Monday, June 18, 2018

Spain 3, Portugal 3, Ronaldo hattrick

As an inveterate supporter of Spain (ranking them only behind Argentina and Senegal in my list of preferred teams), it quite pained me to see them tie Portugal. But I was fully aware it was a great game, full of drama and wonderful skill. And it showed plenty of promise for Spain.

It showed an odd kind of promise for Portugal too.

In the era of Futbol I belong to, and possibly the only one I will ever belong to, there are two defining players: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. While Ronaldo is an extraordinary soccer player, anyone who watches the whole game and the skill of a player with open eyes understands that Messi is on another level, the most gifted athlete in his sport that there has ever been. And yet in terms of success Ronaldo has pretty fairly matched him throughout their careers. He has also vastly outstepped him as this World Cup has opened.

I, like many fans of Messi, bristle bitterly at this fact, and ever hope for Messi to prove the final proofs of his greatness. But on the one hand we seek some kind of proof for something already apparent. And on the other hand, and I say this with a touch of reluctance, we may be missing the whole of soccer.

If there is any real taboo in the discussion of soccer it might be the dreaded issue of luck. Partly this is true because there are a lot of sour grapes to any discussion of luck in sports. But there are two other reasons people don't like to discuss luck. One, soccer is a narrative game. A game happens and everyone writes their narrative for it. Luck in soccer is, when taken seriously, in the end openly hostile to any decent narrative. And the second reason is that there is a slightly bigger slice of luck in soccer than in most other sports. This doesn't set well in a game that so revels in skill and in the justice and destiny of winners and losers.

And so we come to the missing piece, Ronaldo is luckier than Messi. But contrary to how that sounds it is not a condemnation of the great Ronaldo. In this sense we must accept that luck is an essential aspect of soccer and that if someone's luck is strong, it counts among his talents and achievements. Watching one of the most acclaimed goalkeepers in the world literally fumble a ball hit at him into the goal is still a goal for Ronaldo, just as one of Messi's teammates sloppily getting in the way of an on target shot is still distinctly not a goal for Messi.

I myself tend to watch soccer for skill. But I will admit when I am screaming in agony at some game where my team is outplaying the other but unable to win, I might be willing to trade just a smidgen of all that wonder for a couple moments of destiny.

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