Portal Fantasies – Nadal Loses, Italy Wins

Balotelli's spectacular goal against Ireland

Sports Saturday

In Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, the heroine enters a portal and suddenly finds herself in a strange world where, even though things look normal, there are two moons and other strange dislocations. Fantasy genre theorists call this a portal fantasy, and I’m wondering whether the world recently went through a strange 24-hour portal. I have in mind the period beginning the morning of June 28 and continuing through the morning of June 29, a period when many things were momentarily turned upside down.

I’m not only thinking of the Supreme Court decision, where conservative Chief Justice John Roberts surprised just about everyone by joining with the four liberal justices to save Obamacare. There was also upstart Italy, led by a forward who looked nothing like traditional Italian players Fabio Cannavaro and Roberto Baggio (Ghanan-Italian Mario Barwuah Balotelli), upending heavily favored Germany. There was Rafael Nadal, favored by the experts to win Wimbledon, seeming to change places with a Czech unknown (ranked 100) who played with Nadal-like aggression as he beat the Spaniard. Meanwhile Roger Federer appeared to change places with Frenchman Julien Benneteau, who played the game of his life—played, in fact, like Federer—to take a two-set lead. Luckily for Federer, the portal lasted for only 24 hours and ended before the match was over, allowing the Swiss maestro to take back his body and win the final three sets to move on to the next round.

It was like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, where everything is topsy-turvy. What comes to mind is Alice’s puzzlement after she falls down the rabbit hole and finds herself changing sizes:

“Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” And she began thinking over all the children she knew that were of the same age as herself, to see if she could have been changed for any of them.

“I’m sure I’m not Ada,” she said, “for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a very little! Besides, she’s she, and I’m I, and–oh dear, how puzzling it all is! I’ll try if I know all the things I used to know. Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is–oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate! However, the Multiplication Table doesn’t signify: let’s try Geography. London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome–no, that’s all wrong, I’m certain! I must have been changed for Mabel!

And then, after Alice gets all the words wrong to a poem she thought she knew, she continues,

“I’m sure those are not the right words,” said poor Alice, and her eyes filled with tears again as she went on, “I must be Mabel after all, and I shall have to go and live in that poky little house, and have next to no toys to play with, and oh! ever so many lessons to learn! No, I’ve made up my mind about it; if I’m Mabel, I’ll stay down here! It’ll be no use their putting their heads down and saying ‘Come up again, dear!’ I shall only look up and say ‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else . . .’”

So finding themselves somebody else, Italy advanced, Nadal did not, Fedderer suffered a scare, and uninsured Americans will have access to regular health care.

On the other hand, staying predictably the same was the team that Italy beat to get to the semifinals. The English national team, which always performs badly, desperately needed a portal of its own. One English sports writer (Geoffrey Wheatcroft), looking desperately for hope, quoted Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:

“No one believed in us at the start,” Steven Gerrard said morosely after England beat Ukraine 1-0. Since he mentions it, some of us still don’t believe that England will win this tournament, or deserve to, although we’ve already seen that virtue and quality are not always rewarded. “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” says Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, speaking of her own unpublished novel. “That is what Fiction means.”

The sports writer added, “But that is not always what soccer means,” and he was almost right as England, despite being thoroughly outplayed throughout and watching one Italian near miss after another, extended the game to a penalty shootout, where anything can happen. Unfortunately for England but fortunately for justice, Miss Prism,whose novel is “of more than usually revolting sentimentality,” proved right in this case. Italy ousted England on penalty kicks and went on to face Germany. It will take on Spain tomorrow.

La Roja, current holder of the last European Cup as well as the World Cup, is favored, but soccer narratives, unlike novels authored by Victorian nannies, take strange twists and turns. Who knows, maybe the world will enter another portal and Italy will dominate ball possession. Anything could happen.

Another Wheatcroft Wilde allusion following  the Italy-Germany game: 

Despite my earlier quotaion from Miss Prism, the good have ended happily, more or less. The teams playing attacking open football—Portugal, Spain, Italy—have overcome teams embodying defense, sterility and negativity, and that has been on the whole the pattern throughout the tournament.

And a Tom Stoppard allusion from Luke Dempsey regarding Spain’s tiki-taka soccer: 

So what if it’s death by a thousand cuts watching Spain play footy—they are about to win three major tournaments in a row. If I was Spanish, I wouldn’t care if they performed some kind of Stoppardian “short blunt human pyramid” on the half-way line as long as they won. English fans and writers especially hate the Spanish because their play reminds them that Jordan Henderson is the future of their midfield. I grew up with a father who reminded me constantly that “if you keep possession the other team can’t score.” Most everyone else in England said, “lump it forward.” That’s one of the many reasons why I loved my dad.

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