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.


The AllRounder Kickstarter

I don’t normally make fundraising pleas on this blog, but I’m going to make an exception to that rule today.

Very soon, I will be contributing articles to a new online sports journal The Allrounder, one to be marked by its thoughtfulness and breadth; it will feature the writing of some 60 different writers, who bring their in-depth knowledge on all facets of world sport:

What can a sociologist tell us about fan violence?

How does a legal scholar view the latest player scandal?

What are the real effects of doping, according to a biochemist?

And what do we learn from the journalist who sits back in the press box, looks around and asks: Why do we watch these games anyway?

The Allrounder will be distinct from existing sports media sites in covering the whole world of sport. The site will feature writers from different countries, whose expertise ranges from basketball, cricket, and hockey to all codes of football. And The Allrounder will aim for the global fan—for the Indian who is up in the middle of the night watching the Champions League, the American who follows Six Nations rugby, the Brit who cheers for the Maple Leafs, the Brazilian with a LeBron jersey, and the Aussie who loves baseball novels.

The Allrounder will also offer a different take on sport. Most of our contributors are academic researchers at universities around the world. The site will bring their insights out of the seminar room and make them available to educated, curious fans—without getting overly theoretical or ponderous. We’ll be smart without being stuffy or snide.

Here is a list of contributors (including some links to our work and latest scholarship; here is a digest of articles currently available on The Allrounder; it includes a piece of mine on American sports coaches) and here is a very good interview with Yago Colas that further explains what The Allrounder is attempting to accomplish.

If this sounds interesting to you, please consider donating to our Kickstarter.

Sports, the Distraction from the ‘Main Game’

Sometime ago, I received an email from an Australian friend of mine, who, among other things, wrote:

Been thinking about how you and I love sport, how it really means something to us, how we cheer for our teams and are gutted when they lose. Yet we all know that sport (particularly non-participatory sport) is just another way the bosses keep the people distracted from the main game.

Is it? Well, yes. My friend is right, and he certainly doesn’t need to convince me. After all, here, on this blog, I’ve alluded to ‘the massive narcotizing effect of professional sports’ and waxed critical about the shamateurism and excesses of college football. The puzzle, if there is one, is why folks who consider themselves alive to the political dimensions of the social, economic and cultural phenomena they encounter, who are ever so ready to offer critique and revisionist commentary, so blasé about professional, big-budget, franchise-based sports, all of which are so very distant from the game played in neighborhood parks?  Why are they so ready to believe the patently false premises of college sports?

I do not get off lightly in this charge-sheeting, for despite the critical commentary mentioned above, not only do I watch sport, I write on it, thus possibly diverting myself from more critical political engagement with the pressing issues of our day. (To be more precise, while I watch many sports, I only write on cricket, thus ensuring that here, in my adopted ‘home’, I have consigned myself to being treated as an oddity of sorts.)

My writing on sport, of course, is what enables me to excuse my extensive and expensive investment of time and energy in sports spectating; I reassure myself that I use professional sport as a lens through which to examine topics that are of broader interest to me: nationalism, labor relations, media studies, race relations, xenophobia, technology, ethics, and so on. (My philosophy department at Brooklyn College offers a class on Philosophy of Sport; I still hope to teach it some day.) Some readers of this blog have noticed that my posts often flirt with memoirish inclinations; that tendency is present in my cricket writings too, thus allowing me to explore a life via a recounting of its entanglement with a cultural endeavor. This is certainly of cathartic value to me, and hopefully, will might even be of some value to others, including, most promisingly, my daughter. (Well in the future, obviously; right now, she can’t read.)

Perhaps I apologize too much; sports is leisure, and spectating, along with participating in it, brings us diversion from our weekday preoccupations, surely a much-needed escape valve. And yet, as the word ‘diversion’ indicates, we aren’t too far from the worry expressed by my friend: that we are just being ‘distracted from the main game.’ The least lame rejoinder I can offer to this indictment is that if our gaze is to be diverted to sports at all, then it must always be a critical one, alive at all times to its political ramifications. Anything less than that is to be co-opted, as desired, by the ‘bosses.’