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An Enthralling World Cup

The Politics of Style

by HARRY BROWNE

Four years ago, the insufferable French manager Raymond Domenech was pissing off his players and triggering the mildest form of ‘strike’ among them, causing what was said to be great dishonour to his country. In Ireland many of us slaked our thirst with pints of schadenfreude as the French crashed, given the way France’s team had slipped past ours with an unseen-by-the-ref handball in the qualification playoff.

These days, thankfully, Domenech is kept at a safe distance from the French team, but he still calls them ‘we’, and he has strong views on the consequences of their latest dramatic qualification-playoff victory, this time an honest one last November against Ukraine. “Involuntarily, we are perhaps partially responsible for the crisis in Ukraine,” he said in an interview with GQ. “When I see what state we put Ukraine in, it depresses me. If only Ukraine had won….”

Domenech says if Ukraine had qualified, the distraction would probably have prevented the unrest that engulfed the country. The people of that unfortunate country could perhaps, he said, have looked forward to the prospect of facing Russia on the playing field in Brazil rather than in military confrontations in Crimea or Donetsk.

Domenech’s hypothetical scenario, of a peaceful Ukraine happily caught up in its team’s progress through the World Cup, is obviously impossible to dismiss out of hand, in a complex, multifaceted world. But the evidence points to the familiar conclusion that he is an utter fool — and not only because of his evident ignorance of the factors, forces and players behind the coup in Ukraine. Football may be more than a game, but the evidence for its overwhelming political consequence, its potency as an opiate of the people (and in Domenech’s view, a beneficial one), is very scant indeed.

For one thing, Domenech’s hypothesis relates to an experiment that has already been conducted two times, four years apart. After all, Ireland (the country) in 2009-10 was in terrible shape, collapsing economically and paying through the nose to foreign bondholders who had gambled on its bubble economy.  In the midst of the bitterness the national football team lost out on World Cup qualification in Paris, in one of the countries where those bondholders reside, in circumstances that were, in football terms, far more maddening than what befell Ukraine in the same venue four years later.

So, as a Dubliner I ask: Dude, where’s my revolution?

In the main, history mocks the assertion that regimes benefit from national sporting success and fall in the wake of sporting failure. From the so-called ‘football war’ between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 to the supposed fruits of World Cup success reaped by Mussolini or the Argentine generals, it appears that soccer is not as important as it is cracked up to be, and people are generally smart enough to know the difference between spectacle and reality. That’s not to say that regimes don’t try: dictators do love to milk a spectacle. And perhaps long-term success for club teams, in particular, has some pacifying effect: the great Real Madrid team of the 1950s surely did Franco no harm, nor were Pele’s brilliant ongoing services in the colours of Santos entirely irrelevant to the fortunes of the Brazilian junta that adopted him and squashed the poor in the state of Sao Paulo, the core of the club’s support.  (Another Sao Paulo club, Corinthians, was the site of a famous effort at democratic self-management by players, led by the great leftist Brazil captain Socrates.) But soccer can help mobilise protest too: we can look beyond the Confederations Cup protests in Brazil last year to, say, the role of Al-Ahly fans in Cairo in the mass gatherings that brought down Mubarak; or the way women in Iran fought the restrictions against them attending big national-team games and in doing so boldly put greater gender equality on the agenda. (In fact, the uncovered women among the Iran fans were the most interesting sight when their team played Nigeria Monday, and all the ultra-conservatism was on the field in that scoreless game.) It’s no wonder the Brazilian authorities are working so hard to keep protesters off the streets and off our TV screens.

This is a roundabout way of addressing the more immediate question: should we really spend this World Cup, or as long as they last in it, cheering for, let’s say,  the Ecuador team, because of the country’s decent government, because its long-time guest-of-the-nation JulianAssangeposed in their shirt, etc? Should we boo Colombia, because of the country’s vicious regime, its cooperation with US imperialism, etc? Now that we have seen both teams play, surely the answer can be No! Ecuador contributed amply to the poor qualities of their game against Switzerland. Colombia weren’t great in their 3-0 win over Greece, but they didn’t have to be; at their best they played some lovely football, and in James Rodriguez, Colombia have a visionary number 10 of the sort that progressive Latin American footballers and fans love. Colombia’s coach, Jose Pekerman, is an Argentine from that country’s broadly left-wing school of soccer — his is also, says the Times of Israel, the only “Jewish representative” at the World Cup — and he coaches a skilful, fluid, expansive team worth celebrating.

Argentina’s own more conservative coach, Alejandro Sabello, must have heard the footballing protests of his compatriots ringing from Buenos Aires to Rio. (In a Dublin TV studio, former Argentine great Ossie Ardiles looked like he would explode in anger at Sabello’s selection and tactics.) In any case, Sabello heeded them at halftime of the game against Bosnia, and switched his team’s formation to a more familiar attacking set-up. Suddenly Lionel Messi, who might well have been one of the protesters, remembered how to move quickly with the ball at his feet, the most electrifying sight in football.

