Brazil Unravel, All Together Now

Eight goals were scored in the ninety minutes of the World Cup semi-final yesterday between Brazil and Germany. Unfortunately for Brazil, seven of them were scored by Germany. Five of them came in the first half, in an eighteen minute stretch that began in the 11th minute and concluded with a four-goal burst in six minutes starting in the 23rd and ending in the 29th. It was horrible and terrifying to watch; when the fourth goal was scored in the 26th minute, I experienced something I never had while spectating an international sporting encounter: I wanted the game to be stopped, for the carnage to be halted.

Even though it much vexes me to say this, the state of the Brazilian team in those fatal six minutes can be best compared to an army suddenly routed on the battle-field. A unifying principle, a point of resolution, a central anchoring–whatever it might be, morale, leadership, or espirit de corps–gives way, collapses, comes undone. And then, suddenly, visible for all to see, the crumbling, the shattering, the disorganized fleeing of the troops. Germany’s first goal, in the eleventh minute, had already done a great deal to suck the wind out of an already-suspect Brazilian lineup, not quite sure whether its bravado in the face of the Neymar injury and the pressure of being the hosts would hold up. But when the second goal was scored, much more went wrong.

At that point, some folks  just gave up. Their shoulders drooped; they stopped paying attention; they stopped running hard. But their opponents did not. The Brazilians soon found out that in international soccer, scorelines are as low as they traditionally are because defenses play switched-on. When they are disengaged, as Brazil’s most certainly was, the opponents, skilled exponents of football themselves, can score at will. Which they did, goal after goal.

It was terrifying to watch; a horrible demonstration of the worst fate that can befall a sporting unit. It was an acute reminder of the cruelty that is always possible in sport: the utter annihilation of hopes and dreams, every weakness and failing exposed and exploited under the most pitiless of examinations. At the twenty-nine minute mark, sixty-one minutes still remained to be played.

No one, not even the Germans, I think, would have been upset at the game being suspended at that point. It had ceased to be a contest, and had instead become a spectacle of the damned.

 

Soccer’s Clubs and Countries

Once the hubbub and the desperate hopes of the group stage have died down, the World Cup slowly settles down to normal service: the upstarts fade away and the big guns play on. Now, at the semi-final stage, the match-ups look decidedly familiar: Brazil versus German, Netherlands versus Argentina. (The final could be any one of a set of classic encounters: Brazil versus Argentina and German versus Netherlands being just two of them.) The World Cup is a tournament, which, thanks to its qualification phases, allows for plenty of dreaming–but it is also very efficient in providing brutal awakenings: underdogs can promise a great deal, but not for too long.

So, here we are, down to the usual South America versus Europe line-ups, down to the usual contestations of Best Continent for Soccer. But the hunt for the Best Continent for Soccer is a silly one. For this World Cup will prove, as usual, that European clubs and leagues, are the heart of modern soccer: that that is where talent is given its professional wings, paid an adequate wage, and thus nurtured and developed. South America, Asia, and Africa, still produce talent by the bushel; they have not been able to produce a suitable political economy for soccer just yet. The economics of the sport remain as important as ever–as important as ball control, heading, dribbling, shooting, goalkeeping, corner kicks and all of the rest. It is in the league, in the club team, that the fledgling player grows into the hardened professional; his closest co-workers are his club mates, not his compatriots.

In the world of professional soccer, players are professionals first, not patriots. After the Cup is over, after one nation and one national system has been appointed winner, it will be time again to acknowledge the actual champions of world soccer: the professional leagues and clubs that permit a world labor market of soccer players who ply their trade without regard for national borders. In international soccer, nationalism plays second fiddle to a more local allegiance, that of club.

Realizing this little fact about world soccer helps put the World Cup into helpful perspective: it calls for a temporary cessation of normal soccer conflict, in favor of a more classically staged one; it asks clubs to offer up their most moneyed investments and to subject them to the risk of expensive injury (and as in the case of Luis Suarez and Liverpool. a possible extended suspension); when the Cup is over, national flags will be put away and club colors will be donned again; opponents will find themselves back on the same rosters.

That underlying importance of the club helps highlight the central irony of the World Cup: it is the sporting world’s greatest celebration of nationalism–matched only by the Oympics–and yet, most of all, it helps showcase the importance of the transnational professionalization of a game. Without the modern sporting club, without its free agency clauses, without the modern sporting contract, there would be no World Cup as we know it either.

