The Pulse of the Game

I’ve been thinking about these games and how significant the first goal is. I think, like lots of things, the World Cup started as a lark and gradually grew and deteriorated into something deadly serious. How the thing that made it popular is gradually getting squeezed out of it, like a leaf between the pages of a Bible.

The first goal just went in. Anyone can tell you who's winning.

Just as a celebrity is famous for being famous, there are some events that are popular because they are popular. Where you’d go just to say you’d been. Maybe buy a T-shirt. How do you know you’re at one of these events?

  1. Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee is there
  2. There are corporate VIP tents and private parties
  3. There’s a famous singer starting the event off with a song just for the occasion
  4. It’s on TV
  5. There are magazine articles three weeks before it starts explaining to people what it’s all about so they can sound knowledgeable when talking to others

You get the idea. As The World Cup gets popular because it’s popular, people want to watch it. Because they heard someone they know is watching it. Like a germ or a meme, it gets passed from person to person. Which means TV and advertisers. With the advent of mass media, the subjects learn that doing well brings them lots of money. The standout players will get contract offers to the biggest teams in the world. Winning coaches can parlay this run into four or more years of lucrative positions across the globe: Sven went to Mexico, Felipão went to Portugal, Bora Milutinovic went everywhere.

The World Cup has become a vehicle for people who want to use it to get something they want, something that is not to play good soccer. Players and coaches want to boost their resumés. Sponsors want to sell product. Broadcasters and other media want to boost ratings so they can sell ads for more money.

So — back to the first goal. When the game is scoreless, both teams can dream of winning it. Look at Switzerland beating Spain, that’s what everyone thinks. If we can just hold on and get a lucky goal , we might win. If we win we might go through to the next round. More games, more exposure, more opportunity to sell myself as someone good and highly-compensated.

When it’s one-nil, the winning team might drop back and defend a little. Make the other team attack, which will open up the counterattack. Two-nil is just as likely as one-one at this point, maybe more so because like a boxer, to score points you have to open yourself up and become vulnerable.

Two-nil can lead to complacency, which is why the pundits call it “the most dangerous score in soccer.”  Scientifically of course 0-16 is more dangerous because you’re really likely to lose. But at two-nil, the team that scores gets a rush: one more and we can tie. If they score again, it’s one more and we win. They play with inspiration, the team with the lead can taste desperation.

A (life) coach once told me that problems, concerns, doubts and worries all reach the brain and land in the part he called the Reptilian Brain, and this part is the oldest and most primitive, powerful part of the mind. And when these things arrive, they arrive all packaged as death. Losing is death.That’s why games with lead changes (especially likely in basketball) are so exciting. Teams die and are resurrected.

When loss equals death, you play not to lose. When you play at not-something, it becomes joyless. When you play to get to the next round and get more money, beautiful play — jogo bonito — dies. Who will try something creative in an atmosphere of “don’t lose”? What artist could work with the rule “this must sell in a gallery” in mind? What jazz musician could play a solo thinking “I need some tip money”?

Watch these games and see what changes after the first goal. Often it’s like the end of the first act at the theater. The threat is clear, death looms and the hero must react. What happens next will be very different.

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