So the men’s Olympic final comes down to this: Apollo vs. Dionysus. Apollo, god of reason and logic (that’s the methodical Germans, you see), and Dionysus, god of emotions and instincts (and that’s the free-styling Brazilians).
So, translating Greek mythology into soccer reality, we have yet another matchup between the straight-laced efficiency of European soccer, and the artistically brilliant but less reliable South American game.
Well, that, in general terms was how things were until the 1970s, when the sport became global and neither version could any longer fail to be influenced by the other.
The Germans, very definitely, determined to introduce more skill into their game. They succeeded, cleverly, managing to retain both the physical and the tactical elements that had for so long been their staples.
The Brazilians, and the South Americans in general, have not been so successful in amalgamating Apollo with their Dionysus. Applying doses of European discipline has tended to squeeze the Dionysian brio out of the Latin game.
Of late, the Brazilians have looked a lost team, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian, or if you prefer, neither fish nor fowl. The most recent confrontation of the styles came during the 2014 World Cup, and proved a total disaster for Dionysus and Brazil.
Germany 7 Brazil 1 -- in Brazil! -- could leave no doubts. A comprehensive victory for Apollo. Or, surely more likely, a crushing victory for this German team against this Brazilian team. Maybe that was it, just that, but the wider implications were hard to ignore.
After all, a 7-1 scoreline doesn’t leave much room for excuses. Brazil looked jaded and chaotic (another adjective sometimes applied to Dyonisian doings). Germany looked fresh, of course superbly organized, and with plenty of good soccer.
You could say there was an element of luck to the German win. In the first half, their strike-rate was phenomenal -- it seemed like every shot resulted in a goal. That is rare indeed, but how is it luck when that is what the Germans were trying to do?
Had the Germans put an end to the Beautiful Game and replaced it with a less flamboyant but more practical style? Those -- I being among them -- who were muttering “Perish the thought!”, did not have long to wait for hope to resurface. Against Argentina in the final a few days later, the Germans were simply stolid and boring. The Argentines were not much better. A truly and heavily Apollonian game that needed a moment of Dionysian beauty to settle it -- Mario Goetze’s goal that won it for Germany.
Apart from that goal, the final was a perfect showcase for the unavoidable platitudes of the Apollonian game. It also served as a clear demonstration of why soccer needs the dash and the dazzle of the Dionysian Brazilians.
Now, on Saturday, we’re set for another showdown, another Brazil vs. Germany contest, in the Olympic final. Yes, I would prefer a win for the Brazilians, because they represent the smiling, skillful side of soccer. Not that the Germans give us the dark side, no, not at all. But they have a habit of making the sport look too mechanical, a sport without glitter.
Is there a single player on the German Olympic team who stands out, who is memorable? In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a top team in which all the players look so alike. Same height, same build, same athleticism and, of course, same style.
With the Brazilians you are quickly aware of different players doing different things. Player personality is on display, with the mercurial Neymar setting the tone.
Brazil is under pressure. They will naturally be looking for revenge and redemption, a frame of mind that may well upset them more than the Germans. That the Brazilians have enough skill to win the game is clear. They also appear to be good at something they have been accused of not doing well in the past: defending. In five games, they have yet to give up a goal. The Germans, for their part, carry the confidence of a style that has been sweeping all before it. A confidence that inspires smoothness, calmness, steadiness.
That 7-1 scoreline is going to weigh heavily on the Brazilian players. Erasing that memory and giving Brazil its first-ever Olympic title must be the aim for Neymar’s team.
But there is also this broader matter of Apollo vs. Dionysus. Neither team will be paying much attention to that, and no doubt that’s right. The Olympic final is about winning the Olympic title. Period. Anyway, the struggle of the styles is unlikely ever to be ever conclusively won. German dominance, if that’s what we have now, is not a good thing. Steady it may be, but it leaves too much out of the game. Brazilian dominance, of course, depends heavily on the brilliance of its players, a value that lacks steadiness, that fluctuates from generation to generation, even from game to game. When it works you get the spectacular Brazil of 1970 and you walk way with the World Cup. When it doesn’t, you get the chaotic Brazil of 2014 and you get beaten 7-1.
This Olympic final, then, is not so much about Germany. We know which Germany will turn up. The steady, relentless, minimal-error Germany -- but also a Germany with plenty of skill. What we don’t know is which Brazil we will get, the chaotic or the brilliant.
For the sake of the sport itself, it is to be hoped that the Brazilians will be brilliant.