Being Reductive About Sport (And How Silly It Is)

Some folks dislike sport. I use the word ‘dislike’ advisedly; the members of this cohort are not offering critical, politically tinged analysis of sport’s entanglement with big business and its value schemas; they are not exposing sport’s use as an ideology promulgating system, it’s supposed facilitation of political disengagement; they are not critiquing sport for offering a domain in which sexism, racism, xenophobia, and nationalist chauvinism often find unbridled expression; they are not upset by the loss of productivity and the diminution of gross national product that major sporting events bring about. These folks just find sport silly, a waste of time, a ridiculous way for adults and children, men and women, white or black or yellow or brown, to spend their time, whether playing or spectating.  You know some of them; you might be one yourself.

There is a particular mode of description of sporting activity, much favored by these worthies. It is better shown than described. Here, for instance, is tennis: people knocking balls back and forth endlessly across a net strung up between two poles. Here is basketball: young men and women, possibly suffering from gigantism, run up and down a wooden court, trying to throw a ball through a hoop strung up on a wooden board. And here is soccer: twenty men or women run up and down a field, kicking a ball around for ninety minutes, all the while trying to maneuver the ball through and between a pair of posts put up at the end of the field.

And then, the inevitable question: why would you want to waste your time, hours and days of it, looking at, talking about, and getting all worked up over, something as inane and silly as these activities?

One would imagine, given the almost instantaneous self-parody that these reductive takes on sport produce, that the placement of such a question alongside others of its ilk such as–why spend so much time looking at ink marks on a page, or why travel to distant lands to look at ruined buildings, or why spend millions of dollars on hundreds of years old splotches of paint on canvas–would be obvious. But equally obviously, for those who employ them, such descriptions are instead, a marvelously witty puncturing of pretension.

My contribution to this ‘debate’ is going to be a good old-fashioned rehashing, from an older post on the laziness of reductionist analyses:

An absence of a ‘sense of humor’ it seems, is almost endemic to all reductive, ‘X is nothing-but or merely Y’ style analyses….They are also depressingly narrow-minded and lacking in imagination.

Wittgenstein once pointed out–in his critique of psychoanalysis–that a facile reduction of this sort was misguided for the most elementary of reasons: when it was over, you simply weren’t talking about the same thing any more. Boil a man down to flesh, blood and bones to show us that that was all he was, and what you’d have left was a bag of just that. You wouldn’t have a man any more.

Right.

Why I Watch The World Cup in Spanish

The reasons are quite straightforward, and as might be expected, not exceedingly deep. They are only interesting because, I, like many others who watch Spanish-language broadcasts of the 2014 World Cup, do not speak Spanish. (At least, my Spanish has never risen above some minimal fluency.)

First, the most superficial reason of all. The Spanish language broadcasts on Univision are called by commentators considerably more animated than the ESPN crew: they are more voluble, they string together extended descriptions of play, each infused with a great deal of passion; the pleasurably interminable calls of GOOOOOOAAAAALLL are, of course, a bonus; when a game is running late and a team is desperately pressing for an equalizer, the crowd sounds plus the increasingly frenzied play-calling can build to a pleasurable crescendo. At the most basic level, watching a Spanish-language telecast of a World Cup provides ample and repeated confirmation of the Cup’s standing as the world’s premier sporting event; this year, the Cup is being held in South America, and watching in Spanish provides a better virtual connection with the venue. (Besides, I’m in New York City; watching the World Cup in Spanish seems like the right thing to do in a city in which so much Spanish is spoken on a daily basis by so many of its residents.)

Second, Spanish language broadcasts seem especially appropriate when watching South American countries play. In the catalog of pitiful attempts to construct the right kind of atmosphere for soccer watching, watching two Spanish-speaking countries go at each other accompanied by a Spanish commentary soundtrack will always find honorable mention. You can even fool yourself, for a second or two, that you have attained a deeper understanding of a more ‘natural’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘skillful’ way of playing football. You can close your eyes and paint a picture or two in your mind of a game played far away, with a far away sensibility. (This past weekend, I watched part of the Brazil-Chile game on ESPN-Deportes; the commentary was in Portuguese, and was a particularly appropriate accompaniment to the game’s action.)

