Sometimes we can be excused for believing that perhaps somewhere in the universe an unseen power is playing games with us mortals. How else can we understand the fact that on the very day that Juan Carlos, king of Spain for 39 years, signed the parliamentary decree ending his reign, his country’s national soccer team was losing the crown of world champion and would return from the New World with empty hands and bowed heads? The two teams which sent the Spaniards home were once Spanish subjects (the Netherlands and Chile), giving even greater symbolism to the defeat on the playing field.
Soccer is not life, but the passions that it stokes, the way in which national teams represent national traits, make it a useful metaphor for life. Life is a series of achievements and defeats. Spanish soccer was always good but not great, until 2008, when the national team won the European title; two years later it won the world championship and in 2012 it successfully defended its European crown. The team won every competition, beating former colonies and others. “We have been at the very highest point,” said Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal in the final in 2010. “Now we are at the very lowest.” Juan Carlos, who enjoyed his subjects’ gratitude for his very valuable contribution to the establishment of democracy after the Franco dictatorship, recently felt that his continued presence was harming the institution of the monarchy and he handed over to his son, Felipe.
In soccer, as in life, people have limits. Even superstars Lionel Messi of Argentina and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are worn down by the demanding Spanish league. Two Spanish teams contested the final of the Champions League a few weeks ago, while another Spanish team and a Portuguese one fought for the title of the Europa League. These teams’ players are exhausted, whereas the German team, for one, had the good fortune of its domestic league’s champion wrapping up the title months ago, allowing players who are in the national team an easier runup to the world championship. Perhaps this is why Spain lost its crown so quickly; perhaps other teams have grown stronger and are hungrier; perhaps it is a matter of luck, of a good or bad performance on the day.
At the Brazil world championship we see old powers fading and new ones rising. We see countries that were in the second tier gaining self-confidence and hounding or upending “established” ones. However seriously we take the games (and many are prepared to die for their teams), the drama takes place on a playing field, not a battlefield. But it is a reconstruction, a rehearsal, a playing out which teaches us about life. The defeated come back in the next match or retire. The heir takes up his position. No one knows how it will end…