Tuesday, June 06, 2006

the beautiful game?

Our Cup Rageth Over

Soccer's World Cup is supposed to be party time for billions of fans around the globe. And it is -- insofar as the specter of a blind and embattled solidarity gripping the public mind can be described as a party.

The 32-nation tournament, which kicks off anew in Germany on Friday, is a winner-takes-all competition where every match is a battle and the delirium of world domination takes a powerful hold on collective psychology. For one heady month the national team becomes the nation at war. The dread of humiliating defeat is in the air. In Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, England, people don't so much look forward to the World Cup as hold their breaths, cross their fingers. They rally to the nation's colors. They hang out flags. These are dangerous emotions.

That is not, of course, the official version. FIFA, the sport's governing body, likes to talk about "the beautiful game" bringing together the nations of the world in a spirit of friendliness -- a contribution, in short, to world peace. Indeed, the fantastic comedy of the World Cup lies in the tension between the pious internationalist rhetoric and the nail-biting, hysterical, nationalist reality. The television will do everything to convince you that you are watching a harmless "feast of football," while in fact the huge revenues the game is generating depend on the mobilization of emotions that commentators take care never to mention, except perhaps to condemn a lunatic fringe of hooligans. In 1998 British fans vandalized various French towns. In 2002 Russian fans, watching their team's defeat to Japan on huge screens set up in the squares of Moscow, rioted. They destroyed Japanese restaurants and attacked any East Asian they could find. The greatest headache for this year's organizers will be law and order. In England, the Samaritans (an emergency counseling agency) will keep their staff at full strength to deal with the misery should England lose a crucial game.
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The competition was born out of cheating. Soccer had been officially included in the Olympic Games in 1908. Players were supposed to be amateurs. England withdrew from the sport in 1920 when this was clearly not the case. In 1924 and 1928 Uruguay won the tournament with professionals masquerading as amateurs, at which point the only possible response for the offended pride of the other competitors was to acknowledge a fait accompli and get FIFA to set up a competition for professionals.

This did not end the cheating. I know of no other sport where bad faith is so endemic, condoned and ritualized as in soccer, where lies and deception are ordinarily the rule. Every refereeing decision is contested, even when what has happened is clear as day. A player protests that the ball has gone over the line when everybody has seen that it hasn't. Passed by an attacker in full flight, a defender grabs his shirt, stops him, then immediately denies that he has done so. Unable to pass a defender, the striker runs into him and promptly falls over, claiming he has been pushed.

Nor are refereeing decisions always convincing. To help Korea, co-host of the last World Cup, see off Italy and Spain, referees had to bend rules to the limit and some distance beyond. During the Turkey-Brazil game in the same competition, an angry Turkish player kicked the ball at the Brazilian Rivaldo, who had recently been voted best player in the world. Hit on the knee (by the ball!), Rivaldo collapsed, pretending he had been violently struck in the face. The referee sent off the Turk, eliminating him from the game. Afterward, Rivaldo claimed his deception was a normal part of football. The organizers, who had said they would be tough on dishonesty, fined him $7,000 -- a day's pay at his level -- but wouldn't suspend him for even one match.

Developing, as it did, in Europe at a moment when industrialization was destroying traditional societies, soccer thrived on that nostalgia for community which was to be such a powerful emotion in the first half of the 20th century. Ever more isolated, the modern individual could lose himself in a crowd, asserting a strong collective identity created out of fierce rivalry with a neighboring town. Chanted insults between opposing fan groups are the norm at European games. On the pitch, the extraordinary skill of the players, the colorful pattern of their rapid movements, the tension as one waits and waits for that goal that never comes, all create a collective enchantment that prolongs the standoff between the two enemies. At the end, if the police are efficient, and nothing too inflammatory has happened during the game, we can all return home with perhaps only a couple of rocks thrown.

But what is passion and identity for the fans is money for the organizers. Since television rather than ticket sales became the main source of revenue, and the amounts of money at stake spiralled accordingly, the temptation to fix matches grew. When the latest scandal in Italian football broke a few weeks ago, most fans were not surprised to discover that the most successful club, Juventus, has for years been able to influence the choice of referees for crucial games, ensuring that their team gets favorable treatment. Paradoxically, rather than chasing the hardcore fans away, this cheating only intensifies their passion. They support their team despite the system, against the system. The sense of embattled identity just grows stronger. The more soccer appears to be in a mess, the more excitement it arouses.

Held every four years, the World Cup shifts this excitement from the local to the national scene, suddenly involving huge numbers of people who have never been to a soccer stadium, rarely watch the game on TV, and are not accustomed to handling the emotions it so effectively arouses. Incapable of judging what is happening on the field, they are easily influenced by partisan commentators. Watching the game at home they cannot enjoy the catharsis of the crowd experience, where losing is offset by a sense of community. Many a dog and cat will pay the price for this when, in the logic of the knockout competition, every team but one goes out.

In the stadiums, too, many spectators will have little idea what is going on. Apparently terrified that real soccer fans might turn up in any numbers, the German organizers gave no preference to season-ticket holders. Instead, they assigned tickets to all comers on a lottery basis. Applicants didn't know whether they were likely to be watching Mexico versus Angola or France-Korea, as if what mattered was the pure spectacle rather than the emotional engagement in it. So, while in distant Mexico and Angola people go into paroxysms in front of whatever televisions they have, the crowd in Germany will likely watch in polite bemusement, perhaps waving the colorful flags they will no doubt be given to help television create a sense of festival.

"The civilizing passage from blows to insults," wrote the philosopher Emil Cioran, "was no doubt necessary, but the price was high. Words will never be enough. We will always be nostalgic for violence and blood." Soccer offers an ambiguous middle ground between words and blows. In a parody of conflict that constantly hovers on the edge of chaos, it brings together two of our strongest yet contradictory impulses -- for universal brotherhood and world domination. Perhaps Americans find it hard to get involved because they are still busy with the real thing.


Blogger Louis Cyphre said...

Creo que casualmente esos atributos son lo que hacen tan atractivo a este deporte en todo el mundo y tan poco popular en EEUU. La avivada, la sacada de ventaja, pasarse por el esculapio aquello de que “no pain, no gain”, de que el esfuerzo paga. La posibilidad de que un gordito con afinidad por las drogas se pase 89 minutos y medio del partido caminando, para correr en los últimos 30 segundos y sacar un gol de la galera.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tim Parks is my hero. Sanity check, footballers! Players' behaviour on the field is the lowest of the low, only matched by fans' behaviour off the field.

4:15 PM  

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