If there is a lesson to be learned from the first few eliminations of this World Cup, it is a bleak one. Russia 2018 does not care for your pretty football. Peru and Morocco have both spent two games weaving delightful patterns between both boxes, but haven’t actually managed to score any goals. As such, they’re going home.
For those that have accepted their inner Galeano — the beggars for good soccer, hands outstretched, pleading for a pretty move — this is serious gutpunch. Apart from anything else, it’s a tragedy of scarcity. This World Cup will be made up of 64 games, but Peru and Morocco will only be involved in a paltry six. And two of those will be meaningless, at least for our beautiful beaten boys.
There is a tension in the search for prettiness. When it comes to sport, beauty can only ever be the means, not the end. Pretty football that doesn’t win gets teams knocked out. It gets players dropped and managers sacked. And the approach of most of the smaller nations at the World Cup has been diametrically opposed to that of Peru and Morocco: sit deep, defend, see what can be nicked on the break.
This is entirely understandable and almost certainly correct. Prettiness means attacking, broadly speaking; attacking means risk. But that the prettiness is simply collateral damage doesn’t make its absence any less frustrating. Or the games any more exciting. So far, Russia hasn’t had too many truly awful games, but a diet of careful organisation can get a little bland.
There are many paths to winning, of course, and national teams in particular are constrained by whoever they have in their talent pool. And it’s important to remember that Peru and Morocco play their pretty football not to indulge themselves, much less the prettiness beggars, but because it works — it got them to the World Cup, for the first time in 36 and 20 years, respectively.
Still, it couldn’t get them any further. The details of their eliminations are different — If only Christian Cueva could take a penalty! If only Morocco had a striker! — but there is a shared theme. Theirs was a different, distinct approach to the problem of trying to win a game of football, one predicated on maximizing themselves rather than minimizing their opposition.
And now the tournament is a less interesting place, and all the world’s beggars are going home empty-handed. Well, at least until Mexico’s next game. Or Senegal’s. Or Christian Eriksen’s. Or Paul Pog— you know, that’s the thing about begging for prettiness. There’s always hope. Hands out. We go again.