often thought, “Why is anyone watching this?” But with 10 matches left to play in Brazil, there had already been more goals than in the 2006 or 2010 World Cups. My theory is that since the early 1990s, live televising of matches has increasingly pushed football to create more entertaining content. Gradually, the game has become more attacking.
The second reason this World Cup works: Brazil. Partly it’s the hot sun, especially after the South African Highveld winter in 2010. Partly it’s the beaches. When you spend your first free afternoon in 20 days strolling along Copacabana, you realise that a first-rate beach should be a compulsory element of all future World Cups, like first-rate stadiums. This is the one thing the Germans didn’t provide in 2006.
A third element that no World Cup should be without: Brazilians. If you live in Paris, it’s disorienting to come to a country where almost everybody is nice. I had a different kind of culture shock in Japan at the World Cup 2002: everybody was polite. In Brazil, even military policemen give you a friendly rub on the back as you pass (if you are a middle-class white foreigner, anyway).
In fact the Brazilians have been giving me a free one-month course in anger management. If you have a bad personality, as I do, then being a journalist at a World Cup tends to bring it out. You rarely sleep. You’re overworked. You’re always queueing at airports and stadiums, or being jostled by thousands of other tired, overworked men in overlit “stadium media centres”.
Some people lose it. As World Cups progress, fights in the media centres become more frequent. But mixing with Brazilians, you learn to deal with setbacks with grace. The taxi you ordered to rush you to the airport didn’t come? Now you’re stuck in traffic? Sit back and relax. Watching the footballers completes the anger-management course. Here are young men, losing the most important matches of their lives while other young men kick and bite them, yet most manage to restrain themselves and shake hands afterwards. I’d bite back. (I’m only slowly discovering the solution to most human problems: earplugs.)
Another pleasure: this is a World Cup without fear. The first few tournaments I went to were overshadowed by obsessive fear of hooligans. (When two British friends and I arrived at a tiny Italian border post for the World Cup 1990, the customs officials didn’t want to let us into Italy on the grounds that we were probably English hooligans.) The World Cups after 9/11 were overshadowed by obsessive fear of terrorists. The World Cup of 2010 was overshadowed by obsessive fear of South African crime.
My wife’s final instruction before I flew to Brazil was: “Don’t get killed.” The Brazilian murder rate is high, though probably the riskiest thing you can do here is driving. But things feel safe in the tourist areas, which are currently flooded with police. At night Rio and São Paulo are humming with people, whereas Johannesburg pretty much closes down. I’m not sure if that’s because Rio and São Paulo are safer but it’s nice anyway.
Usually, the best moments at a World Cup are when you briefly escape the World Cup. Early in the tournament, I made what will probably be my only visit ever to the Amazon. I spent 30 hours there, mostly watching football in bars. But on my only morning, I went out for a walk in Manaus, turned off an ugly industrial street and suddenly saw the great river lapping at the end of a cul-de-sac. A man in shorts was standing in the water, shampooing his hair. Roosters pecked through rubbish. I communed with them for about five minutes. Then I went to watch England-Italy.
Every World Cup is fascinating. The tournament dramatises the role of luck in history, teaches us the psychology of biting, offers glimpses of human genius, lets us peer into the collective Uruguayan soul and briefly creates a global conversation. If I have one regret, it’s that Uruguay’s coach Oscar Tabárez is wrong: the British media isn’t a cabal that controls the world. If only it were true.