World Cup Pass & Move: Semi-Charmed Lives

Two semifinal matches, one penalty shootout, one plain old one-sided shootout. As the World Cup draws to a close, we look at some of the characters who made the semifinal round so wonderful, weird, glorious, ponderous, and heartbreaking.

Lionel Messi

Chris Ryan: Above you’ve got Sergio Agüero slotting in his penalty shot past Jasper Cillessen. Now I’m going to do something that people probably do all too often when talking about Agüero: I’m going to talk about Lionel Messi. I have seen Messi do a lot of stuff over the last 10 years — channel Agüero’s ex–father-in-law, beat robots at football, star in trance-inducing Vines, and make Ray Hudson not be able to feel his own face.

I’ve seen him win La Liga, the Copa del Rey, El Clásico, and the Champions League. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him act the way he did during Argentina’s penalty shootout with the Netherlands. We’ve read about the strange relationship between Messi and his home country, but when I watched the last few seconds of that Agüero clip, or really any of Messi’s reactions during the penalty shootout, I saw something for the first time. People like writing and thinking about Messi because he’s a blank canvas and a work of art at the same time. His play means so much, and his public persona does so little; there’s so little to judge that we just fill in the blanks with poetry, good and bad.

There was nothing ambiguous or mysterious about the Messi we saw during that penalty shootout. But it had its own poetry, and for once, Messi was the author. He was Messi, the captain; Messi, the Argentine; Messi, the teammate. Sure, he is all of these things, all the time. But I’ve never seen them manifest like that — I’ve never seen him burst out of the constraints of being the savant-savior. That’s not that surprising. When you play like he does, it’s sort of hard to look human.

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Louis van Gaal

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netw3rk: Louis van Gaal is arrogant and he’ll tell you that himself, probably in the third person. There are many tales of LVG’s towering and well-earned self-regard, but my favorite is as follows. During Van Gaal’s first run as manager at Barcelona, he was having lunch at the home of a club director, whose grandson happened to be the 14-year-old Gerard Piqué. The young defender was already a student at Barça’s famed youth academy, La Masia, and, eager to impress the Dutchman, was introduced as the team’s future center back. Van Gaal walked over to Piqué and shoved him to the ground. “You’re too weak to play for Barcelona.”

Against Costa Rica in the semis, Van Gaal used his final substitution to bring in keeper Tim Krul to replace Jasper Cillessen, who had never stopped a penalty in competition. It proved to be, as I’m sure Van Gaal would tell you, a stroke of genius. Krul saved two penalties and the Netherlands went through. Yesterday against Argentina, Van Gaal wasn’t able to sub in Krul for penalties and now the Netherlands will face Brazil in the third-place game, a game LVG hates. “I think this match should never be played,” he said after yesterday’s loss to Argentina.

Louis van Gaal, who, after coaching the Netherlands in a 3-0 romp over tiny Andorra in 2001, said, “I can imagine that a club like Manchester United are still interested in Louis van Gaal,” starts work as the new manager for Manchester United as soon as the World Cup is over.

Ian Darke

Brian Phillips: Can we spare a word for Ian Darke? The word could be codswallop. It could be jocund. It could be incursionary or buskin or knavish. It could be any of these words, because any of these words is liable to pour forth from your TV speakers in Darke’s nasally euphonious tenor, a voice that, amid the chaos of a soccer match, sometimes conveys the effect of an enthusiastic seminarian confronting the inside of an off-ramp sex shop. It’s wonderful, but oh dear, oh dear, oh deary me, it’s all a little much.

When Darke is on the microphone, an act of egregious simulation becomes an unedifying spectacle — and that’s a fair way of putting it. The player responsible is blasted with the fiery comet of a withering he has been known to pay the odd visit to the turf. Understatement, rhetorical poise and counterpoise, slyness, archness, tact: These are Darke’s calling cards, dealt in tones that fluctuate between the emphatically keyed-up and the quasi-strangulatory. It’s a fascinating mix of the orotund and the ardent, and a distinctively English one. American fans accustomed to having their sports narrated by ex-jocks and common-denominator everymen — whatchu gotta look for out there, Marv, is you gotta look for who’s willing to get out there and get their hands dirty, ’cause the fourth quarter ain’t time for pretty — could be excused, during a given Ian Darke game, for thinking some fey alien had invaded the booth and swallowed the baritone vox populi.

