Sunday, July 11, 2010

A World Class Flop

Sixty-one minutes into the World Cup final. A guy is flopping on the ground, clutching his shin. He appears to be in great pain. Now, a pair of bald guys are hovering over him, jawing, like professional wrestlers before a Texas death match. Meanwhile, others mill around until the referee flips the ball to a guy in a blue jersey, who kicks it out of bounds, which allows everyone to mill around some more except for another Spaniard who is jawing with a different referee, a reedy fellow with eyes like pea-gravel.

The first referee is tall and Teutonic and bald for all the right reasons. He looks like the guy who stars in The Transporter. The other official looks like Wally Cox. I assume this is intentional so that players and fans won't confuse one referee for another. By the way, are they referees or officials? I'm not sure. And why doesn't soccer use instant replay? And why doesn't that third official ever say or do anything? It's easy to ponder such questions while watching soccer, inasmuch as the likelihood of anything important or even interesting happening while you drift off is nil. Fact is, you can ponder the deepest philosophical questions of space and time and movement and change and illusion during a typical soccer match and miss nothing except for some flopping and jawing and an occasional free-kick that sails wide and high.

As if to prove the point, another guy is now flopping around, which prompts more standing and jawing. The score is 0-0, and no one seems the least bit concerned. Something will happen — eventually — they figure. It might take hours or days or even weeks, but a winner will be crowned. This explains why the World Cup is played once every four years. In a worst case scenario, it could take three years for one of these teams to score. This looks like it may be one of those years. In the waning moments of the first half, Spain is awarded another free kick. This is their chance. Goals have been scored this way. Not today. The kick sails wide and high.

Now, a guy tosses the ball in-bounds. It's pooched back and forth. The Dutch play keep-away for a minute or two until a Spaniard intercepts and promptly kicks it out of bounds. Once it's returned to the field, a Spanish guy head-butts the ball to another Spanish guy, who head-butts it to a Dutch guy, who kicks it as far down to the other end of the field as possible. Then, everyone stands around.

Finally, at the 64:59 mark, something interesting happens. A Dutch guy kicks the ball into the face of a Spanish guy who is flopping around. It's no accident, even though the Dutch guy feigns innocence. "Lo siento," he seems to say. "My bad." Since the Spanish guy is already on the ground, he can't flop any farther, so the referee ignores the brief histrionics. The Spanish guy pops to his feet and gives the Dutch guy an ugly stare. "Tontopollas," he mutters, with a lisp.

A minute or so later, another free kick sails wide and high. The goalie now kicks the ball as far as possible to no one in particular. It is puzzling to the casual observer why both teams should appear to want to kick the ball out of bounds every 30 seconds or so, and I would ponder this further except that now, the referee is wagging a yellow flag and pointing at a Dutch player who raked his cleats across a Spanish player's Achilles tendon, so play again halts while the Spanish player flops around and the Dutch player protests and the referee scribbles something on a piece of paper. By the way, anyone who claims that soccer is a game of continuous motion is delusional. Soccer players stand around more than members of union road crews.

But then, almost miraculously, at the 69:02 mark, Spain almost scores. Repeat that: ALMOST SCORES! Spain almost scores a goal. The Spanish coach gasps, as if he's watching Nelson Mandela knee Bono in the balls. Several fans jolt awake, and the persistent humming of the vuvuzelas dims for a moment inasmuch as it's impossible for fans to blow them while collectively holding their breath. But no, the ball sails high and wide, and the humming returns.

Now, the ball is back at midfield, and the Dutch — who seem to have no interest in even trying to score — surrender the ball to the Spanish, who are no less impotent but who at least pretend to want to score. By the way, where did the Dutch get their uniforms: Oklahoma State?

Now, a Dutch guy trips a Spanish guy, and the ref who looks like the guy who stars in The Transporter is right there, so Spain is awarded a penalty kick at the 73:40 mark, but the ball sails wide and high, and action resumes until the hunky ref finds it necessary to lecture a Dutch player on the merits of good sportsmanship, but he doesn't blow his whistle or raise a flag or anything concrete, as if to once more punctuate the point that in soccer, something is forever almost happening but rarely does. Sophomore daughters of East Texas Baptist preachers don't tease this much.

Now, at the 77:02 mark, Spain again almost scores. At least, the ball was in the same zip code as the net. The players on the field and the sidelines thrust with their hands up the air like terrified housewives during a bank robbery, but the ball sails wide and high. As soon as the action resumes, a Dutch guy flops and grasps his shin, but when the ref waves it off, he pops up just in time to trip a Spanish player, who flops and grabs his shin. The ref ignores this too, so he pops up and disappears into the scrum. This endless succession of flopping and grabbing of shins and standing around, and of things almost happening, torments the frumpy, ashen Spanish coach, who looks like Lee J. Cobb in The Exorcist.

At the 80:58 mark, the Spanish come even closer to almost scoring, and the British broadcaster says what is destined to be the postmortem of the 2010 FIFA championships: "It would have been a glorious goal had it been forthcoming." The same can be said for the 1941 Polish invasion of Germany.

Suddenly, the Dutch are taking it to the Spanish, and at the 83:14 mark, something once more almost happens, but then, the ball is punched to the other end of the field, and at the 84:52 mark, it's kicked out of bounds. Now, the hunky ref blows his whistle, and everyone stands around waiting for instructions, which must have been, "kick the ball to the other end of the field," which a Dutch player does. In turn, the Spanish kick it right back, so the Dutch engage in yet another game of keep-away. I'm sure this is harder than it looks, but that doesn't make it any less boring. Laying tile is harder than it looks too.

At the 89:01 mark, something happens but the Spanish are off-sides, so the ball is scooted around just long enough for regulation time to expire. Literally. In act of misty-eyed faith, the officials order overtime and remind the players and coaches that everyone is tired and hungry and would like to see their wives and children again in the not-too-distant future. Soccer is the only team sport that requires such reminders.

By rule, one team is required to win, and the Spanish eventually do, in a play that seemed as rehearsed as a motorcycle accident. Of course, it ignites across Iberia days of dizzying, raucous, riotous celebrations, the likes of which haven't been seen in Europe since V-E Day, but let's be frank: this World Cup final has been as compelling as a fifth-grade piano recital at Gambino Junior High. If it were porn, it would be like watching a roomful of 20-something-year-olds flop around for two hours, faking injuries, mugging and jawing and struggling with little or no success to unhook one skinny girl's bra.