Words by Max Grieve
If you’ve got any kind of connection with the world as it moves and makes noise around you, you’d know by now that it’s meant to be hot in Manaus. It’s almost impossible not to have walked past a television, or a radio (if anyone still has them), or a newspaper (if anyone still reads them), and seen that the capital of Amazonas, Brazil, is the hot place Cristiano Ronaldo was talking about in that Castrol ad from the last World Cup.
With the Socceroos now stretching their legs back in Sydney, the travelling media pack in Brazil have finally been allowed to venture out of Vitoria, where our heroes were based during their heroic two weeks of heroics. The final whistle blew for the end of the game against the Spanish, and Les Murray, the voice of Australian football, and I locked eyes across the room. I raised an eyebrow – almost as if to say, “Manaus, Les?”
He folded his arms, leaned back in his chair, and started slowly nodding and smiling – it was a bit of nonverbal communication that conveyed enthusiastic and impressed approval. If this article were a film, you’d smash cut to a montage of both of us on the bus to Manaus, where, after a day of exploring, we wound up at a rubber plantation museum. We’d established that it was fairly hot from the second we’d stepped off the bus, and had moved onto the cultural attractions that the jungle city had to offer.
We learnt the story of the local Indians who were once enslaved on the rubber estates, and toured a restored plantation by the sprawling Rio Negro. Supported by waning English demand as the colonies in Malay and Singapore were producing rubber faster than Manaus could manage, Les listened keenly as the guide told us how “The Paris of the Tropics” had collapsed with its economy by the 1920s. There were practical demonstrations, and Les took to rubber tree-tapping with real gusto – it was the way they extracted latex, you see. He took a great handful of the stuff and held it over the fire to coagulate the sap, but his arm slipped and he singed his fingers.
“Shit!” he yelled. “I’m hurting worse than the Hungarian financial system in 2009!”
Typical Les – he’ll never let you forget that while his head’s Australian, and his heart’s Australian, there’s some part of his body reserved for Hungary. “What’s up Les?” I said.
“Nothing Max,” he said. “Nothing.”
He turned away, looking out to the deep jungle across the river. I’d noticed he’d been a bit shaky over the last few days. “Come on Les,” I said. “Talk to me.”
His eyes were bleary, glazed over like the top layer of a traditional Hungarian dobosh cake. “Damn it, Max,” he said. “The narrative’s gone. I’m worried about these last few rounds. Have Costa Rica ever fought against the Netherlands in a war? I know that Costa Rica is the second largest exporter from Latin America to the Netherlands, but who’s first? I’ll be honest Max, I’m not even 100% sure where Costa Rica is.”
Les was right. Australia are out of the 2014 World Cup, but the world got together and decided to finish the tournament anyway, and the narrative is breaking down. Brazil have dramatically scraped through to the quarter finals with little indication that they’re actually good, and Spain, Italy and England fell at the first hurdle. Uruguay are gone, too – Luis Suarez banned from football for four months for his chomp against Italy, and with him goes the central point of controversy beyond tired and ignored allegations of FIFA corruption.
Worryingly, you can sense that it might all get a bit too Steven Bradbury, with every other team falling over each other while Germany swoop in for their first title since 1990 – it’s by no means the popular choice, but this World Cup has been defined by shattered expectations. Costa Rica are in a quarter final at the expense of three former World Cup winners, the holders went home on the first flight back to Madrid, and Greece wasted everyone’s time by making it through to the knockouts at the expense of a neutral’s favourite in the Ivory Coast.
We’re left with eight teams, and finally we can relax and enjoy the luxury of picking a team to back, rather than have one forced upon us because we were born in the same country as Tim Cahill. To help you choose your team from the quarter finals onwards, here’s a rundown of the leftovers.
France: won’t win, but the French have the best national anthem. Composed in a night during the French Revolution, the final lines read, “To arms, citizens, form your battalions! Let’s march, let’s march! Let an impure blood water our furrows!” They’re talking about moistening their agricultural irrigation channels with the blood of the enemy. You can see why we lost in the group stage with “our home is girt by sea” – less a motivational turn of phrase, and more a geographical fact.
