Saturday, June 17, 2006

Kissinger's Guide to Watching the World Cup

Couch-Potato Diplomacy: Kissinger's Guide to Watching the World Cup


For sports fans frustrated with the World Cup's excruciatingly low scores, the world's most famous diplomat has some advice: The game's appeal isn't about the goals.

Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, Nobel Prize-winner and lifelong soccer connoisseur, compares the game to warfare or theater. With many American sports, he says, "you can segment them into individual moves," which translate into lots of statistics that fans track avidly -- like batting averages for baseball and completion percentages for football. By contrast, "soccer is more of an unrelenting drama," with no timeouts, commercials or water breaks, and limited opportunity for substitutions.

With the TV at his Park Avenue office in New York tuned to the Switzerland-France match, Dr. Kissinger offers a tutorial on the fine points of soccer, a game Americans are notorious for failing to grasp. Atop his dated Sony Trinitron television set rest icons from baseball, his other favorite sport: autographed photographs of New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and shortstop Derek Jeter. "The rest are just world leaders," he says with a wink, sweeping his arm along two long windows lined with dozens of other signed pictures.

While Dr. Kissinger is no less a Yankees fan than a soccer aficionado, he watches the two sports differently. With baseball, he is more laid-back. He cheers for his favorite team, and revels in "the game's great periods of latitude," with its moments of relaxation between points of high drama. He munches on hot dogs and chats with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who frequently invites Dr. Kissinger to his box.

He is less partisan when it comes to soccer, savoring its ebbs and flows of frustration, elation and ultimately exhaustion. "Soccer gets me at a relatively high pitch of attention," he says. He plans later this month to attend a World Cup semifinal match and also the finals, regardless of who is playing. He's fascinated with how national characteristics translate into playing styles: Brazil's unbridled joy, England's noble purpose, Germany's grim determination.

Dr. Kissinger keeps an eye on the TV and the Swiss team's surprisingly strong first-half showing against a French team that on paper is far superior. "I don't want to say anything anti-Swiss, but this is against expectations," he announces. As the match continues, Dr. Kissinger offers up some up other tips for appreciating this year's Cup:

Take your eye off the ball. "Soccer is a game that hides great complexity in an appearance of simplicity," he says. "It looks like 10 people chasing a ball. But they have to be coached scientifically so that they know where to move when the ball is in play."

Dr. Kissinger studies the patterns that teams try to create with their movements, whether they are predominantly attacking teams (which he prefers) or defending teams (which has become more the norm, to his chagrin).

"Oh, my God," Dr. Kissinger says, interrupting himself, as a French player fails to kick the ball into the net when he receives a perfect pass in front of the goal. "A deadly striker would have scored there."

Note the three primary playing styles -- but also the way globalization is homogenizing them. Dr. Kissinger separates the approaches to the game into three broad types: English, European continental and Latin. The traditional English style focuses on winning through athleticism -- kicking the ball deep and long and then outrunning the opponent, with defenders and attackers well-defined. With the European style, six players typically move forward and pass skillfully and four players remain back. That said, they often shift positions so that defenders can become attackers.

His favorite is the Latin approach, which is about style as much as substance. "When a Brazilian team is in good form, it looks like a ballet coming down the field. There are two troubles with the Brazilians: One is they get so infatuated with their dancing and acrobatics that they sometimes forget to shoot goals. The other is they often don't have a good goalkeeper. My explanation is that he doesn't like staying back and not joining the fun."

Dr. Kissinger worries that globalization is "brutalizing" the Brazilians, who have lost some of their Latin panache. All but three of their 11 players have had their styles dulled by playing in the highest-paying but more-conformist European leagues, he says. The English have also shifted to a more European style. Meanwhile, Dr. Kissinger says Germany is playing a more spontaneous and cheerful attacking style this year, which contrasts with the country's history-laden pessimism.

He has high praise for the Argentinians. "They have many of the skills of the Brazilians, but are ruthlessly oriented toward scoring goals and doing whatever is necessary to win," he says.

Don't underestimate the element of exhaustion in close games. Mr. Kissinger notes that goals are often scored late in the match when players are most fatigued.

It's near the end of the French-Swiss game, and though the French have improved in the second half, there still is no score. Dr. Kissinger delivers his verdict: "The French, while still elegant, have become stodgy," he says. "The French don't have the killer instinct or the killer capability."


Post a Comment

<< Home