Cancel the flights and contracts. Bulldoze the stadiums, strip the uniforms and send home the players. Take away absolutely everything that makes the sport the sport, and there would still be football in Sao Paulo tomorrow. It might be a married couple, kicking an empty bottle down the street. Or a ragtag bunch of boys, barefoot and sweaty, bruising each other with a tennis ball. Or a group of older women, toned and tanned, playing keep-up on the beach. Eventually, the familiar game would emerge, born anew out of reflex and restlessness.
It’s not just Brazil; it’s why football is so widely popular — at minimum, all you need is something to kick and someone to kick back. In Jamaica, there’s no maximum — a scrimmage game can swell from two to ten to twenty to upwards of thirty men, lost in swirls of dust, the ball somewhere in the congested epicentre of insults, injuries and inflated egos.
The World Cup has those, too, but it has something else — the best players on the planet. Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and dozens of other football phenoms are stretching their legs, waiting to razzle-dazzle the largest captive audience ever assembled. Almost 200 million people will be watching each match, and for viewers, the bloodlust, nationalism and awe fuse into a powerful televisual drug. Walk into a bank or bar with a TV and witness its power — all necks craned and eyes fixed in the same upward direction.
The Estádio do Maracanã could fit between the ambition and ability of most scrimmage players
With so many fans soaking up o jogo bonito, you’d think scrimmage would improve. Nope. Run onto the neighbourhood green this month at your own peril, as your friends try out the soaring passes, laser-guided one-twos and fancy footwork they see onscreen. Needless to say, the Estádio do Maracanã could fit between the ambition and the ability of most weekend warriors, resulting in games where you spend as much time retrieving the ball as receiving it.
But even if Andrés Iniesta showed up underneath the guango tree with water bottle and car keys in hand, he would have to adapt to the constraints of Jamaican scrimmage. Most fields are slanted, uneven, only partially grassed and dotted with a cornucopia of obstacles — gravel, pavement, flower beds, tree roots, water pipes, light poles and cow droppings. The goalposts are stones, set two paces apart and permanently bridged by the slowest, largest or oldest player on the team. There is no referee, no box, no centre spot, no corners and no lines — the field of play is delimited by nearby buildings and the stamina of the participants.
A game under these conditions bears only a vague resemblance to the one beamed via satellite. Every arena in Brazil has seven interlinked high-definition cameras trained on each goal, giving the officials millimeter-precision with their calls. At home, you could roll a ball directly towards the goal from ten feet out and watch it curl away like an errant putt.
The World Cup teams all use the same basic patterns of play, heavy on defense
Still, the World Cup can guide you to victory in your local fixture, if you know where to look. Watch the 32 teams in the opening round-robins, and you’ll see the same pattern again and again — four guys at the back, four or five more in the middle, and one or two up front. The strikers don’t run back to the keeper, and the defenders rarely run forward to the half-line. If the opponents start to threaten, they are swarmed by the midfielders.
That simple strategy would be unbeatable in scrimmage, where every game is lost by an overcommitted attack. Too eager to score, players run upfield and hang around, hoping for a fortuitous mistake. No one wants to be far from the action, so more people pile forward, and the game becomes an oscillating series of mad dashes to protect wide-open goals. It’s how early association football was played, too, and as Jonathan Wilson shows in Inverting the Pyramid, the whole history of the sport has been a slow accretion of players into defense, like a pane of glass thickening at the bottom.
Stars like Mesut Ozil and Luis Suarez may be tempting to imitate, but their dexterity depends on their less-flashy compatriots being in position. What might seem like an individual achievement is actually a team effort in disguise. So this weekend, as your friends don the jerseys of their heroes and take the field, try stealing the uncommon strategy of every World Cup champion — playing sensible football.