Darke is, of course, not an alien, but rather, by some very great miracle, ESPN’s lead soccer commentator. He’s been wonderful in the job for more than four years. His was the voice of Landon Donovan’s Goal That Launched a Million Screaming YouTube Bar Films in 2010, and his was the voice of Tim Howard’s 16-save octo-morphosis earlier in this World Cup. He has forged a genuine connection with both casual and hard-core American fans, a miracle in itself given the touchiness certain segments of the U.S. fan base exhibit toward any hint of English influence over the Stateside game.

But then, does anyone not like Ian Darke? I can’t imagine it. It would be fuddled. It would be slack-minded. It would be a ship in a bottle launched from cloud cuckoo land. Spare him a thought as this World Cup winds to a close. He makes the game simultaneously sillier and more stirring — in other words, more diverting, more convivial. More fun.

David Luiz

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Ryan O’Hanlon: David Luiz is one of my favorite soccer players.

I realize this is a controversial statement. I realize the New York Post — the Post! — published a story about him with the headline “Meet soccer’s most expensive loser.” I realize he was the newly appointed captain of a team that immediately fell apart and the supposed organizer of a defense that suddenly looked like it was playing a sport that only vaguely resembled “soccer.”

But I also realize that Luiz has more fun playing soccer than I have doing literally anything. He is a comedic genius with ridiculous hair and a right foot that can turn a soccer ball into a hunk of cement. There’s that saying about how every time you watch a baseball game, you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. Well, don’t watch baseball — just watch David Luiz.

Against Germany, Luiz completed four take-ons — all in his own half. He played 20 long balls (double that of the next-highest field player) and completed 13. There’s a way to look at those numbers and say, “This isn’t the composure a defense needs from its leader. You must settle the ball down and keep possession.” In response, I say, son, have you seen that German midfield? He took on defenders in his own half, beat them every time, and hit cross-field ball after cross-field ball because, well, he had to. Brazil went down in flames, sure, but Luiz had a ball on his foot, running headfirst into the fire.

In Saturday’s third-place game — assuming he plays — there is a chance Luiz tries to score directly off a goal kick, plays the entire game with Bernard sitting on his shoulders, or wears a “Fred” disguise and ends up winning the Golden Boot over the course of 90 minutes. After Tuesday’s loss, he apologized though tears, saying, “I just wanted to see people smiling.” While I’m not Brazilian, that’s why I’ll be watching this weekend.

Arjen Robben

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Mike L. Goodman: Arjen Robben deserves to be celebrated. It’s just so rare that a player with as specific a skill set as he has becomes so utterly dominant. And in this World Cup, he was dominant. Robben was the best player on a team that reached the semifinals. He was so good at getting into space against opposing center backs and embarrassing them with his speed that the world seemed to get collective amnesia over the fact that ARJEN ROBBEN ISN’T A STRIKER. There have been thousands of words written (many of them by me) about how Robben is actually the definition of an inverted winger.

Yet there he was, playing as half of a front two, often on the left, swapping positions with Robin van Persie. And despite van Persie’s iconic Flipper-doing-tricks-at-SeaWorld wonder goal in the Spain match, Robben was the better player across the tournament, and it wasn’t close. Robben, whose best (and in the last decade, only) position is as a right winger, was a better center forward than one of the best center forwards on the planet.

It was really a performance for the ages, and it deserves to be recognized that way, not buried under semi-serious moralizing over whether he flops too much. In fact, that “flopping” is as much a skill as his absurd left foot. Robben wins a penalty better than almost anybody playing the game today. Creating contact, enticing defenders to put their bodies in vulnerable positions, having the body control to pick the route that makes the contact penalty worthy, and having the ability to sell that contact, whether or not it actually occurs … that’s a skill. And it makes it terrifying for defenders to try to stop him.

It’s not the players’ job to make officiating the game easier for the referees. And when you look at the game that way, it takes the weight off of fretting over what’s acceptable and what’s not, and just leaves you free to enjoy exactly how good Robben is at making the referees’ job a living hell. Is it a dark art? Sure. It’s also worth a handful of goals a year, and for the Netherlands, it might have proved the difference between the Round of 16 and the final four.

