World Cup Memories

Posted on August 19, 2010

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A month after the end of the World Cup, I think it is about time I close a few tabs on my browser that have been holding particularly memorable reflections on that delirious month in the early summer. Here are a few quotes.

I like this from the English novelist Tim Parks, in the New York Review of Books. First, a nice observation about FIFA’s attitude to cheating:

After the Germany–England game, the German goalkeeper spoke of how he had understood that the ball was well inside his goal but pulled it out and pretended nothing had happened in the hope that he could fool referee and linesman. He was pleased with himself. Carlos Tevez, Argentina’s offside striker, said he knew that the goal against Mexico was offside, but chose not to say anything. It’s interesting that FIFA uses sophisticated equipment to check players for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, punishing those who test positive with long bans. Getting away with cheating on the field and boasting about it afterward is not penalized at all.

Parks had arrived in Germany just in time to watch the Germany-Spain semi-final match. He offers the following gem on football punditry:

Football punditry is no doubt the most facile and inconsequential form of writing known to man. I read it avidly. In one’s eagerness to remain within the emotional aura of a memorable game one laps up any silliness. The genius of football pundits is to take the most recent result as a demonstration of absolute reality. They know that the losing fans won’t be reading about the game—they want to forget—and that the winners want to feel that victory was heroic, deserved, inevitable. The Germans had beaten England 4–1, then Argentina 4–0. These are remarkable achievements. Their squad was young without established superstars. Hence, for the pundit, youth and team organization were suddenly infinitely superior to individual genius or experience. What was more, the team included players of Turkish, Polish, and other ethnic origins; this healthy acceptance of a new immigrant influx could be presented as part of the reason why the Germans were winning, as if the political significance of the development were as influential on the field as the players’ wonderful talent.

And then this on the blessed difference between a healthy sporting nationalism and, well, plain old nationalistic nationalism: [Click on the button below to read more...]

One has to hand it to the Germans: they know how to lose with a minimum of fuss and sour grapes. “Like waking from a stupid dream,” remarks my editor with admirable cheerfulness when I arrive at my publishers the following morning. “Thank God it’s over and we can get back to work.” If the World Cup has one great merit, it is the opportunity it gives a nation to experience the delirium of the embattled community in search of world domination, and then to snap out of it without any serious harm having been done.

And in an article for Foreign Policy, the noted British football writer Simon Kuper also devoted most of his post-World-Cup reflections to the evolution of football nationalism.

Back home after a breathless month in South Africa, it’s plain to see: The sorry truth is that the World Cup is losing its geopolitical meaning altogether. To twist the title of Franklin Foer’s famous book: soccer is ceasing to explain the world. There were still some political observations to make about the host country, South Africa, and the winning country, Spain. But for the most part, this tournament exemplified how everywhere on Earth is becoming the same place.

After cataloguing some of the more extreme nationalist narratives from bygone World Cups, Kuper observes that

Fans of opposing teams [in South Africa] sat happily side by side in the stands, blowing vuvuzelas in unison (if not in harmony), often after having swapped scarves. When the TV cameras lit upon them, they waved like starry-eyed fans at the NBA All-Star game. The World Cup has gone from nationalist frenzy to universal carnival, a sort of cheesy “We Are the World” video brought to life. Nobody seems to hate Germany anymore, and anyway, the country had the most multicultural team in the tournament.

So why have the geopolitics drained from soccer?” he asks.

First, because the world has changed. The era of dictatorships, hypernationalism, country vs. country wars, and festering resentments held over from World War II is passing. Most wars today are civil wars.

Crucially, soccer is changing too. The World Cup used to set different national styles against each other. The Dutch attacked, the Italians defended, the Germans played badly and won, the Latin Americans dribbled, and the English huffed and puffed and screwed up. Inevitably, everyone felt that everyone else’s style was somehow immoral, even evil.

These days, however, the World Cup rewards globalization, and the homogenization of styles helped make this a post-nationalist World Cup. Everyone plays much the same way now (with the exception of the English, who still huff and puff and screw up.)

The article concludes hopefully, at least for those who find enough to be fascinated about in great sporting events without having to infuse them in faux nationalist significance:

The soccer is just for fun (although in truth most of the games were dull). The World Cup no longer means much. And that’s a relief.

My Duke colleague Laurent Dubois, in his excellent blog Soccer Politics served up cultural snapshots and football analyses throughout his visit to the South Africa for the World Cup. In his final reflections (including a vivid report from inside the stadium during the final) he too emphasizes the post-nationalist ambiance for most of the world along with the real nation-building implications for the host nation.

This crisis [a possible backlash against foreign migrants in South Africa] will be a major test: if communities, and the nation as a whole, can protect foreign residents and prevent violence, it will suggest that something has indeed changed.

The structures built for the World Cup meanwhile, most importantly public transportation systems that were long-needed but never completed, will present another test. If they can be maintained as safe and efficient transportation, that will be one immediate, and daily, legacy from the World Cup in South Africa.

What, meanwhile, do all those who watched games, near and far, take from this? That is the toughest question to answer. We disperse, individually carrying this massive collective experience. We’ve glimpsed an alternative space, one composed of people from all over sharing a common story, full of absurdities and twists and turns, random and even futile but yet perfect because it is common. We’ve come like pilgrims looking for something, but perhaps return not precisely sure what we’ve found.”

If you have any favorite quotes from the World Cup, please share in the comments section…

(Thanks to Andrew Potter over at The Authenticity Hoax who originally sent me one or two of the above links.)

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