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The Contradictions of the World Cup

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‘CHOLO’: I thought it said ‘Cholo’ on the wristband Jackson Martinez proudly flashed to the crowd and the camera after he scored last week. And I know just about enough Spanish to know that the word ‘cholo’ signifies, via a roundabout etymological route, a sort of sharp-dressed Latino macho man — as in the nickname of former Argentine player, now Atlético Madrid manager, Diego ‘Cholo’ Simeone. Quite why the Colombian Martinez would be paying this sort of conspicuous tribute to a cholo was, however, beyond my understanding.

And then, somehow, I had a conversation in Budapest the other day with a Norwegian leftist and football-lover who used to live in Bogotá, and he mentioned Martinez’s wristband. It doesn’t say ‘Cholo’ at all. It says ‘Chocó’, the name of the northern-Colombian region where Martinez was born, the poorest, blackest, most despised of the country’s 32 departments. Waved in the overwhelmingly white faces of the Colombian fans gathered at the World Cup venues in Brazil, Martinez’s band is a badge of distinction, a small symbol but a powerful message, of a pride that refuses to serve any national narrative the Colombian regime may wish to impose on the team’s success.

That success may not survive this Friday’s encounter with Brazil, but the many-coloured Colombian team has been, so far, the most complete unit that has appeared in the tournament, with perhaps the best player in James Rodriguez. Certainty about their absolute quality still awaits better opposition, but they have shrugged off every problem thrown at them and had the nearest thing to an ‘easy’ win of the second round. Rodriguez was marked into an unfamiliar insignificance in most of that game against Suarez-less Uruguay, but popped up with two great goals. And Colombia’s players showed the requisite cynicism too, spending the first ten minutes of the match shrieking to the referee every time a Uruguayan breathed on them, effectively disarming what might have been Uruguay’s best tactic: kicking the shit out of them.

If only Nigeria had thought of shouting their ref out of his torpor and into the game. For long stretches of their match against France, the American referee Mark Geiger seemed to forget what he was supposed to be doing there. At one point, after failing to call a clear penalty against Patrice Evra, Geiger went over to chat to Evra, as if to warn him not to do it again — which merely served to underline that he had seen the offence he failed to penalise. He seemed to do the same when Olivier Giroud threw an elbow at John Obi Mikel.  I’m not sure Geiger’s performance was based on bias: as the first US ref to reach this stage of the competition, he may simply have frozen himself into an incapacity to make any big decision. What’s undoubtedly true, though, is that France was much better than Nigeria at colonising the space for dirty play left by Geiger’s incompetence, and that fact largely determined the game’s outcome. (He didn’t personally make the questionable offside call that cost Nigeria a goal, a decision that also helped defeat them.) Much has been made of Didier Deschamps’ timely substitution of Giroud with Antoine Griezmann, but at least as important was the enforced removal a few minutes earlier of Ogenyi Onazi by Blaise Matuidi’s disgusting ankle-breaking tackle. Geiger belongs on the plane home with the US team.

And so the catalogue of what-might-have-beens for African teams in the World Cup knockout stages gets ever-thicker. At least Algeria lost fair and square to Germany, their superiority undone by an incapacity to be quite as sharp and well coordinated into the Germans’ penalty area as they were elsewhere on the field. I was reminded of a game I attended in 1994, Nigeria’s last-16 clash with Italy in Foxboro, Massachusetts, when the Africans — a much better collection of players than this year’s Nigerians — were undone by a mix of tactical caution up front and an inexplicable failure to hold the ball for a final minute or two, when they looked fully capable of dancing around the Italians all afternoon. (The Italian fascists around me in the stadium permanently tempered my support for the country of my mother’s parents, and I certainly cheered for the Africans that day.) This latest lousy World Cup for Africa, in spite of being the second consecutive one held in the ‘Global South’, has grimly highlighted the problems for the continent’s football, with an inevitable emphasis on money. The possibility that some Cameroon players were throwing matches at the World Cup shows how the injustice and corruption of the global economic order are seriously damaging football — but don’t expect FIFA to do anything about that.

