Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It was Stanley Rous, I think, who said that a major international football tournament is basically a very elaborate, very expensive ritual of simulated death.
Now, it's true that it's also a football tournament. There's no denying that. And it's true that every team enters the tournament with some hope, however realistic, of winning it. After all, it's a championship, and it requires a champion to remain at the end of it, so why not? Why not believe you can scrabble your way over all those beneath you and reach the chalice made holy by the touch of Michel Platini? That's the vision that the nervous energy of anticipation projects onto your mind beforehand, when it has nothing else to do. That's the dream.
And then there's the reality, which is that you will almost certainly be eliminated at some stage. Everyone is united by the dream, but so too is everyone bound by the fact that the dream will almost certainly be killed to death. It's the remorseless logic of the tournament: it slowly pares away at the body of participants. As far as Tournamentos, the great god of tournaments, is concerned, that's what it's there for. The fact that there's a champion left over is a by-product, like ash in an ashtray. Otherwise, your fate is to be the smoke. The real drive isn't the desire for ultimate glory: it's the survival instinct. Your future demise colours your present. Game after game, round after round, you are confronted with your sporting mortality, and so merely to keep going for another wee while is prize enough. You might not be able to attain permanent permanence, but you can attain temporary permanence, like a pilot hanging for a moment at the top of his arc, his ejector seat parachute having failed to open.
At the end, of course, there is a champion, the one team that has cheated death for just about long enough. The play has been written, edited and performed, and the very last stage direction is Everyone dies—except us. And there you are, surrounded by the bodies of those who have been smitten, or who have accidentally smitten themselves, or have otherwise had their hearts terminally externalized. You're immortal, goddammit. But there's a cruel trick about to be played on you. They don't show it in the video montage of your triumph—the last shot will invariably involve the trophy and a beaming face or several dozen. Your head of state doesn't take you aside in the banquet hall and say, "Well done, chaps, although..." But all the same, the whole rigmarole begins again. Suddenly the moment of your glory—which once existed in the eternal future, then in the briefest present—belongs to the past. It happened only yesterday, but it's history. Now you go forth again with the meter reset, and you get confronted once more with your sporting mortality, reminding yourself that you might end up as the nicotine on Tournamentos' lungs, and discovering that immortality is just mortality with patience.
That's why, when the hullabaloo and derangement of a tournament have faded and everything has calmed down and the dust has done what the dust always seems to do on such occasions, things return to normal pretty quickly. It's just a cycle, rolling along as ever. It's a feeling that grows stronger the older you get and the more you see: that what happened in the past, however strange it seemed at the time, seems normal now because ... well, because it happened. And once you've seen enough, you can anticipate what's going to happen next, and even though it hasn't yet happened, it seems normal too: autumn will come, the champion will fall.
And that's why things feel just that bit different right now, now that Spain have won their third major championship in a row. (Am I excluding the Confederations Cup just to annoy you Americans? Mmmmmmaybe.) That span is an epoch, a serpent of a thing that should be too big to tame. Spain will succumb, eventually. Entropy will grow on them like vines and drag them down. But for now, they've managed to slow time down to a near halt and make us take a damn good look at what they've done. For some, this entailed arguing over whether or not Spain were actually, intrinsically boring or delightful, as if such affairs of the heart could be measured in SI units. As the most exalted minds of our age sorted out the metaphysics between them, Spain had to deal with the raw physics. They didn't have the luxury of building on foundations of air.
I erred last week when I wrote about Spain. I said that in their journey from their previous serial underachievement to their Euro 2008 win to their nervous-but-stately World Cup to their present royal swagger, that they had shed the neuroses that had accompanied them. It's true that the status they've acquired since 2008 becomes them. There is a greater assuredness about them; they now know not just what they have to do to win, but what they don't have to do (for example, they didn't have to run France out of town, because France were already defeating themselves). But the old survival instinct remains. They've never lost sight of the fact that a championship run is made up of lots of small triumphs: quanta of survival. These are pretty big in their own right. In fact, until each is acquired, the next one is everything. Until they are all strung together, the biggest victory is just an abstraction.
Spain have taken this continual contingency and made it look (in retrospect) as if it was predetermined. Whereas what's usually inevitable is change—the waxing and waning of the great and the not so great—Spain have made stasis seem inevitable. They've warped reality ever so slightly, which is probably the mark of greatness. It's a subtle difference, as if they've made the sun rise five degrees east of where it should, but it's real enough. If these tournaments are death simulators, then Spain are eternal-life simulators. It can't be the real thing, and it will fall apart. But it's probably the nearest you're going to get for now.