RIO DE JANEIRO -- There was a strange feeling heading toward the Maracana on Friday morning, a kind of unexpected restraint. France and Germany, two former champions, the anchors of Europe, were about to play a World Cup match for the first time since 1986, in one of football's legendary stadiums. There was some bustle in the streets, and the bars were filled by mid-morning. Lines of riot police occupied closed-off territory. Yet it already felt as though we were about to watch the undercard to the Brazilian main event taking place more than 1,000 miles away.
It was too bad. These are the sorts of days all of us anticipate like gifts. As the World Cup marches on, there are fewer dreams, but they are larger. The matches become less predictable, more consequential; they stand better chances of being rated classics. The players want to play a game that will become part of a well-loved history and of future montages, and the fans hope to see something worth committing to their collective memories. This is the grand bargain of football: Each game is another chance for you to say you were there.
More than 74,000 were there at the Maracana on Friday, July 4. They watched Germany score in the 13th minute -- a sweet little header off the bar by Mats Hummels, who was led to it by a perfect free kick from Toni Kroos -- and perhaps unsurprisingly they didn't see very much else. The French had occasional chances, but Manuel Neuer was tall and solid in the German goal. The Germans half-countered with a couple of strong runs late in the game, but really they just did what they had to do to win 1-0, disciplined and defensive.
"We were always stepping on the opponents' toes," Joachim Low said after, and that requires its own art. But a long series of frustrations doesn't exactly make the heart swell. When the final whistle blew, there were pockets of French tears and German celebration, but mostly there was the slight feeling that comes with the solving of a small puzzle.
The setting didn't much help. Rio is a beautiful and crackling city but it is also, at the moment, distracted. Some very large percentage of the crowd wore yellow Brazilian jerseys, which was understandable, but also a reason behind the early game's failure to launch. A match like this one ideally shouldn't be played in front of so many neutrals; it takes the life out of them. It didn't help that the sun baked a big circle of front-and-center seats that were often left empty by their flash-fried owners; the players looked equally cooked. The clock was watched in hopes that time would pass more quickly rather than slow down, and a game between titans turned into an inoffensive way to kill the afternoon until Brazil and Colombia really lit things up.
That's how World Cups sometimes work. Of course there are going to be tiny disappointments like this one. If every big game were also a magical one, if the math were always that easy, none of them would be special. In a tournament this sprawling, sometimes there are just misfires of time and geography. The pieces don't fit, and the game's seams show. The most thrilling part of the 2010 final between Spain and the Netherlands was when Nelson Mandela was driven around the field on a golf cart. The match itself was a letdown, cynical and ugly. It was a fight you didn't want to see anybody win.
France versus Germany, the 2014 version, wasn't even much of a fight. It was the 58th game out of 64 of them, the first of the quarterfinals. It wasn't the worst, and it will remain far from the best. It will settle into some forgettable middle, just another of the necessary bridges between Brazil versus Croatia and hopefully some dreamlike last. That's the other grand bargain of this beautiful game: There is always more to come, and maybe the next one is the one that you'll remember, the one that will turn here into there.