Silencing the crowd
It wasn't a clean sweep. Not quite. There were a couple of PAULINHOs, a FRED or two, and even what looked like a GUSTAVO. There were a few romantics in the crowd still rolling out the KAKA 10 or the RONALDO 9; there were, however, no obvious RONALDINHOs or PELEs. No HULKs, no OSCARs, no DAVIDs LUIZ. One malicious genius had turned up in a yellow Juventus away kit, indistinguishable from a Brazil shirt from almost any angle, with a big bold TEVEZ 10 on the back. Two country needle. Impressive efficiency.
Everybody else, though, and by everybody else we mean an easy majority of the entire crowd, was there with one number, 10, and one of two names, either BRASIL or NEYMAR JR. Your correspondent tried to count them both. Your correspondent gave up at "loads and loads, like hundreds".
The Manaus FIFA Fan Fest is many things. It is extremely hot. It is mesmerisingly sticky. It is arranged in such a way as to ensure that the concrete amphitheatre that holds the main stage and giant screen is almost entirely exposed to the sunlight from dawn until dusk. But more than any of those, it is noisy.
Some genius, perhaps one who doesn't like football and so never need worry about experiencing his own invention, has bequeathed to this particular crowd a pump-action klaxon, ensuring that anybody who feels the need can shout along with their own parping. At least a vuvuzelist occasionally needs to stop and breathe. There are precisely two occasions when these can't be heard from all angles. The first is when Neymar has the ball, when an unsettling Belieber-esque shriek rises into the heat. And the second is when somebody, particularly Neymar, scores, when the whole place goes a hot sticky parping shade of batshit.
Not a complaint (well, except about the horns); merely an observation. Silence is little more than a rumour, which is precisely as it should be. When Cameroon score their equaliser, there is much muttering and the occasional shout of something rude. When the game flattens out, the noise diminishes, but it doesn't die.
But then, in the second half, after Neymar takes a tackle and collapses to the ground, there it is. Maybe. Just for a moment. After the intake of breath and before the cursing. A moment of perfect stillness, a pause. A deeply surreal moment as the crowd, in their NEYMAR JR. or BRASIL shirts, look up at the prone body of NEYMAR JR. in his BRASIL shirt and realise that for the moment, for this weird month, those two proper nouns and the things they denote are interchangeable, one entirely identifiable with the other, and that it will only take the wrong kick at the wrong angle for everything to snap.
Then everybody starts shouting at the defender and Neymar limps off but later celebrates Fernandinho's goal and Brazil win 4-1 and it's all good. Parp parp parp. On the country rolls.
what might have been
The thought lasted two minutes, which is pretty good going for what felt like an impossibility a fortnight ago. It loomed large in the minds of anyone committed to that strange habit that comes out in the final round of group stages: the watching of matches in parallel, trying to focus one's mind on two games of football at once, eyes and brain going slightly out of focus as the two televisions, or laptop screens, or whatever blur into one anarchic megamatch.
This mildly annoying state of affairs, inflicted upon us thanks to the West Germany-Austria pact of 1982 known as the Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (briefly: both teams would qualify if the Germans won 1-0 or 2-0; any other result would lead to one of the pair being knocked out at Algeria's expense. West Germany scored within ten minutes and then nothing of note happened for the rest of the match. It was not incompetent nothingness that belongs to, say, Iran versus Nigeria, but the deliberate, induced nothingness of a setup, which indeed it was. The audience protested. Flags were burned. The commentators rebelled. And FIFA changed the rules so that the final matches of every group must be played simultaneously), does a rather excellent job of causing the viewers to miss out on the fine detail of any particular game they're trying to watch. But it has its blessings: observers can see the big picture in real time, without having to snap their eyes to a phone or computer to get updates from the other game.
This thought concerned that big picture. It went something like this: my god, Mexico could win the group! And it blossomed simultaneously in the minds of dual-screeners around the planet as son as Javier Hernandez extended El Tri's lead over Croatia to 3-0 when he nodded home a near-post flick. Goal differentials were immediately calculated. Tiebreaking proceedures were recalled and invoked. All agreed that any combination of two goals from either Mexico or Cameroon, busy getting the living Hulk kicked out of them by Neymar and Brazil, would result in the unthinkable thought actually being borne out. Mexico would top the group, relegating Brazil to second in their own World Cup.
The reason nobody seriously considered this scenario is that the Selecao already had the goal differential edge going into the match (two to one) and that Croatia aren't pushovers, whereas Cameroon are. But the Brazil match began in very odd fashion, with Joël Matip cancelling out Neymar's opener -- the first goal the Indomitable Lions have scored all tournament, we should hasten to add -- and while Croatia took longer to crack, as soon as they did so they went into all-out implosion mode.
In the 82nd minute of the Group A Match Chimera, El Tri led 3-0, while Brazil had a 3-1 advantage against Cameroon. Mexico were running riot. They could actually do it. What would happen in the country if the hosts finished second? What if it doesn't happen and Mexico protest the officiating against Cameroon? What would Netherlands-Brazil look like? Chile-Mexico? How big an accomplishment would it ... and then Fernandinho scored off a ridiculous Cameroon giveaway. And then Ivan Ivan Perišić grabbed one for Croatia, denying Memo Ochoa his third straight clean sheet. The two goals had come, but they came for the wrong teams. Mexico were back in position as solid runners up rather than contenders for the top spot while the Selecao happily swaggered their way towards full time.
But for those two minutes, the football-watching world was united in anticipation -- and hope, if you're not Brazilian -- that something marvelous might happen. It was an experience shared around the world, and while football is obviously exactly that most of the time, this one, perhaps because of the checking and rechecking of goalscoring tables, felt somehow more real. That it didn't come to be is more or less irrelevant. For two minutes, before Fernandinho broke the spell, you could feel football hold its breath.
Well I hope everyone else enjoyed that
Twelve days in and it's finally happened: I could find nothing enjoyable about Monday's matches.
There was plenty of fun for others. They loved seeing Miguel Herrera go crazy with emotion in the Mexico dugout. Watching Leroy Fer, recently relegated with Norwich City, rise above Chile's tiny back line to break the deadlock in favor of the Netherlands had some positively giggling with glee. And David Villa scoring in his final international match for Spain warmed many a heart.
For me, though, the day was more about the flaws exposed. Neither Villa's goal nor the one hit later by Fernando Torres managed to justify the strikers' inclusion in the squad, serving instead to highlight Vicente Del Bosque's curious pre-tournament decisions. Villa's backheel against Australia was simply a reminder of how gorgeous Spain can look when they play well, coming too little too late to have any real impact on the tournament. And Herrera's antics failed to cover up the fact that his counterpart on the Croatia bench, Nico Kovač, selected tactics that failed to highlight the strengths of his midfield stars.
About the only joy I could find in yesterday's games came from watching Alexis Sánchez repeatedly try to roll up his shorts past mid-thigh. But even that couldn't save my sour mood.