The play’s the thing
Aristotle defined the conventions of the perfect dramatic narrative in a tidy little handbook for playwrights called Poetics. This was back before Greece won the European Championship in 2004. It’s a dry read, but here’s the gist: All decent stories need a beginning, middle, and end. In the best plots — those that evoke the signature Aristotelian responses of fear and pity — the hero’s fortunes swing back and forth until he triumphs, usually not in the way the audience expects. It’s a narrative pattern that playwrights have followed from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Stoppard. Even Hollywood’s vapid blockbusters still adhere to this formula, but we can’t blame Aristotle for that. After all, he didn’t really invent this stuff. He was merely observing the narrative shapes that make for great drama—shapes that occur naturally. And they do occur naturally. They even occur in soccer.
You’re watching a game at your local bar. Your team is one goal to the good as the game enters those syrupy–slow seconds of extra time. They haven’t seemed to want the ball since scoring early in the second half. Worse, they’re up against one of those gilded outfits notorious for snatching something from the dying embers of a match. (I hardly need to name names, do I?) And suddenly you’re overcome by the ominous suspicion that you’ve seen this ending before. Even viewed through the prism of your own pessimism, this narrative is hauntingly familiar for a reason. Aristotle’s doctrine for successful drama pervades the game. Any penalty shootout involving England is proof of this. Pity and fear. Conclusion inevitable. The shape of great games mimics the shape of great drama.
This is why it’s strangely unsatisfying to watch two games at once. Sure, it’s a compelling notion, especially in a last-match-of-the-group-stage moment when one goal can reverberate across four teams. But scanning back and forth between two live feeds only leads, in reality, to a disintegration of the drama, a distortion of the perfect shape of a single game. It’s a mistake to pay attention only when the ball nears one goal or the other. To fully appreciate the story, it’s also vital to pay attention to those moments when the back four clip it furtively to each other or when a throw-in at the halfway line leads to another throw-in at the halfway line. It’s all part of the narrative rhythm. Without these lulls the game would move with the pace of a highlight reel, visually arresting but without shape, without story.
And we need the story. When commentators say, “This game needs a goal,” what they really mean is, “we’re ready for the next plot point.” It’s the reason we need match reports to tell us not just who scored but when the goals came. The box score offers up a narrative map, however basic, of the events we missed. A four-four tie in which the teams trade goals until the very last minute is an action-adventure movie. The plot is very different for the team that takes a four-goal first-half lead only to let in an equalizer in the 88th minute, as Arsenal did in 2011 against Newcastle. This is tragedy—for Arsenal fans. It’s comedy for the rest of us. Aristotle points out that there’s no structural difference between the two.
Dull games are dull because this drama is absent. Consider the modern incarnation of Barcelona, a team so capable of eliminating the dramatic conflict offered by its opponent as to reduce the other team to passive spectators. Sartre’s dictum — “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team” — has been grotesquely carried to its logical endpoint at the Camp Nou. Barcelona has perfected the dramatic monologue. Their opponents can barely get a word in, much less string together the soccer equivalent of a paragraph. For most of the 2011 Champions League final, Manchester United resembled the listless audience at a poetry reading. There’s an argument to be made that Barça’s games are rarely classics for this very reason. The artistry is so mesmerizing that the hero never really appears to be in crisis. The fear and the pity were fake all along. (I didn’t intend this to be a joke about Sergio Busquets, but I guess it could be.)
This is not to say that an underdog need triumph for a drama to be successful; merely that the more memorable the game, the more likely it is to have mimicked the narrative conventions that define good storytelling. Plot and character, fear and pity, triumph and destiny. Classic games seem to have been scripted. Take, for example, the game that ushered in the modern era: the 1970 World Cup final. Like most good epics, this one even had a juicy backstory. Both Brazil and Italy had twice won the Jules Rimet Trophy. Whoever claimed it at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca would be taking it home for keeps. Whoever won could claim that they had been destined to do so.
Act one. Italy kicks off and two opposing soccer philosophies are immediately apparent. Brazil desires to express, Italy to suppress. Okay, now we need a hero. Step forward Pelé. Did you expect him to score an overhead winner in injury time? Had this game been scripted by some Hollywood hack, he would have. But the author of this classic has a more original idea in mind: Our hero gets his goal in the 19th minute. Curtains on act one.
And on Italy, too, we assume. After all, Brazil is the favorite and Pelé is in an irrepressible mood. But Italy doesn’t fold. Instead, the Italians exploit Brazil’s weakness — its defense — and equalize through Boninsegna in the 38th minute. In screen-trade jargon, this constitutes a mid-act crisis. Pressure now begins to mount on the favorites. The Brazilians become frustrated that their swirling, sweeping style of play is not being more amply rewarded. When Rivelino hits the crossbar in the 53rd minute, doubt begins to permeate the Brazilian sections in the Azteca. Perhaps they are not destined to win after all? The second act needs a reversal to calm their nerves. And it gets one 60 pages in, when Gerson scores. The Azteca erupts, and to millions around the world (watching in color for the first time), the outcome seems secure. Brazil is going to win.
With the expected ending in sight, misdirection is needed to save the third act from a predictable denouement. If he scores, Jairzinho will be the first player ever to notch a goal in every round of the tournament. How’s that for a subplot? Again, Pelé has learned his lines and sets his teammate up with a brilliant header to make it 3–1. The game is definitely over now.
With twenty minutes left to play, the tension is gone and with it, seemingly, the meaning of the conflict. But this is Brazil before the era when its reputation became merely a pundit’s lazy cliché. Brazil’s mystique is born here, at this tournament. They choose to reinvent the game as pure spectacle. An elaborate move begins in Brazil’s own half and ends with the greatest player in the world making a final, casual pass. Standing still just outside the penalty box, Pelé receives the ball from his left and slides it diagonally to his right for the overlapping Carlos Alberto, who famously slams it into the net.
This moment embedded itself in the collective memory long before YouTube. But why is it memorable? After all, the game was already won.
It’s memorable because it’s a worthy denouement to the drama. It’s the final flourish, a gesture to the simple joy of the game. It is also the realization of Brazil’s ultimate quest: not just to win the World Cup, but to express themselves in triumph. It has been the burden of every Brazil coach since.
Pelé’s final contribution on the world stage is just as significant as Carlos Alberto’s shot. It’s a pass any of us could have made — the pass of the amateur, the novice, the child. It’s special precisely because it isn’t. And Carlos Alberto, the yellow blur that appears from the corner of the screen, seeming to glide above the ground, is Pelé’s captain: the captain of the greatest team in the history of the World Cup scoring the goal that ends the tournament.
Great drama also attains great meaning. That goal said to the watching world that soccer is ultimately a team game, that even its most gifted individual understood the greater beauty of the collective, the harmony that comes from the desire to play for one another. Of course, if you were supporting Italy that day you’ll have failed to appreciate the dramatic returns with quite the same affection. But ultimately the temperamental Danish target-man Hamlet had it right: “The play’s the thing.”
David Dilley is an English screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles