A Monument to Losing: The Importance of World Cup Heartbreak

By Zack Goldman

No feeling is more coveted in football than World Cup triumph.

But, is there any one more fascinating—or important—as World Cup heartbreak? 

In any tournament, it’s only natural that the language and tone that we use to discuss the event is elevated and inflated.  This is especially true during the World Cup.  No matter how banal any loss may appear—it’s not just a loss.  It’s billed as a death.

It’s that moment when hearts, full of hope, founder—going down with the wreckage of a cup dream sailing smoothly only breaths earlier.  The moment when thoughts of “oh?” turn to “oh no” and then, emptily, just to “oh.”

That’s not to say achievements in the World Cup are only measured by winning the whole thing—or even winning games at all—but it is to say that there is something deeply sonorous and bleak that comes with being knocked out.

Yet, if one of football—and, indeed, sport’s—truest beauties is that it provides a vehicle for sharing the power of an emotion with others, then the importance of losing is the essence of that virtue more than victory.

Let’s break that down.  Every tournament is ultimately won by only one team—or, rather, is lost by all teams except for one.  No matter your country, most fans of the 32 World Cup nations are united by that emotional common denominator—that feeling of ultimate loss in a tournament. Rather oddly, perhaps, I’m proposing there’s something not only unique, but enriching in that—on cultural and sporting levels, personally, interpersonally, and nationally. 

All around us, there are proud monuments to the glory of World Cup failure, sometimes literally, as was the case with Adel Abdessemed’s Headbutt—a 5-meter-tall bronze tribute to Zinedine Zidane’s tragic final hour that stood outside The Pompidou in Paris last year.  Building such memorials to heartbreak doesn’t mean these events stop smarting as we drive away from them in the rearview mirror; they simply mean that we can appreciate them from new perspectives after the fact.  We begin to define ourselves by these failures—perhaps as much, or more-so, as we would by our successes.

Like Brazil’s 1950 World Cup Final* loss to Uruguay on home soil, a nation’s darkest sporting hour is often their most meaningful in retrospect.  Brazil has won a record five World Cups since—more than enough, one would think, to ease the pain of their early struggles on the global stage—but it is that loss that arguably consumes the nation in a more recognizable way than any single victory (and, in many ways, is seen as the source of galvanization for the generation of players who first established the Seleção’s winning culture).

Likewise, the legend of the Dutch losing heartbreakers to Gerd Müller’s quick feet and Mario Kempes’s second bite of the cherry in consecutive World Cup Finals are as much entangled with the romanticized history of the Oranje as European Championship glory a decade later in 1988.  And, much like the effects of 1950 on future Brazilian triumphs, you’d be hard-pressed to show that Ruud Gullit lifting the cup in Munich didn’t stem, in some part, however longitudinally or tangentially, from the failures of the Dutch teams before—at the final hurdles in the 1970s or in the qualifying cycles of the early-to-mid 1980s.

In this way, it is the failures that say as much as the successes of international football.  The fable of David Beckham’s red card, Stuart Pearce’s penalty in Naples, and falling prey to the Hand of God are as central to understanding the psyche and sense of self of English football as Geoff Hurst’s hat trick.  There’s a reason that the Lightning Seeds’ “Three Lions” is the anthem of choice bellowed in English pubs every four years (and, strangely, when drunk enough, at times in between).  The song is not one of victory, but of blind hope.  It is the English celebrating their naïve, effulgent optimism—their claim that it is again time for them to hoist a major trophy for the first time since 1966—despite embedding in the very song their knowledge that, deep down, they know this summer will only bring more heartbreak, more dashed dreams, more vain hoping in future summers.

Even their lone World Cup triumph remains owed in the nation’s collective consciousness to a 6-3 drubbing at the hands of Hungary’s technically and tactically superior Mighty Magyars team, who visited Wembley in 1953.  Much like Brazil and Holland, the English illustrate how the shock of a major loss** can, with time, be distilled and decanted into something other than merely failure.

Of course, not all defeats are created equal.  Some are engendered with a sense of pride, or bittersweetness, or aren’t crushing at all.  Others are heart-wrenching and will never stop prickling.

In 2002, I can recall watching my native United States go toe-to-toe with a team from Germany in the quarterfinals, whom they weren’t expected to trouble, even after beating Portugal earlier in the tournament.  While I certainly was upset we lost 1-0, and was left thinking what might have been had our finishing and refereeing been better, I distinctly recall my sense of pride and satisfaction in our accomplishments far outweighing any sense of bleakness or sourness after the match.

I can recall the opposite, four years later, as a teenager, despondently walking back to the U-Bahn in Nuremberg after the United States was eliminated from the 2006 tournament at the hands of Ghana.  The defeat couldn’t have been more different from the World Cup prior.  I was crushed—until a Ghanian man broke away from celebrating with his compatriots to put his arm around me and tell me that he’d been there, too—and that it was okay to feel sad.  For that brief moment, I was able to understand just how multifarious the concept of defeat can be—even in the moment—and how powerfully it binds the game together.  Most of all, it became clear that all defeats are opportunities for discovery, for reflection, for development.

All around the football world, sporting character is sculpted out of historic collapses and glorious defeats—and stories of growth and success,for us, as fans, and for our teams are not only made sweeter, but possible, by swallowing the bitterest of pills years earlier. 

It’s no secret that the weight of winning in part resides in the experience of losing; but, as obvious and reductive as it may sound, it’s valuable food for thought as the football media aperture closes exclusively to a view of the next 100 days. 

31 of the 32 nations traveling to Brazil this summer are going to bow out of the tournament with a final loss.  Some may overachieve, some may underachieve, and some may just be there to trade shirts (looking at you, Australia)—but, regardless, there will perhaps be some value in remembering, after all the emotions boil away, that there exists a certain magic and value to the heartbreak of that final defeat, once in the distance. 

Whether that importance ultimately has more to do with on-field success, off-field self-knowledge, or merely a sense of collectivism and emotional kinship with football fans the world over, losing at a major tournament doesn’t always have to be viewed as failure, or even sad.  It can also be a reminder of how special this game is, how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve got yet to go.

But I’m not sure I’d recommend reminding the Brazilians of that just yet.

*This technically wasn’t the 1950 World Cup Final, as the tournament’s final round was contested as a round-robin.  Due to previous results, though, the Brazil v. Uruguay match was, for all intents and purposes, the final (which Brazil could have won with a draw).

**England’s loss to Hungary may not have come in an official competition—but it was arguably bigger than World Cup failure in those days.  There had been earlier howlers from England—like a 1-0 to the United States in the 1950 World Cup—but here the fallout from this match happened in real time and was truly a referendum on the nation’s footballing infrastructure.  The result wasn’t just revealed through a newspaper blurb, it was heard through radios, filmed, heavily covered and hotly billed as “The Match of the Century” by the press.  England was completely humbled, and would then go on to lose the return fixture, 7-1, a year later in Budapest—still their worst ever defeat. 

This article was written by AFR Contributing Editor, Zack Goldman. Expect to see hear even more from him as we get closer to kick off in Rio. 

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