Missing In (the End-to-End) Action: The Patient, Scheming Midfielder

The games in this World Cup have been fast, too fast. Where are the languid sorcerers of the past?

It was during the coruscating late stages of Germany vs. Algeria that the thought first struck. The match itself was compelling, a fascinating clash of soccer styles and cultures, Teutonic strength and no lack of skill meeting rapier fast Algerian counter-thrusts head on. But something was wrong. It wasn’t the do-the-wave-and-grin-at-the-cameras crowd at the Estádio Beira in Porto Alegre. It wasn’t even the let-no-cliché-go-unused match description provided by the Brazilian TV commentators.

What was wrong was that the game was fast. Too fast. The ball zipped from end to end, barely stopping in the middle. Sometimes it seemed to fly straight from the hands of admirable Algerian goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi into the grasp, or just as often the boot, of German sweeper-keeper Manuel Neuer, who roamed the defensive third of the pitch like a strapping version of a baseball outfielder.

It wasn’t long ball soccer exactly; there were plenty of touches as the ball travelled from goal to goal. But nor did the action linger in the middle of the pitch for very long. As have many games at this World Cup, it often looked as frenetic as basketball.

A caveat lector. The writer of this column is a man of a certain age. He is not old, but nor is he young. His formative World Cup, the first that he remembers, was in 1982, when a magical Brazil side featuring Zico, Falcão, Socrates, Cerezo and others strolled and skipped their way through a Spanish summer of dreams until a man named Paolo Rossi scored three goals against the Seleção in Barcelona and broke every heart in the world that wasn’t Italian.

After that there was the 1984 European Championship, when France’s carré magique (“magic square”) midfield of Luis Fernández, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, and Michel Platini overcame talented sides from Denmark, Portugal, and Spain to win a tournament of almost pornographic sensuality and excitement.

Socrates and Zico and Platini (and others that came after them, like Uruguay’s Enzo Francescoli and Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama and Luis Figo and Zinédine Zidane and Juan Roman Riquelme) were all very different players. But all had one thing in common, though there are many ways to describe it. A languid elegance, an insouciant grace—the ability to make the game look as though for them it was being played at walking pace, and there was plenty of time to spare before hitting a slicing, spinning arc of a pass or flicking the ball through an opponent’s legs. Players such Zidane and Socrates always looked as though they had enough time to light, then smoke, a cigarette before one of the lumbering brutes on the other team could summon up the impudence to challenge for the ball.

Times have changed. Soccer is bigger, faster, stronger these days. At this World Cup, the game has been played at a dizzying pace. Its stars have been goalkeepers—Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa, M’Bolhi, and of course Tim Howard, who made save after save as Belgium peppered a preposterous 39 shots toward goal and turned the U.S. penalty area into a pinball machine. There have also been splendid displays from Number 10s such as Messi, Neymar, and Colombia’s bewitching James Rodrigues, who, while ostensibly a midfielder, has been playing further forward at this tournament. Honorable mention must also go to forwards such as Arjen Robben, who hit a blistering top speed of 23 mph per hour on his way to scoring against Spain.

Meanwhile, in the midfield, a desert, to paraphrase Stephen Malkmus. Or not quite. In truth there have been plenty of fine midfield performances, notably from France, where Pogba, Matuidi, Griezmann, and Valbuena could even emulate the feats of the carré magique 30 years ago. Chile’s mobility and pace meant it was often hard to say who was playing exactly where, but defensive midfielder Marcelo Diaz stood out for his discipline, work rate, and rhythmic passing, as has Brazil’s Luiz Gustavo. Jermaine Jones was a Paul Bunyan-esque force of nature for the U.S., while Michael Bradley, after a largely disappointing tournament, finally showed glimpses of how he could influence a game in the latter stages of the match against Belgium.

But it has been more bad news than good for fans of the dark arts of the midfield schemer. The USPs of the players listed above are strength and smarts rather than true creativity. The touted creatives in midfield, such as those of Croatia and Spain, were sent packing in the group stages—the latter painfully, with tiki-taka maestros Xavi and Iniesta watching agog as Holland and Chile sliced through them. Germany, which boasts some sumptuous talent in the middle and beyond in Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze, and others, was unable to impose itself fully on either Ghana or Algeria, and could have lost both games, while old warhorse Andrea Pirlo could do nothing to halt Italy’s slide from view.

It is a moveable feast in more ways than one, this World Cup, satisfying every imaginable taste. Yet as the ball is transferred from one end to the other at lightning speed in a kind of soccer version of air-hockey, one can imagine the old midfield sorcerers such as Zidane and Riquelme watching the game from around a table in a Brazilian boteco and sadly shaking their heads. There may even be a few soccer fans of a certain age sitting near them, fondly remembering the boys of summer of their youth.