It's Never Next Year

The short shelf life of immortality
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We are all Zico. The artist formerly known as Arthur has once more been trudging down memory lane, all the way back to the scene of the terrible accident: Brazil's elimination from the 1982 World Cup at the hands of Italy.

Brazil were seemingly on the brink of something astounding that year. They played with an exuberance and flamboyance that recalled their 1970 predecessors. Even a mere dozen years later, the latter had already taken on a mythical sheen: pickled forever in thin Mexican air and hazy colour TV footage, resting on the boundary between the modern game and the golden age that's forever yesterday. Yet here was the next generation doing it again, like the best Brazilian music, at once cohesive and loose as hell. But the 1970 ideal was subjected to a curious kind of refinement. Like genius utopians who in their enthusiasm neglected to specify the correct aggregate for the concrete, Brazil were now showing us what would happen if the game were ruled by footballing midfielders; rigorous defending would just have been buzz-harshing. Who needed it? Immortality beckoned.

Immortality then poked their eye out with its beckoning finger. Needing a draw against (insert inverted commas according to taste) big, bad, ankle-biting, catenaccio-dealing Italy to reach the semi-finals, Brazil went behind twice, equalised twice, and finally succumbed to Paolo Rossi's hat-trick goal. The dream team suffered a waking nightmare, and it still haunts Zico. For him, it was more than just a defeat, not just one elimination out of 23. "If we had won that game, football would have been different," he says. "Instead, we started to create football based on getting the result at whatever cost, football based on breaking up the opposition's move, and based on fouling the opposition." Brazil's heartache was the world's; a great terribleness was loosed on all mankind: "That defeat for Brazil was not beneficial for world football." The entire sport—nay, world—was permanently besmirched. Everything was ruined forever.

As I noted last time out, sport is essentially an optimistic endeavour, whether for the participant, fan or disinterested spectator. Its patron is that slimy cad called hope. It's often hope against hope, but no matter—sport promises that there's always a crumb of it to be had somewhere, under the cushion of despair or perhaps stuck to the sole of the shoe of blind terror. It takes a hard case to finally give it the slip; we keep coming back for more. Sport's great comfort that it offers renewal. Things may be bad now, but the reset button will present itself soon enough. There's always next year, when everyone takes to the start line in a straight line.

But we also know, Zico and I, that it's no more than that: a comfort, a necessary lie. "There's always next year" breaks the laws of sporting physics. It presumes an infinity that doesn't exist. It suggests that if you spool the film on long enough, the ending that you want will at some stage produce itself. It predicts that if sport were to continue for long enough, the joy, happiness, contentment would eventually spread out everywhere to an even depth. But it clumps and bypasses; you can trip up over a lifetime's supply or watch it appear and vanish just out of reach. Every dog may have its day, but for some, that day is an appointment with an uncooperatively momentum-enhanced vehicle or the vet and his poochie-go-sleepy-bye-wye needle.

The times when "there's always next year" breaks down are when things get really interesting; the moral of the best sports stories is "it's never next year". The immovable object of Andy Roddick giving way just an inch to Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final; the invisible speck of dust on his line ruining Doug Sanders' best chance of winning a major; Zinedine "The Rhino" Zidane; Laurent Fignon, +0' 08"; Don Fox, poor lad ... All of these episodes are defined by the moment triumph disappeared beneath the horizon for good as athletic mortality loomed. Even for teams—those theoretically immortal memes who may literally always have a next year—it still holds true. A season or tournament is not quite a neutral space. Not every year is identical. Some attain a kind of fervour that may be beyond reason. Brazil, for instance, were doing unearthly things that were sure to get their reward. When the fever grips, next year won't do.

We're lucky enough to be able to think of sport—still an upstart phenomenon—as a constant. We've never been without it, and we can reasonably imagine it will always be there, a funny little seam enriching our inner lives. "There's always next year" (next week, tomorrow...) is a genuine solace for which we should count our blessings. One of the parallel attractions of sport, however, is its capacity to freeze time. We want it to carry on forever, but we wilfully abandon the perpetual flow. We can't help it—we want to get lost in now. It's what gives the good times their savour: when there's no next year, this is the only reality and thus the best of all possible worlds. That same draw also makes the bad times all the worse. The chance of another go is of little use; you've already surrendered to the fiction that what's happening right now is all there is. In the moment, it's non-negotiable.

Of course, the sting of defeat can be salved by imagining an alternative reality in which justice prevailed and everything in the universe was just tickety-bloody-boo. So Zico posits that heaven on earth was just a goal away. I also know that had the referee disallowed Meath's illegal goal in the last minute of the 2010 Leinster final, thus giving Louth the win, the sun would have reigned and shone forever, or at least until Louth were hockeyed in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Here's what you could have won, world, if you hadn't fucked up.

Salved? Rubbed in, more like. In Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Alex Bellos interviews João Luiz de Alberquerque, "journalist, broadcaster and Colourful Local Figure". He was at the de facto final of the 1950 World Cup, in which Uruguay's Alcides Ghiggia silenced 200,000 Brazilians with a winner. Defeat had been unthinkable; the nation was genuinely traumatised. Scapegoats were sought. Some blamed an innate Brazilian inferiority complex. Others blamed the goalkeeper, Moacyr Barbosa, who had to bear the shame for the rest of his life (as late as 1993, he was barred from the national team's training ground in case he brought bad luck). Something had to be the reason. It couldn't have been just another result: it was too big a calamity for that:

He [João Luiz] puts his whisky down and puts his palms 10cm apart. 'The tragedy was this size. But everyone had a tragedy this size.' He stretches his arms as far apart as they can go [...] 'I think the defeat took on such big proportions because it is natural to orchestrate reality — you suffer less if you are squashed by something huge. It marks you less...'

João Luiz subsequently re-edited Casablanca so that Ilsa never boarded the plane. Naturally, he then did the same with footage of the Fateful Final, making it appear that Ghiggia's shot had hit the post and that Brazil had gotten the draw they needed. But the reimagining of the story will always one big reference to the original one, its shadow. The winners never dare entertain the Many Worlds theory.

João Luiz's efforts make for an interesting complement to Paulo Perdigão's story, also mentioned by Bellos, in which the protagonist goes back in time to try and prevent Ghiggia's goal. (It was later made into a short film.) From behind the goal, he shouts at Barbosa as the shot is struck, but only ends up distracting him. The ball goes in, as it has to.

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