What I love most about the World Cup—and there are many things—is this time right now: the run-up, the final weeks, the final days. The tournament comes after four interminable years, and as it approaches there's a thrilling sense of hope and possibility—a quadrennial spring training.
This period of waiting won't last—nothing this good ever does—but for me anyway, it's almost more enjoyable than the tournament itself. For all its idealism, the World Cup, while it can bring out the best in people, often brings out the worst, especially since the advent of the anonymous Internet forum, where thinly-veiled bigotry gushes as freely as a punctured BP oil rig.
For now, it's the not so much the quiet before the storm, but the bliss: There's the chatter, with friends and better still with strangers—Are you getting ready? Who's going to win? Who will be the leading scorer? What about the U.S.?—the back-and-forth about line-ups, players left off the roster, maniacal coaches (there's at least one this year), injury scares, scandal, conspiracy theories before a ball is even kicked.
As we look forward, we also look back, in the best of ways, to our favorite moments. I've always been resistant to liken athletics to art, star athlete to artist, as is often done (especially among sportscasters). Ted Williams was a great baseball player, maybe the best hitter ever; Jackson Pollock was an artist. Michael Jordan was a basketball player, probably the best ever; Julian Schnabel is an artist.
That said, I do remember great World Cup matches in much the same way I remember great films; I remember where, and with whom, I saw them, what I felt. A World Cup match can be so emotional or painful or inscrutable that it will be years before I can re-visit it. Coaches assemble their players like a director does with his actors, allowing a few to improvise—the protagonists—while restricting most others to stay within their roles, the character actors. There was a time when soccer coaches used to be known as Technical Director's, D.T. en Español, not to be confused with D.P., director of photography, though the Hungarians, once upon a time, were masters of both.
If I could rest in the state of eternity—as in Hirokazu Kore-eda's brilliant After Life (seen in 1999 at Angelika in New York by myself, maybe appropriate for a film about death)—I might well choose the days before a World Cup—with family and friends, of course.
As we wait for play to start, I'll examine the teams (there's an exceptional one this year that's not Brazil), the players, and the perception of the game in America. Check back every day this week and enjoy this period of anticipation with me.