Third, perhaps more seriously, the primary sin, in my eyes, of the various combinations of British commentators that ESPN subjects us to is that they cannot shake themselves free of a dominant set of stereotypical and archaic narratives. To wit, to put it just a tad crudely, South American, Asian, and African teams are overly excitable, poorly disciplined, lackadaisical, more prone to psychological meltdowns; their brand of ‘instinctive’ soccer always somehow needs fine-tuning when coming up against the systematic execution of game plans by European teams.  This flavoring of the commentary can vary in its subtlety but it is unmistakably present. It equips the English-language commentary with a very particular evaluative frame; the average South American, African or Asian player is subject to a persistent exoticization, one which carries it with a heavy burden for its subjects. They have to perform to a standard of sporting and moral rectitude that they seem blithely unaware of. But which I seem just a little sensitive to–perhaps excessively so, but for the time being, watching in Spanish will do just fine.

Note: There was a time when I used to think watching Spanish language soccer broadcasts would improve my spoken Spanish, but I’ve given up any hope of that.

On Not Failing the Soccer Tebbit Test

A few days ago in a post on the US men’s soccer team, I wrote:

I find myself cheering for the US when it goes up against a European soccer powerhouse. When they play South American, Asian, or African countries, my underdog sympathies kick in.

Well, on Sunday night, the US was most certainly up against a “European soccer powerhouse” – in this case, Portugal.  And so, as promised, I was cheering for the US. But the nature of my support was markedly different. I think it marked a turning point for this naturalized American citizen of fourteen years.

First, I had noticed–even during the game against Ghana–that I was urging the US on to a win. The US are underdogs in the Group of Death, and so, despite their African opposition, they had my support.

Second, my sense of anticipation of Sunday’s game was palpably distinct from the sensations which have preceded past games played by the USMNT. I was keyed up; I had scouted my immediate surroundings for a viewing venue (my family and I were spending the weekend at a cabin in Bethel, NY, and so I needed to find a restaurant or bar with a large screen television); I had secured all the necessary home-front rights and permissions; my daughter’s sleep time had been suitably delayed; my wife would accompany me. We showed up early, found a table, ordered food and drinks and set ourselves up. This felt like a Big Game; I have never, ever set myself up for a US men’s soccer game like this.

Third, there is the business of Reactions to Goals. I groaned at the first goal by Portugal, and hooped and hollered at the two US goals. Indeed, Dempsey‘s goal brought me to my feet and prompted an exultant punch. Finally, that last-minute Portuguese goal left me stunned and speechless. I don’t think I managed anything more coherent than a ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ as a verbal reaction.  For the first time during a US men’s soccer game, I anticipated glory and tasted bitter disappointment. It was the first time I had taken their setbacks to heart.

Finally, there is the matter of fan solidarity. My viewing venue was relatively denuded of American soccer fans; besides my family, there seemed to be only one other couple paying attention to the game. But with them, I found easy companionship, a shared exultation and then, cruelly, at the last moment, a joint fall.

After the game was over, I walked out into the beautiful summer sunshine, crestfallen to the point of incoherence. I had to quickly drive back to our cabin to put our daughter to bed, and kept muttering inanities on the way back home. A couple of hours later, when I had finally calmed down, I ran the various group qualification scenarios through my mind and relaxed just a tad. Who knows what else this team is capable of?

I didn’t fail the soccer version of the Tebbit test. And it happened during the 2014 World Cup.

Does the Left Hate America? The Case of Soccer

Yesterday, as the United States struggled to hold on to its 1-0 lead against Ghana, the rumblings on social media grew: Ghana were surely due to equalize any moment now. When they did, the jubilation on Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds was palpable. But it wasn’t just Ghanaian fans that were cheering for that 1-1 scoreline. Plenty of Americans were too. And these folks, identified quite easily by their previous histories of publicly avowed political sentiments, were clearly of the leftist political persuasion. A few minutes later, John Brooks cast a pall over them. But not for long: some looked forward to the American team getting its comeuppance later, perhaps against Germany or Portugal.

There are few sports in which American sports teams are underdogs. Soccer is one of them. But America isn’t much of an underdog in any other domain or dimension. So for those who like to cheer for underdogs, cheering for America is a highly unnatural act–and so they won’t, even if it means supporting Germany or Portugal, two soccer powerhouses.

