Another Way to Look at the “Boring” Semifinal

So what if the main characters were Javier Mascherano and Ron Vlaar? Netherlands vs. Argentina was made to be appreciated in real time.

All right, so Argentina-Holland was no Germany-Brazil. It had eight fewer goals. It didn’t give us the morbid buzz of seeing something gruesome, something you’d never seen before. It didn’t have a team smashing its opposition, casually (but efficiently) sweeping up the shattered remains, and storing them neatly for recycling. It didn’t have someone breaking one of soccer’s great individual records. It didn’t provoke predictions of riots. It didn’t have the defeated supporters oléing the victors’ touches. It didn’t have Thomas Müller’s pass for André Schürrle’s second. It didn’t have any pomo re-interpretations of the left-back role. Its meme legacy has been, frankly, pathetic.

But is there nobody out there who thought it was, like, pretty okay? Not a great game. Not even a great game of its type, really. Certainly no treasured armoire you’d sue your relatives to ensure you’ll inherit. But a fairly good game? One worth giving a few hours of your life over to without feeling like a fool?

No? Well, fair enough. I understand. I’m not going to try to re-stage the great debate of Euro 2012, in which people tried to make the case that a particular team was either objectively boring, you dullards, or objectively not boring, you idiots. But let the record show that there was something in this match more engaging than the gentle embrace of Morpheus.

Argentina’s main defensive priority seemed to be to prevent the Netherlands’ plan A: draw the other team out of its half, light Arjen Robben’s fuse, and retire to a safe distance. Mexico and Costa Rica had learned from the mistakes of Holland’s group opponents, and Argentina wasn’t going to be suckered either. Meanwhile, the Dutch plans B (give it to Robben), C (pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, paaaaaaaas, pass, pass, dink it over the top for van Persie or Robben), D (give it to Robben) and E (give it to Sneijder to give to Robben) were potentially deadly, but not terribly adventurous. Or, to put it another way, the Netherlands, like Argentina, played with defensive discipline as the key, and both sides’ attacking play had that as a constant reference point.

This approach didn’t eliminate either team’s attacking intent, but it did mean that attacking was a secondary to discipline for both. And it brought to the fore the ferocious concentration required by both teams to maintain that discipline. If you were in the right mood (hi!), it was absorbing—it drew you into the minds of the players. Perhaps that’s not ideal: the most exhilarating moments in football are those when the players’ minds are running too fast for you to catch up with them. But the view was compelling. You felt the fragility of such discipline, how little it can take to turn the totally secured into the fatally breached. A team can get everything right, but keeping a running score of your defensive prowess is next to useless—it only takes one failure to mar everything you’ve done. Even an ostensibly cautious approach can be risky, especially when you have a World Cup semi-final to lose.

So you didn’t get the technicolor goals or the technicolor tears. You did get the chance to feel the full weight of the high stakes of such a game. You got the horrible tension of it all. You got the anxiety that underlies everything without the consolation of carefree, gravity-defying splendor fit for future retrospection. You got the raw stuff, unconcerned with posterity, made to be experienced here and now.

What you didn’t get, unfortunately, was the preferred payoff: some moment when the concentration helplessly slipped, or was assisted in its slipping, or was overcome by something magical. It’s reputed that Argentina’s number 10, the exciting prospect Lionel Messi, has performed such magic in the past, and another such occurrence would have been all the sweeter had it emerged from the surrounding heaviness. Alas, it did not happen. Such is life.

But look, I never promised you a miracle. As I say, it wasn’t an overlooked classic—it was just okay. But that’s okay. But soccer’s belly is plump and its waistband sufficiently elasticated to accommodate the odd encounter where the heroes are Javier Mascherano and Ron bloody Vlaar, and it’s all the richer for it. It was more interesting than thrilling, but so what? If a game doesn’t spray charisma at you like you’re a contestant in a wet t-shirt contest, it doesn’t mean it’s dead behind the eyes. Go up and say hello.