Then there’s the absurd fitness level. He’s 30, he has a game that relies on speed, he has suffered from hamstring problems throughout his career, he has the hairline of a 58-year-old, and yet there he was in the second half of extra time against Argentina, taking guys on, sprinting past opponents, gesturing angrily for the ball. Thirty-year-old wingers are not supposed to be terrifying for 120 minutes at the end of a long tournament.

So, yeah, maybe Robben isn’t for everybody. If you’re playing against him, he makes the perfect villain. If you support his team, it makes it exceedingly difficult to hold the moral high ground. And if you’re a neutral, he forces you to look at exactly how fine the margins are between a foul and a flop. I don’t care about any of that. Robben is at the height of his powers (though he shouldn’t be) and he isn’t appreciated (though he should be). And now after coming agonizingly close four years ago, he and his team fell again, only slightly further away. Some people will vilify him. I choose to celebrate him. And I hope that somehow he eludes Father Time for four more years and comes back for one more improbable run.

Javier Mascherano

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Graham Parker: If you watch a lot of football on television, you watch a lot of the ball. That’s natural; that’s usually where the action is. But TV coverage, even in the era of “Look! You can actually make out blades of grass!” HD fetishism, doesn’t always show the moments that happen away from the ball, and those moments can tell the story of the game.

My favorite such moment might be Inter’s Iván Zamorano turning in the center circle with the intent to run toward goal, during a 1999 Champions League quarterfinal against Manchester United. Instead he ran smack into the chest of an unsmiling Jaap Stam, just as the camera closed in on the two of them. Stam gave a barely perceptible “not today” shake of the head as Zamorano bounced off him. And you knew Inter were out.

Midway through the second half of yesterday’s semifinal, as the Netherlands and Argentina chess-matched each other to death, there was just such a moment. As the Dutch passed the ball along their back line, Arjen Robben made a kind of knight’s gambit run curving forward. And 10 yards ahead of him, Javier Mascherano exactly mirrored his run, as he had done in less obvious fashion all night. It was nothing. It was everything.

The story of the game was how Mascherano, even before he popped up to deny Robben at point-blank range in injury time, had spent the night in one long cheerful negation of the Bayern Munich winger, with his eyes constantly on the swivel for Robben’s location. That is, of course, when they weren’t swiveling back in his head (about those FIFA concussion guidelines …).

And that one glimpse, off the ball, of Mascherano as Robben’s infuriating shadow, is the image I’ll take from this game. So will Robben.

Bastian Schweinsteiger

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Kevin Lincoln: Asking someone to choose the most emblematic moment of the Germany-Brazil semifinal is like showing them David Lynch’s Eraserhead and then being like, “What did you think was weird about that?” The correct answer, in both cases, is “everything.” But if I had to pick one representative frame from the 90 minutes in which Germany turned the World Cup hosts and favorites into that AYSO U-11 team your dad coached, it would be this: Up seven goals to zero, against Zombie Brazil, Mesut Özil botched an easy chance at goal no. 8, and Bastian Schweinsteiger actually yelled at him.

On one end of the spectrum, over by the Nike commercials and G Series Gatorade, there is normal professional-athlete intensity. And on the other, far beyond where brands or corporate leagues would dare to tread, there’s Schweinsteiger, red as his Bayern shirt, chewing out a player who cost Arsenal about £42 million for not making one of the most shocking results in sports history even more shocking. Physiologically, it doesn’t seem possible that Schweinsteiger could exist in this berserker mania all the time, and yet his rage face and vicious, almost personal tackles have been one of the most consistent features of Germany’s dominance this Cup; he’s one of the few players I’ve ever seen out–eye-bulge Clint Dempsey.

Schweinsteiger’s constitution does not allow for lapses. He probably sleeps standing up. And Sunday, if Argentina doesn’t leave the pitch miserable, Schweinsteiger will be livid — whether Germany wins or not.

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup, Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, Louis Van Gaal, David Luiz, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina, Chris Ryan, Ryan O'Hanlon, Brian Phillips, netw3rk, Mike L. Goodman, Kevin Lincoln