Closed for the World Cup...
::Acquired Taste is enjoying some downtime. For various reasons my creative energies are somewhat depleted, and rather than flogging a comatose horse, I'm allowing myself the indulgence of following football's ("soccer", for US readers*) World Cup.
A football tournament a month long has something in common with the great baggy novels of the 19th century: epic duration, dozens of individual stories woven into a wider narrative, unlikely heroes and predictable villains, triumph but also hubris and despair. Like all extended narratives, it also has its longeurs (as anyone who watched Slovenia vs Algeria on Sunday will attest).
A novel cannot fully be understood until it's read: in Bleak House the reader will be following with interest the stories of Esther Summerson and Lady Dedlock, but not realising how their destinies are linked until the end. The World Cup is similarly opaque until it's over, and we look back and reinterpret the preceding events in hindsight: in 2006, the ageing Zidane drags a woeful French team all the way to the final; with ten minutes of his stellar career remaining, he erupts into rage and charges into the gadfly Materazzi with his head, and France crumble to defeat. For an extended period the best footballer on the planet, Zidane is remembered instead for his inexplicable transgression. A complex man, he'd make a great character in fiction.
Where the World Cup differs from, say, Bleak House, is that whatever pattern we subsequently impose is not the result of conscious design: a football tournament does not have an "author". That's part of its appeal: in a novel, we expect major events to have been foreshadowed, and to be able to admire the pattern once we perceive it; in sport, we never know whether there will a pattern. In the 1994 World Cup, the veteran Baresi recovered from a knee operation to be fit for final, but the spectator doesn't know whether he will be the hero or the villain. There is to be no happy ending: in the penalty shoot-out with Brazil he is the first to miss; and Baggio, Italy's star player, misses the last one. We don't know until the end whether we have been watching a tragedy or a comedy.
The 2010 World Cup has failed to ignite yet, but we can be sure that, because of the structure of the tournament, drama will follow. While a World Cup scripted by Dickens would undoubtedly be entertaining (if only for Mick McCarthy trying to get his lips around "Pumblechook"), the spontaneity is what keeps us watching.
*Those following the competition will know that I'm in no position to patronise American fans after England's unutterably feeble draw with the US on Saturday.