Argentina's Lionel Messi looks dejected after Croatia's Ante Rebic scores their first goal. Image Credit: REUTERS

A shock defeat — yet again featuring a Latin American side. However, looking dispassionately at Argentina’s 3-0 World Cup loss at the hands of unheralded Croatia last week, one cannot but admit that this is perhaps the new normal in world football: Latin American giants facing humiliation at the hands of European teams.

And for a football fan who has grown up on a heavy dose of all things Pele and Maradona — whose collective unconscious still reverberates with images of delirious terraces at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, soaking up Pele and his New York Cosmos against Mohun Bagan on a sultry 1977 September afternoon; whose personal collection of DVDs boasts of a rare compilation of Diego’s 1986 ‘Mexico magic’ — seeing the fabled blue-and-white stripes meekly surrender their pedigreed grace and elan to the gung-ho machismo of a middle-rung European power is almost dehumanising!

Make no mistake. Argentina can still squeak their way into the knockout stages or Neymar’s Brazil may even lift the coveted gold-crusted piece on a starry night in Moscow’s Luzhniki on July 15. But the point is, even these ‘dramatic’ possibilities cannot, or should not, let one be blinded to the larger and harsher reality of world football moving very definitively away from an era of rhythm and into the realm of algorithm. And it’s European football in particular that is shepherding this transformation.

As the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century had pushed the finery of verse to the backburners of literary consciousness, ushering in the golden ‘Era of Prose and Reason’, so also has European football — and European club football, in particular — seized the mantle of the sport, divesting it of all its vestiges of mysticism and awe and replacing them with a cut-and-dried, tried-and-tested, formulaic obsession of a precision-based order. This is football for the ‘here and now’, not necessarily for archival glory.

This is football of the 18th Century novel, not the ‘romantic imagination’ of a Keats or Shelley. This is football as it ‘is’ and not necessarily what it could or ‘should’ be. This is the regimented discipline of a mass-production era taking over the masterclass of hand-eye coordination of a cottage-industry. And most of all — this is a machine-learning mode stamping its hologram of ‘certainty’ over the ‘unpredictability’ of a flesh-and-blood mortal, who, though a genius, can still be subjected to the law of averages and the fallibilities of a human form.

The worst sufferer from this changing trend in world football is Latin America — a continent whose love for the most beautiful game has never been characterised by a missionary zeal to excel, but by a truant schoolboy’s penchant to explore life and its many mysteries down the road not taken. Unfortunately, in the last 32 years since Maradona’s cup, only one team from South America has won the World Cup (1994 and 2002) and that’s Brazil. Barring just these two successes, Latin America’s chest is bare as its cup of woe brimmeth over.

Football in the post-Maradona era, so to speak, is no less or more than what world politics has increasingly come to resemble: A zero-sum game. A rogue nuclear nation like North Korea can today boast of sharing a summit platform with the most feared economic and military power on this planet. It’s because geopolitics and its compulsions have very successfully reduced diplomacy and statecraft to its lowest common denominator. A Kim Jong-un and a Donald Trump are chalk and cheese. Yet, there they are, smiling at the flash bulbs from the Singapore podium. Likewise, even two Croatia sides together — no offence intended — cannot hold a candle to the individual brilliance and mastery of a Leo Messi. And yet, an Ante Rebic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic can still snuff the life out of the former champions, reducing Messi to a straw tiger.

The agony and ecstasy of this zero-sum game have been raised several notches by a behemoth called European club football. I remember a television commercial run by a rival network all through the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It kept saying ‘The real action begins this August’ — alluding to the start of the English Premier League.

Move over nostalgia and romanticism. Welcome ‘prose’ and ‘reason’.

— You can follow Sanjib Kumar Das on Twitter: @moumiayush.