WC 2018: Portugal vs Spain reminds us why the World Cup is the grandest spectacle
There's so much chatter about how the first game of the World Cup is key to having a great campaign. We're constantly reminded from all quarters of the world how important it is to put the right foot forward from the start. Tell that to Nacho and you'll leave him foaming at the mouth for all he caught by putting his right foot forward is an evanescent Cristiano Ronaldo.
An Iberian classic. Brought to you by some of the most imperious noggings to gladiate on the green carpet. 90 minutes of stirring, stem-winding entertainment. 90 minutes. All it takes for the world to be condensed into one big capsule. The magic of football nucleus.
As early as the 3rd minute, the world's best goalkeeper was up against the world's best player. The latter prevailed with aplomb. Garland him or spit on him, when he bobs near that corner flag and makes the finest anti-hero landing in pop-culture history to celebrate a goal, you gotta ask yourself, 'Just how does he keep doing it?'
But nothing's secure against a team that sweats quality like the Spaniards. Diego Costa equalized with the most Diego Costa goal you'd see in recent history. Costa is one of the top strikers in the world for a reason. Routine setups are like soup for him. What he relishes and has made a belligerent career out of is going to war for goals. Diego Costa is always at war.
He grinds his teeth when he's knocking out thin air with his clenched fist. The goalscoring process is cathartic if you ask the beast.
Why is Don Andres even thinking about retirement? Watching Iniesta coasting around the football pitch makes you moan as though you were getting the best massage going on your shoulders. At 34 years old, he still reads the game and writes his own script anyway like it's nobody's business. And it is the business of 21 others too but do kingpins care about that sort of thing? History says no.
In Isco, Spain has a gifted ballroom dancer. They play hip-hop at the Bernabeu and he tries to keep up but there are, quite simply, better freestylers in that crew. His Spain costume, however, is tailored to fit. The gig, organised immaculately so that the Andalusian can tango with his adversaries until their socks fly off.
To stand up and be counted against Portugal's counter-attacking threat, Spain had to show that nobody quite justifies football's tag as the beautiful game quite like them. If the football ground was an orchard, Spanish midfielders would be the Peacock Pansies fluttering about turning a tourer's walk into a daydream.
Isco causes chaos between the lines, disorganizes defences and creates space as though he was God architecting the cosmos from scratch.
And just as we stood marvelling at the stars, mouths agape, we were brought down to ground for a reality check. The fallacy of infallibility laid bare in David de Gea's howler giving way to Portugal's second goal. Goalkeeper supreme, who stops thunderbolts like he's playing beach frisbee on vacation, reduced to his knees by his erratic humaneness. Another poetic chapter in an epic clash.
But there was no time to give in to the chaos and we were sprung back to the warfront where Diego Costa pounced upon yet another chance; this time from unmissable range. The destination is overrated and the journey is often not spared a glance. Wrestling to score the first, trotting in the box like a fox for the second. Oh, how Spain have missed having a striker since Villa and Torres faded!
Nacho flipped the script by meeting a dropping ball in the most satisfying manner and leathered it into the corner. He starts the night needing anti-depressants and goes to score to experience the whole spectrum of emotions over the course of an hour.
Well, it was at this exact point that most people would have written Portugal off. My mates didn't see a way back for them. Neither did I but I did see this: Immediately after kickoff, Ronaldo took the ball and shuffled the ball past traffic only to get caught by it himself. He rose from the ground, complaining. Asking for a yellow card.
Meet pissed off Cristiano Ronaldo.
Actually, no. You've met him before. You've seen him so many times. The first few times you were left having to collect your jaw from the ground. It was normalized for a decade. Then he apparently faded. He wasn't the best anymore for however short-lived a period that was. And that pissed him off even more. It got him only a third Champions League title, what the hell, eh?
A million stars. One supernova.
So when Spain conceded that freekick in the 88th minute and Cristiano stood by the ball with his shorts pulled up to air his quads, there was a sense of inevitability about the result. One quick swipe. David de Gea is left flatfooted, with no chance. The ball avoids the crossbar as though Ronaldo transformed it into a sentient being and plunges into the netting.
A World Cup hat-trick against one of the best teams in the world. Another feather to his cap and he already looks like a mutant among peacocks.
When the final whistle was blown, though the game ended in a draw, there was an immense sense of contentment. This is a match I'm going to ramble on about at the pub with a pint in my hand like an excited toddler for ages. This was the kind of match that puts the glow right back in our eyes. And if that's done, hasn't football served its purpose?
Sleep is hard to come by on nights like these. So we sat around sipping ale and watching Zinedine Zidane take the mickey out of the mighty Brazilians in Germany back in 2006. We laughed like monkeys at O Fenomeno doing sh*t with the ball you couldn't fathom and ghosting defenders, leaving them eating grass, all the while smiling with those shining tusks.
So many names rushed past: Diego(d), Pele, Cryuff, Garrincha, Beckenbauer, Rivaldo, Zico, Socrates, Klose, Ronaldinho, Messi...
Nothing quite gets us going like the beautiful game. We love drawing parallels and celebrating similarities. The absolute joy that football affords binds us together in one tight knot and the world was just so much happier on Friday night.
There are guns, bombs, chaos, idiots, prisons, favelas, elysiums, barbwire fences and prospective walls that divide us.
But thank God almighty, there's football to lull us to sleep.