A long time before Brazil 2014, in a place far, far away, it is a cold, grey Monday night in West London, and Fulham's routine 4-1 victory over Crystal Palace is only lit up by a remarkable goal from Patjim Kasami. It stands alone, utterly pointless in its beauty, affecting neither team and probably not even the result. Asked about it after the game, Martin Jol goes on to claim that it was a superior goal to Marco van Basten's famous volley in the 1988 European Championship final.
If we're going to indulge in clichés like comparing every volleyed goal to that one, then we might as well go full hog and quote Oscar Wilde as well: "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless." This seems to be a peculiar mantra in the age of 101 Great Goals, when moments we previously thought were individualistic, one-off instances of genius and artistry are replicated pretty much every week in some obscure corner of the globe. Yet they are not celebrated, and we know why: context.
That simple concept, so often overlooked, is why there's hope for Brazil 2014 to be one of the best World Cups for a long time. There are more narratives, side-plots, and potential shenanigans going on at the side. Neymar could announce himself as the genius many know him to be if he can cope with the absurd pressure of his entire nation having not so much hopes, but demands for victory. Lionel Messi, as the chief hope of the host nation's arch-rivals is oddly cast as the villain, a potential heel turn waiting to come out of niggly injuries and indifferent form. Meanwhile Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba and probably the likes of Robin van Persie and Xavi will ride for the last time.
The lineup of players left behind is so great because the ones that will actually be heading to Brazil in 2014 are even greater. Portugal's qualification means that the two best players in the world, both of whom have a claim to be the greatest in history, will be present. The second tier of players, containing Iniesta, Falcao, Van Persie and Edinson Cavani, is ludicrously strong, and would be more than enough to light up any tournament if not for the aforementioned twosome.
The quality simply gives the chance for more great moments to happen, which is what all tournaments are ultimately remembered for. Nobody recalls who made the assists, or who ran where to create space, or the tactical battles between vying formations — they remember great goals, jaw-dropping pieces of technique, and heroes and villains. In recent tournaments, that's not been the case so much, particularly at the classier end. In South Africa, the two most memorable moments came from Asamoah Gyan and Nigel de Jong.
But we have more great players playing at the top of their game than ever before now. The question is whether the teams are there to make it worthwhile. Spain appear to have mirrored the Barcelona side they have so much in common with in stalling and almost having too many options. Germany have not progressed to be quite as indomitable as it looked as though they might. Brazil and Argentina have also failed to find a sure-fire winning formula, while the two emergent forces of Belgium and Colombia, although probably getting the most out of their sides, are probably unlikely to have enough to go all the way. Only the first two have a chance of being able to completely dominate the tournament, but both will be hamstrung by the seeming inability of European sides to prevail in South America.
This disjointedness is common with international teams, for the obvious reason of the players being less familiar with one another and there being less time available to train together. But as much as a weakness, it could be an advantage in having teams dependent on their stars for moments of individualism and inspiration. That has been the reason, historically, why such moments have tended to populate huge tournaments, and now there are more sources than ever that could likely produce them.
The reality of the tournament appears to mirror the current club situation, too, with more talent than ever roaming the earth and fewer teams than ever utilising enough of it effectively. Hopefully, at the World Cup, there will be an opportunity to escape the constant revisionism and pointless conjecture that takes up so much of football debate in the club season, and return to a simpler, more elegant age of individualism. Even if we only get to witness it thanks to the inability of anybody to put a truly dominant team together, it'll make a nice change.