The German victory on Monday was greeted with relief by elites in France, who feared the political and policing consequences of a quarterfinal match against Algeria more than the football threat of Germany. They have historical reasons  for feeling the fear, stretching back at least to a 2001 ‘friendly’ game between the countries. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone (me included) who is inclined to take too much political comfort of any sort from the World Cup.

Like Roger Cohen, for ex,ample. His effort  in the New York Times to label the tournament as somehow ‘socialist’ — and unlike the hilariously unhinged Ann Coulter, to regard that as a good thing — echoes some points that I made around here  a few weeks ago, though I didn’t share his idealising of the finances of Atlético Madrid. The `shortcomings of his argument have a little to do with poor timing: his article appeared in the midst of the elimination of most of the teams he praises, and just before Matuidi, the player he called the embodiment of his beloved French side’s decency and work-ethic, shattered an opponent’s bones.

But how could anyone who has been watching what Cohen calls the “anti-individual World Cup” fail to notice that, more than I can ever remember, a series of supposedly big teams are being carried by the talents of truly exceptional individuals? Neymar hobbles into the quarterfinal as Brazil’s one and only hope, the singular embodiment of his country’s genius for the game; Argentina, more surprisingly, have only the sublime Messi to make and/or score goals (though Di Maria made a late bid for a best supporting actor nomination on Tuesday); Thomas Müller has been the one player capable of making things happen for Germany, unless you count the incredible sweeping  of keeper Manuel Neuer; the Dutch demonstrate that a team can be shockingly one-dimensional in attack if that dimension is as penetrating, by fair means or foul, as Aryen Robben; and Luis Suarez breathed life into Uruguay, then bit it out again. It’s true that there have been some great efforts from less star-studded teams, but the alleged egalitarians have been falling one by one to the power of superstars. The late, great Spain team, champions of 2010, embodied Cohen’s ‘socialism’ more than any of the one-man-oriented selections most likely to win the World Cup this year.

That’s not to say, of course, that this is, on the field, an especially ‘capitalist’ World Cup. Brilliant individual expression certainly has a place in any socialism I’d like to see. But Cohen, like so many Americans who seek for whatever reason to glorify soccer, has made himself blind to its contradictions.

Those Americans can take some comfort after Tuesday’s exit from the competition. They are, for example, exceptionally blessed in the right-back role: Fabian Johnson, perhaps the best player in that position for any team throughout the tournament, went off injured early and was replaced by young DeAndre Yedlin, who quickly looked like the second-best player in that position. That’s a sharp contrast with the thin pickings up front unfortunately: Chris Wondolowski looks like a lovely guy who won a raffle in his local bar, and the prize was to play in the World Cup. He would nearly have compensated for his injury-time skyrocket if Clint Dempsey had finished Wondolowski’s clever would-be assist in that cute extra-time free-kick routine.

Soccer culture seems alive and well in the US, regardless of the postponement for another four years of conversations about its ‘breakthrough’ — but it’s hard not to imagine the possible blessings of a US men’s national team that would be as reliant on Latino talent as Klinsmann’s is on half-Germans. Despite the hype about the manager, this was a very, very familiar USA, one that Coach Bob Bradley would have been proud of: gutsy, brave, athletic, but technically and tactically limited, and going home mid-tournament.

Some further comfort might be taken in the fact that the last eight teams left in the World Cup are all the group winners, and of those only Costa Rica was a real outsider. Seven of the quarterfinalists might well have been predicted before the tournament began. For all the drama, tension, extra-time exhaustion and tight, see-sawing games, we haven’t really seen ‘surprises’ in the last few days. And though we have seen some excellent play, in attack and defence, we haven’t seen much in the way of sustained high-quality football either.

For the most part, we seem to have been watching these sportsmen enduring unbelievable pressure. Brazil vs Chile was the worst of it, as error-ridden as any game I’ve seen at this level, capped by a pretty crappy series of penalty kicks, but its pressure-cooker was not unique. Hopefully, having got to this very respectable stage of the tournament — only Brazil and Argentina would have been really embarrassed beforehand at the prospect of a quarterfinal exit — the remaining players will now be ready to come out and play.

Harry Browne is writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter@harrybrowne

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne

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