The World Cup needs more violent soccer

Matthew Lewis


SB Nation's 2014 World Cup Bracket'

There are certain expectations when it comes to watching Portugal. This particular incarnation comes with the possibility of Cristiano Ronaldo doing something ridiculous, which is always fun, but even beyond that, they're usually good for two things. One, neat and tidy football sprinkled with moments of skill. Two, kicking lumps.

Take 2006, and the notorious Battle of Nuremburg. Portugal and Netherlands decide that while football can be fun, what's even more fun is dragging one another into an incoherent, violent free-for-all. Four red cards were waved, Costinha and Deco for the Portuguese, Khalid Boulahrouz and Giovanni van Bronckhorst for the Dutch, along with 16 yellows, a FIFA record. One of those games that nobody ever wants to see, which is why you should absolutely watch the highlights right now:

Or go back to 2002, and their game against South Korea. Having imploded to a 3-2 loss against the USA in the opening fixture of the group stage, Portugal went into the final game against the co-hosts needing at least a draw to make the second round. Naturally, there was a deeply partisan crowd, and so calm, clear minds should have been the order of the day. Instead, 26 minutes in, João Pinto flew through the back of Park Ji-Sung and was dismissed for his trouble, then just after the hour Beto followed him into the dressing room. Korea got their winner a few minutes later.

Now, obviously yesterday's capitulation to Germany featured Pepe being ever so Pepe, delivering an Alan Pardew special unto a man sat on the ground. But where, in happier times, his implosion would have been the signal for his compatriots to descend into all-out snidery, here the response was muted. Just one booking in the rest of the game. This is not what the public are here to see.

To clarify, nobody wants to see people getting hurt. Well ... nobody is allowed to admit wanting to see people getting hurt, even though there isn't a football fan in the world who doesn't carry around with them a mental list of those players that they would like to see limp from the field of play, tears rolling down their cheeks, their dreams in the same state as their ravaged kneecaps. 2002, as it goes, saw FIFA ban João Pinto for six months after he returned to the scene of his dismissal and put one on the ref. Which obviously isn't completely hilarious.

The enjoyment of on-field footballing naughtiness is perhaps when the distinction between the viewing public on one hand, and the professional commentariat on the other, is at its most stark. Since we're doing the classics, revisit for a moment David Coleman's famous introduction to the BBC highlights of the Italy vs. Chile, 1962, the Battle of Santiago.

Good evening. The game you are about to see is the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football in the history of the game. This is the first time these countries have met; we hope it will be the last. The national motto of Chile reads, By Reason or By Force. Today, the Chileans weren't prepared to be reasonable, the Italians only used force, and the result was a disaster for the World Cup. If the World Cup is going to survive in its present form something has got to be done about teams that play like this. Indeed, after seeing the film tonight, you at home may well think that teams that play in this manner ought to be expelled immediately from the competition.

Now, what kind of sick monster doesn't want to watch that immediately?

For particularly spicy challenges, commentators will occasionally be heard to lament that 'if you did that in the street, you'd get arrested'. Yet they are failing to acknowledge that there is something fundamentally other about on-field — or, as is the case for most of the planet when it comes to the World Cup on-screen — violence. If you were ambling through a park and you saw, say, Rafael Marquez kick Cobi Jones squarely up the fundament, you'd be surprised, probably a bit scared, and certainly thinking about calling the police. Watch him do it on the pitch, though, and it becomes funny by virtue of that sense of separation. Any inherent immorality of the act — assuming it was unearned — is diminished by the line of whitewash that separates sport from real life.

All of which is deeply unfair to poor Jones, who took delivery of 12 stone of angry Mexican in one of his more sensitive places and was doubtless quite put out by the whole thing. And it's not always obvious where the line falls. Why is Harald Schumacher felling Patrick Battiston in 1982 not funny from any angle, yet Benjamin Massing flipping Claudio Caniggia up into the air still making them roll in the aisles, 24 years on? It's partly because we know, in hindsight, that Battiston was seriously hurt (three teeth!) while Caniggia bruised nothing more serious than his ego, and yet that doesn't explain it all. It certainly wouldn't explain differing reactions in the moment.

Perhaps, as a tentative suggestion, the line is one of genre. If football is a television show, and for many of us it is, then it's at its best when it's a blood-and-thunder epic involving battling gods, but at its funniest when it's a cartoon. (It can, of course, be both.) So if any given onfield sin could be reasonably be accompanied by a cloud with limbs sticking out of it, then it's funny; if it could be decorated with a large flash and the word KAPOW!, then you're allowed to laugh. Trombones, swannee whistles, Benny Hill music: good, good, good; Psycho-style string stabs, perhaps not.

As for Portugal, well, they had a chance to kick some Germans and they blew it, and we're all very disappointed. Maybe Pepe should have taken his time before flipping his lid. An hour's slow simmer, a good solid sixty minutes of winding Thomas Müller up, and he might even have provoked a proper response. Silly Pepe. His own art undermined by a lack of self-control.

Or perhaps it's a question of context. In both the cases above, elimination from the tournament was on the line, whereas this was the opening game. There's no point the Portuguese firing too early, after all; not when the tournament is still in play. All eyes on Brasilia, then, and Ghana on the 26th of June. Things still have time to get properly Popeye.

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