The World Cup is grand; this one in particular.
With the group stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup wrapping up in Brazil and MLS set for its return – starting tonight (Wednesday) with an all-Canadian contest – there has been a bothersome undercurrent for fans of MLS, in general, and of Toronto FC, in particular.
The Finals tournament may no longer be the avant-garde of tactical innovation, as it once was – the Champions League has surpassed it on that front, but it retains its place as the cultural centre of the game, its beating-heart. Many, who could not be bothered to follow the day-to-day machinations of club, pause to bear witness to the grandeur of the international event.
And that this edition is taking place in Brazil of all places adds a special dimension.
Most countries love the game, but for this one in particular it holds a special spiritual place – it is the great equalizer, in a country where the rich live very well and the poor barely scrape by.
There is a certain rawness to life there, reflected in its play – it’s something in the water. All the teams in this tournament have been imbued with that spirit, tragedy and heroism, separated by the slightest of margins.
Life can be tough, in Brazil and else where, but that the time can be taken to enjoy trivial, unimportant things, amidst the chaos, is a measure of the quality, however flawed, of humanity.
For the fans around the world, the quadrennial event offers a month to pause, catch a match or two (or 64 for the hardcore), and take part in a truly global event.
One can measure their life in World Cups.
Born in one cycle, the game is revealed in another (the first is always special); once bitten, the four-year intervals provide a rather neat snapshot at the progression of life – long enough for significant changes to occur, but not so long as to allow memories to fade.
From the precociousness of youth (perhaps one of the reason that the Panini album’s have such appeal at these times) one stakes their independence, embarks on a career, fails and succeeds, and so on; progressing through the stages of life four-years at a time.
This world cup transpired under these conditions, as all do. Life changes, but not too much.
It is something to be shared with friends and neighbours, parents and children; it is a great unifier.
It is special.
For a club as young as TFC, to be represented at such a stage, is a rite of passage of it's own, an invitation to the highest reaches of the game. With such an honour, comes a certain recognition – of course, it would be better if it was with Canada, but for now, small victories are worthy of mention.
The same could be said of MLS, who has sent some 21 players to this year’s edition – a significant increase from the six who represented at South Africa in 2010.
TFC has flirted with the spotlight before – in 2010 both Amado Guevara (Honduras) and Andrew Boyens (New Zealand), represented their respective countries at the tournament, though both had left the club previously. The epithet of ‘former’ does not quite have the same ring to it.
But this time, Toronto FC is listed as the current club for two participants – the USA’s Michael Bradley, and more astonishingly, Brazil’s Julio Cesar.
When journalists, broadcasters, or fans alike scroll through the lists of information contained in player bios, preparing themselves for the furour of the month long celebration, that name, Toronto FC, stands out as a beacon.
With that comes a sense of pride, or recognition, of a place at the larger table.
Without diminishing the unbelievable fortune that the club enjoys to have a player such as Bradley under their aegis, there is something different about Cesar being there.
Chalk it down to it the fact that for an MLS club to be represented by an American International is neither unique, nor unexpected. That he is such a pivotal piece of the side – albeit, one who has struggled in Brazil – adds further emphasis, but it pales in comparison to having the Brazilian National Team starting keeper carrying the banner.
Even had Jermain Defoe, one of the final cuts, attended for England, there was something all the more believable about that; this club has had a British tinge since its inception.
But the Brazilian keeper? No way, never…
At least, not until February when it was announced that the veteran would be joining the club on loan for the upcoming MLS season.
There are similar lowly clubs littered on player sheets, but seldom does a player who will have such a key role for the most famous of national teams, the hosts and many people's favourites, come with such peculiar designation.
The rest of MLS’ representation is fairly standard fare – a whack of Americans, a clutch of Hondurans; Steven Beitashour of Iran has Vancouver in the mix, while New York and Australia’s Tim Cahill stands out (his performances have as well), but even he is not the Brazilian National Team keeper.
Now of course there are caveats: he is only on loan, a short-term one at that – and will be departing the club shortly afterwards, if he has not packed up his locker already.
Granted it was a transaction that came about because he was in desperate need of matches before taking up his position between the posts in what must be one of the most daunting challenges of his career – as if goalkeeping was not responsibility enough, to take up that task for Brazil, in Brazil, has been a thankless task on more than one occasion (though one stands out as prominent).
To that one could counter that there were undoubtedly any number of clubs that he could have chosen to go to for matches – but somehow he chose this one.
Brazil have coasted through the group, more-or-less, after some nervous moments, topping it over Mexico on goal difference with two wins and a draw to move on to the Round of 16, where they will face Chile on 28 June.
For his part Cesar has been solid, if unspectacular. He could consider himself lucky that Ivica Olic was called for a foul as the two went up for a ball – sparing any potential blushes.
He was troubled by Mexico’s attempts from range, but they could not quite provide a true enough test, failing to keep their efforts on target.
And, though he could hardly be faulted for Cameroon’s lone goal, his difficulties in marshalling the area reared once more as the Brazilians saw out a spell of pressure in the first half, before taking the initiative in the second – perhaps his flub against the Netherlands in South Africa four years prior still haunts a little.
But now the real fun starts; the pressures of the group stage are nothing compared to the knockout rounds.
For fans back in Toronto, who will watch his progress with eager anticipation, that heady sense of elevation, their club flirting with such glory, it has been tinged with the awareness of the clubs true stature.
One example of an oft-heard refrain from pundits covering the matches is as follows: "…Julio Cesar, not all that he has been in the past; that time at Toronto not exactly the top level league in the world."
And with that the ego deflates.
For that sweet inclusion is tinged with a soupçon of awareness that there is an inferiority complex that must be satiated; a sense that one is only allowed at the party by dint of association rather than by merit.
Sadly, it is true as well – both for Toronto and MLS…
For now at least.
But with time comes change.
MLS has made clear its intention to be one of the ‘top’ leagues in the world by 2022, though the definition is a little hazy at best. That is two cycles from now, a lot can change in eight years.
The sentence that followed the aforementioned jab at MLS was quickly followed by this: "… a load of American players played really well who [only] play in the MLS last night – so maybe we need to stop making that point."
This world cup has been deemed important in the measure of MLS, not so much by the volume of league representatives, but by their possible central roles in the drama. The league has regularly been well-represented on the American side, but to be headlined by Clint Dempsey and Bradley, who left roles in Europe to take root back in their domestic league, is the dawn of a new day.
Regardless of what happens in Brazil, as this expansionary period comes to an end and the dusts settles to reveal something new, perhaps then those pangs of inclusion will fade with the passing days.
Will MLS ever be a top leagues? Will those scornful, snide comments even go away? That is yet to be determined.
In the meantime, enjoy the reflected spotlight of Julio Cesar at the World Cup in his homeland, though it may come with some unwanted baggage.
PS – there was a line in between the two quotes above (from Ireland’s Newstalk.ie’s Off The Ball, regularly one of the best shows around), which shows that perhaps they have a little more familiarity with MLS and Toronto FC than they let on: "He [Cesar] hasn’t had to do anything here, so he’s probably doing exactly what he does up in Toronto. PAUSE Well no, actually maybe not; maybe he’s used to a lot, playing for Toronto."