COMMENT:

Every four years I get engrossed in this game that just about all the world loves. I don't love it. Dribbling a ball at my feet did nothing for me as a kid and on television it normally leaves me cold. But four mornings this week I got up before dawn to watch its World Cup, spell-bound.

Often I wondered, what is holding me here? The games seemed aimless for an hour or more. I was watching the clock with more interest than the play. I have to live through the struggle to enjoy the highlights. After 45 minutes of no scoring, half time felt like an achievement. Only if the score was tied at full time would I allow myself to fast forward to a goal in extra time, or more often this week, that farce called a penalty shoot-out.

It reduces the game to one of pure luck. Russia won a penalty shoot-out against Spain. For 120 minutes on the field Spain had made Russia look second rate. The Spaniards flicked the ball around among themselves, threading it here, hoofing it there, enjoying 80 per cent of possession and never bothering to get out of second gear.

Advertisement

Yet it was enthralling. Every morning it was enthralling. It is not the game, it is the event that appeals to me, is the contest of nations. The way a country plays football might not be a fair reflection of its national character, attitudes, culture and politics but that is what I'm watching.

No other team sport shows you so many different countries. The best in the round of 16 this week looked to be France and Belgium. France looked young, fast and lively when they beat Argentina, every bit the team of Emmanuel Macron. Poor Argentina. It is a country that looked to be coming right after electing disastrous left wing governments for so long. But after setting out to tackle inflation with sound monetary policies and liberalising parts of the economy, President Mauricio Macri is finding the going as tough as Lionel Messi did last Monday morning.

Belgium had a scintillating game against Japan, made all the better by Belgium winning in the last minute of extra time, sparing themselves a penalty lottery. It was goal of the week, a smooth team effort from a defensive position, rather like the way Brussels is handling Brexit.

It was about the only goal of that kind I saw. All the rest were one-shot wonders or, more often, scrambling accidents in the goal mouth. But no matter how they happen, supporters are delirious and the scorer goes sliding on his knees, beating and baring his chest for the adulation. This is not a code of football for the Kiwi character and will never be.

Penalties are given for the slightest bodily contact and as for the agony of the "injured", enough said. Except to say it was a pity the Brazilian star's writhing performance became the most publicised, because Neymar had taken a hammering through the match. Mexico targeted him as ruthlessly as a drug cartel murdering an effective mayor.

On the whole, South American teams were less prone than Europeans to drop to the ground half dead if a boot strikes their shin pad. Colombia were a bit rough on England, granted, but England lost my sympathy when they set out to lose their last pool match to go into the easier side of the knockout draw. That's not sport, not even English really. They are normally good losers in the games they invented.

The South Americans get my allegiance. They are "new world" nations like us, much older colonies of Europe but still breathing the fresh air and breeding muscular, meat-eating people in the agricultural expanses of the Southern Hemisphere. Uruguay's Luis Suarez bit an Italian in the last World Cup. We knew a Springbok like that.

Little Uruguay is the best governed country in South America. Lodged between giants Argentina and Brazil which have both been in recession since the last World Cup, Uruguay's leftish coalition has held to orthodox economics, keeping taxes low, attracting foreign investment, diversifying its industries and exports, becoming less reliant on trade with its lumbering neighbours.

Advertisement

Only two South American nations are among the eight in the quarter-finals this weekend and both might drop out this morning. Uruguay will have played France by the time you are reading this, and Brazil has to get past Belgium.

Brazil were the All Blacks of this code when the World Cup first appeared on our screens, playing with pace and skill that looked a league ahead of the rest. Now they look like too many of them are earning fortunes in Europe. It is getting harder to see distinctive nations at play but I'm hooked.