The leftist cheering against the American soccer team is motivated by something a little more visceral: a desire to not be on the side of those visibly cheering for the American team. Many American fans, like those from other countries, drape themselves in their nation’s flag–in various forms, sometimes shirts, sometimes bandannas, sometimes something else–and raise loud slogans and sing tuneless songs. The semiotics of the American flag and the American chant are quite complicated for this seemingly anti-American demographic.

The American flag–thanks to the complicated history of American imperial ambitions and its modern incarnations–is a loaded symbol; in the domestic political context it has often to come to represent a forced, unambiguous American identity, one that all must pledge allegiance to, a quasi-religious icon that cannot be desecrated. And the most common American chant–USA! USA! USA!–has, in this post-911 era, come to represent an aggressive proclamation of American triumphalism. (You can hear it in the background as George W. Bush speaks at the site of the Twin Towers and promises revenge; you could hear it on the day he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium that same season.)

I don’t think those cheering against the American soccer team have anything against the likes of Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore and their mates. The American team is, as befitting an American grouping, quite diverse: players of mixed racial parentage, of immigrant backgrounds, drawn from a variety of social and cultural settings. The American team plays a hybrid style all its own, and its many players entertain, in the US’ professional soccer league, crowds that are increasingly eclectic in their economic and ethnic makeup.  But when an international tournament is underway, the American team does duty for the nation, and they are often cheered on by those who seemingly would like to see yet another domain fall to the inexorable march of the American juggernaut. An American win–it is feared by those Americans who would cheer against their national team–would merely spark another orgy of self-congratulatory exceptionalism. Better to root against it–to ward off such unpleasantness.

Note: I find myself cheering for the US when it goes up against a European soccer powerhouse. When they play South American, Asian, or African countries, my underdog sympathies kick in. The US might be a soccer underdog, but its team does not seem to be lacking in resources.

 

Put Away Work; The World Cup Is Here

Good afternoon, world. The World Cup starts today. Let me tell you how serious this business is: I had intended to cancel my cable subscription a month or so ago, till a good friend reminded me about it. He stayed my hand, eager to claim time and money. Imagine: a cable cancellation delayed because of a sporting event.

But that’s not all that will be delayed.  Here are some other notable items due to be placed on the back-burner: my next book; my syllabus preparation for the fall; many meals; the completed readings of items on my to-read list; my child’s cognitive and linguistic development (a distracted parent is never a good thing for an eighteen-month old.)

Over the next few weeks, I will root for and against imagined allies and enemies; I will set up alliances with perfect strangers; I will lean on all kinds of stereotypes to bolster my support and disdain for imagined and temporary friends and foes. I will dredge up–only half-facetiously–all manner of historical and political offense to justify my lack of support for some; I will construct–only half-facetiously–innumerable virtues to justify my support for others. I will be easy prey for marketers and makers of sappy YouTube videos; commercials will find plenty of purchase on my heart and soul. I will speak knowledgeably about distant lands; I will reveal too, ignorance aplenty.

The World Cup is the closest thing, I think, we have to a genuine global party. Many bars will be full; much work will be missed; sick days will multiply as a pandemic of imagined afflictions sweeps the land; grandmothers will keel over by the score. It will be possible, on many occasions, to walk into a room full of people whom you will not know from Adam, and find yourself indulging in backslapping bonhomie a few moments later (depending on whether the ball has found the back of the net or merely hit the crossbar.)

Never mind that the World Cup is run by a catastrophically inept and corrupt parent organization; sports fans are ruefully accustomed, by now, to the venality and incompetence of those who administer their beloved obsessions. Their seeming passivity and helplessness, their resigned acceptance, often lends credence to the claim that organized, professional sports is just the latest soporific used by the Man to keep the unruly masses slumbering away, oblivious to the loot and plunder taking place around them.

This year’s World Cup takes place in the shadow of the many protests in Brazil at its associated waste and misdirected expenditure; this resistance is serious business, and might yet cast a pall over the entire proceedings. But only in Brazil, I think. Elsewhere, the familiar charms of this mother of all sporting events will work their usual magic, transforming millions of men, women, and children into obsessives, ready to have their hearts broken or uplifted by the doings of twenty-men kicking around a leather ball on a large field.

Sport is easily scorned, but it’s not so easily ignored.