Germany: slick, tireless, and a great shot to make the final, but also, y’know, the Nazis happened so you can’t really actively support them, can you?
Brazil: a population of 200 million people to choose from, and they pick Fred to start up front – if Brazil are going to win this World Cup, FIFA’s conspiracy game is going to have to step up. Brazil fully expect to win, and the country will descend into riots if they don’t – indeed, we got a pretty good idea of what the end of the world will look like in the last half hour of their second round nail-wrecker against Chile. The problem lies in a clear divide between this team’s supposed ability and its actual ability, and the pressure is crushing– they could be a symbol for a new Brazil, or they could be the greatest failures since 1950. Brazil should make the final with only two losses in their last 70 matches played at home, but reality keeps dropping out on us.
Colombia: When does a dark horse become a regular horse? And what’s a dark horse anyway? Along with Belgium, Colombia were entirely expected to make it to this point, and are one of the few teams actually playing at their full capacity. The most popular alternative team by a mile, they’re in danger of doing quite well and transcending hipster acclaim, led by the star of this tournament and imminent poster boy for literally all the posters in the world, HHHHHHHHamez Rodriguez – we’d usually read it as James, but the TV commentators insist otherwise. Colombia face Brazil in their quarter final, so they’re the anarchist’s choice.
Argentina: the ultimate flipside (and just quietly, my pick to win it). It’s important to Brazil that they take out their own World Cup, because the nation will never forget if they don’t, but it’s arguably more important that Argentina don’t get anywhere close to winning. Argentina winning the 2014 World Cup would be like New Zealand beating us in a sport that we’re both equally good at – let’s go with netball – at a tournament held in Australia. The country would burn, right? For Brazil, Argentina’s opportunity for a legendary dominance is just three wins away, and far too possible for comfort – they might be able to live with winner from Europe, but will struggle for decades with another Maracanazo. Argentina aren’t playing as well as they can, which is the case with most of the teams that are left, but have Lionel Messi, who can seemingly decide when he wants to Argentina to win. And those blue-and-white striped shirts, man. Those blue-and-white striped shirts.
The Netherlands/Belgium: They share a border so they can share a rundown – the Netherlands fluked a second round win against Mexico and Belgium just about scraped through against the USA, suggesting while neither is quite good enough to win the tournament, both are good enough to be knocked out in the quarters or semis. And because I don’t think they’ll do anything of particular note, I’m going to say some things about the USA instead. There’s a historic American dislike of football which can be reasonably traced back to a lack of trust of anyone French, but there’s a strong, realistic base of US fans that recognise their position in world football as the rest of the country carries on with the superiority delusion. They played like Australians, albeit Australians with a sense of how to win, and played out one of the best games at the World Cup so far against Belgium – the point is that you should get on the #TeamBaldEagle train before it becomes properly cool.
Costa Rica: I watched them lose to Australia at Moore Park last year, they’re in the quarter finals, and I still can’t name any more than two of their players. Costa Rica should be swept aside by the Netherlands, but they don’t seem to care about the hundreds of millions of people who lost money betting on Italy or England making it out of the group stage, so why should they care for realistic continuity now? Rhetoric aside, they’ll be swept aside by the Netherlands.
Back at the hotel in Vitoria, I went to see Les Murray in his room. The door was ajar, and the room was dark. From a speaker on the table, Madonna sang ‘American Pie.’ Les was on his bed, his fingers resting in a bowl of ice.
“I met a girl who sang the blues, and I asked her for some happy news… but she just smiled and turned away…” sang Madonna. “I went down to the sacred store, where I’d heard the music years before, but the man there said the music wouldn’t play…”
Every time Madonna said the word “music,” Les would shout “narrative!” over the top. I could see what he was trying to say.
“Come on Les,” I said. “We’ll get through this. Things aren’t going exactly how we want, but that’s part of what’s making this World Cup so great! We’ve got no idea who’s going to win but Brazil and Argentina are still on track for the final everyone wants, and with any luck this tournament still has a really good cruciate ligament rip left in it!”
“Okay,” said Les, kicking the batteries out of the speaker, instantly killing the music. “As long as Germany don’t win.”
Follow Max on twitter @maxjgri