Messi and Rodriguez have not been the only great player on show: Pjanic, Pirlo, Dos Santos, Sterling, Campbell, have all provided moments of real beauty; there have been fine teams too, not least, and most surprisingly to me, the underrated Mexico and Costa Rica. Honduras, whose players were readier to kick French players than the ball, have been more or less the only team that permits us the pleasure of despising both their football and their country’s politics.

The American radicals who assure me it’s okay during the World Cup to chant “USA! USA!” don’t justify themselves with appeals to football style. Rather they seem to see the team as ambassadors for soccer in the US — and to see soccer, in turn, as an ambassador for a cooler, more cosmopolitan, less exceptionalist USA. They can yearn all they like, though: the structure of soccer in the US remains problematic and its susceptibility to likeable Euro-trash such as Beckham and Klinsmann still renders it somewhat silly in the world’s eyes. The welcome flourishing of a few professional teams and a robust fan culture among the hipsters of the Pacific Northwest will not change that in a hurry.

The US team’s tactics against Ghana, to congest the central areas and treat possession of the ball as more trouble than it’s worth, won’t make lots of global friends. Still, it took the best team-move of the tournament to breach the US defence, and the US were worthy, slightly lucky 2-1 winners against African players who were technically and athletically superior but, for most of the night, impoverished of ideas.

Although even saying this goes against the intercontinental spirit of the competition: one reason the World Cup has already been so enthralling is that the draw threw up a series of heavyweight European clashes. England and Italy, in the heat of Manaus, were often as sluggish as a pair of old heavyweight fighters, but the game was consistently watchable. Against Portugal, Germany had already played perhaps the best half-hour of the tournament so far (spoiled only by the sight of austerian-in-chief Angela Merkel applauding them) when the hot-headed Pepe prematurely finished Portugal’s afternoon by getting sent off.

The Spain-Holland game, meanwhile, reminded me of an anti-soccer Counterpuncher who wrote to me during the 2010 World Cup to complain that the sport is just too damn random. With goals so hard to come by and so subject to random events, soccer just doesn’t reward systematic superiority like US sports do. The guy was wrong, of course: great soccer teams dominate their leagues as surely as any NBA, MLB or NFL franchise, and the list of countries who could string together a mere handful of wins to secure the World Cup is extraordinarily short — superiority counts for a lot. And yet, for a half-hour last Friday it looked as though Spain might actually run rings around the Dutch defence, which appeared at first like it had been assembled from a children’s team. David Silva missed a golden chance to make it 2-0 for Spain, then Robin Van Persie scored a wonderful goal out of the blue to equalise. The Dutch never looked back, adopting the ‘who dares, wins’ mentality that has succeeded in most of this cup’s first-round games. But yes, it could easily have been different.

To say it’s random is not the same as saying it’s unjust, though the readiness of billions of people around the world to assume that FIFA will cheat to ensure Brazilian victory, as surely as it cheated to ensure a World Cup in Qatar, indicates that injustice is very much part of the game. “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football,” Albert Camus wrote, and he meant it in a good way, having never been acquainted with Sepp Blatter.

The unjust world in which football is played is obvious in the Brazilian stadia: again and again, mixed-race teams from mixed-race countries were being cheered by almost-uniformly white supporters. However, I must admit that the Colombian fan whose flag contained an anodyne peace slogan somehow warmed me to his country’s team almost as much as the way they played.

Spain, so loved and unloved during the last six years of dominance in international tournaments, and Uruguay, semifinalists last time and also holders of the Copa America, have demonstrated, so far, that failure to move forward is roughly equivalent to moving backward. Tactically dissimilar — ponderous Uruquay don’t have any midfield passers, while ponderous Spain probably have too many — the chief resemblance between the two teams is their familiarity. Each country brought roughly the same team to Brazil that it did to South Africa, and the same manager too. I’m generally all in favour of job security, but Spain and Uruguay need a shake-up. At least Uruguay have their best player, arch-upshaker Luis Suarez, ready to return from injury. The most surprising thing about Spain’s catastrophe is that we were surprised: the decline of the team’s key players has been plain to see in club games for more than a year.

There’s familiarity, too, in the tactical stolidity of the west African countries, so over-reliant on muscle. But so far, there’s been enough novelty in this World Cup, from the high scoring to the wide variety of facial hair on players, to begin to justify not only our overheated television sets and laptops, but also our love of this beautiful game.

Harry Browne will be writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. His preview articles arehere and here. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author ofTheFrontman: Bono (IntheNameofPower). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter@harrybrowne