Football is drives as much by dreaming as it is by tactics and fitness, writes Rohit Brijnath
All sports have the capacity for heartbreak, but every four years football's version seems particularly cruel. The rebound off the crossbar, the goalkeeper's fumble, the injury-time penalty, all this drama heightened by the instinctive theatricality of both players and fans. Football is not just sport, but performing art.
The game is joyful, yet also captivating in its tragedy, and nowhere else, or such is the illusion, does defeat wound so deeply. For 120 valorous minutes, Mexico rivalled Argentina only to be confronted by a winning goal of such impudence it deflated them immediately. No wonder so many football nations invest in witch doctors and spells: such goals make you believe in magic.
Twenty-five years from now if you mention the name "Maxi Rodriguez" to Mexicans, they will grimace as if struck in the face. A goal takes a second to score but it can echo for a lifetime. Fifty-six years later, Brazilians still conduct autopsies on Uruguay's winning goal that won the 1950 Cup.
Tragedy in the 2006 cup comes in varying forms. It is Ghana's Michael Essien disconsolate on missing the Brazil match, an encounter that will remain in his dreams. It is Trinidad and Tobago, so brave, yet the only one of 32 nations not to score. It is Togo squabbling over bonuses and forgetting about football, not stopping to think of opportunity lost.
Driven by dreams
Football is driven as much by dreaming as it is by tactics and fitness, thus leaving room for heartbreak. Ronaldinho has said that at 14 he realised his purpose was to win the World Cup. Australia's dream was just to arrive at a cup, and there is something grotesque about men striving for 95 minutes only to have their ambitions betrayed by a referee's error.
How tragic was Italy's penalty against Australia: it came with no time left for reply, it came because of a foul against Lucas Neill who did not put a foot wrong all tournament, it came because an Italian swooned on contact with Neill and the referee believed the performance. Cried Tim Cahill: "All the hard work and spirit has been for nothing."
No one ever said sport was fair. The Americans will swear Ghana's penalty was dubious. The Tunisians will attest that Andrei Shevchenko who earned a key penalty for Ukraine is worthy not so much of a contract with Chelsea as Warner Bros. Dressing rooms will echo with "if onlys".
Everyone is displeased with referees, who see red too quickly. A shifty look and bang, you're gone. One player has been shown three yellow cards, two teams in one game have been shown 16. FIFA has rightly asked for great players to be protected; furthermore players scarcely help their cause by diving. Still, commonsense has been in short supply.
Australia is possibly the story of this cup, for almost every other attending nation lives for football, in Australia it is only being discovered. Now the prime minister has been filmed cheering, and for a politician to turn a sport into a photo opportunity it must be important.
For all the imperfections of Australian football, its performances were almost perfect in their effect. They demonstrated to sceptical Australians the beauty of football (the thrill of three goals in the final eight minutes against Japan, the catastrophe against Italy), and advertised to the football world, where it is mostly unacknowledged, the boldness of the sporting Australian.
They will get over their heartbreak, but for us the tragedies of the cup remain. Like waking up to watch an ugly England, and then wondering why we did not sleep on.