Morocco’s Jawad El Yamiq struggling with an injury.

Morocco’s Jawad El Yamiq writhes in apparent pain during a World Cup match against Spain on Tuesday.

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The World Cup is opera for the people

If you approach it like that, if you see the overacting and the outrageousness as a drama that must be sung loudly to be heard, then you might start to embrace it.

I was once like many of you in regard to the World Cup: lost, lonely, looking for love in all the wrong places. Scorning, ridiculing. Mocking soccer for being effete.

I was reminded of this when Portugal coach Fernando Santos benched superstar Cristiano Ronaldo for a round-of-16 match and then again for much of the next match. He had expressed frustration with Ronaldo’s attitude. Now, I ask all the tough guys and gals out there: What coach in the four major professional American sports leagues would bench his most important player during one of the most important stretches of the year?


Sit Steph Curry in the NBA Finals? Replace Tom Brady in the Super Bowl?


It would be preposterous beyond belief. But that’s just it. Your typical World Cup game is beyond belief — the weeping fans, the flopping players, the bumbling referees. So a sulking superstar? Par for the course. The World Cup is opera, and if you approach it like that, if you see the overacting and the outrageousness as a drama that must be sung loudly to be heard, then you might start to embrace it.

Even some of the things I still have trouble understanding come a little easier when I think of the World Cup in operatic terms. Players often fake injuries, always theatrically, hoping to get the referee to give an opponent a yellow card, which is like basketball’s technical foul. This strikes many Americans as wimpy. Even if you are hurt, rub some dirt on it and get back in there, right? But in a sport that offers much athleticism but very little scoring, you learn to take your entertainment where you can find it.

During one recent match, I saw a player collide with an opponent in what I would call a fairly typical soccer play. Judging by the way he threw himself to the ground and then by the way he lay still, you wouldn’t have been wrong to think you had just witnessed his last moments on earth. Unfortunately, the unfeeling or blatantly blind referee didn’t blow his whistle, and the ball started moving toward the other end of the pitch. The camera stayed on the player a long while, long enough to show one eye being opened furtively. It was like a child checking to see if the coast was clear after being put to bed.

Finally, the frustrated player stood up. Here was the whole span of human evolution come to life, from primordial ooze (player in fetal position) to hunched-over hominid (limping player) to Homo sapiens (player now running at full speed!), all in a 10-second span. There was not a hint of embarrassment on the player’s face. Spectacular.

And then we were off, all of us, player and spectator alike, waiting for the next flourish.

Friday’s Brazil-Croatia quarterfinal match had everything a good opera has — pain, intrigue, love, hate and human weakness. When Neymar broke a scoreless tie by splitting two defenders and stutter-stepping past the goalie in the 105th minute, it brought on a massive outpouring of laughter and tears among Brazilians in the stadium because . . . what did you expect in a soccer celebration, where the line between opposite emotions is almost nonexistent? You will never see an NFL coach celebrate the way a World Cup coach celebrates a goal to give his team a 1-0 lead. You’d sooner see Bill Belichick in a party dress.

Everyone was so overcome after Neymar’s goal that they forgot there was still the rest of the game to be played. Croatia didn’t, scoring in the 117th minute and then winning on penalty kicks to stun the Brazilians. Here’s where our four major sports and soccer can agree: Brazil coach Tite is a fool. He decided to save Neymar, one of the best players in the sport’s history, for his team’s fifth and final penalty kick. Croatia won before Neymar got his chance. I wonder if Tite and Joe Maddon are friends.

By focusing on human emotions, I do an injustice to the athleticism that has been on display at the World Cup. The Netherlands made six perfect passes en route to Memphis Depay’s goal during a quarterfinal match against the United States. It was a thing of beauty, as was Christian Pulisic’s rush-the-net, safety-be-damned goal for the U.S. in an earlier match against Iran. Over and over, we’ve seen stuff like that from Qatar.

OK, back to the spectacle that is the World Cup. Little Morocco taking down big, bad Spain and big, bad Portugal? A story as old as time, but a story that never gets old.

And then the small stuff. By that I mean, exactly how much time and attention has gone into players’ hairstyles? Have you noticed how well their hair keeps during matches? The battle for mirror time between halves must be epic. (You’ll want to know if The Barber of Seville works a chair there. I can’t help you.)

I love the cushy race-car seats coaches and subs use. It’s as if the first-class cabin of an airplane has been plopped inside a stadium. More wine, Mr. Ronaldo?

The whole thing is great. The pompadour and circumstance. Some of you — many of you? — don’t see it that way. You find it all painfully boring. Fair enough. Opera isn’t for everybody, and neither is soccer. Some soccer fans don’t care if others dislike their sport. Some soccer fans want others to love it the way they do.

Here’s my advice to everyone: Enjoy the show, because that’s what it is.

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