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Anyone writing about soccer, even occasionally as I’m doing here on CounterPunch, has got to be prepared to contend with the small but growing section in the bookshop devoted to respectable literature on the subject. Good sportswriting has long been a reputable if dissolute genre in American letters, and in Spanish and Italian speaking corners of the globe soccer has been analysed for decades with more care and seriousness than the stock market; the French are not too far behind.
The literature includes work by those admirable investigators who have tried to chart the swamp of stinking corporate influence and adminstrative corruption that governs the game in country after country, and whose deepest, darkest parts are occupied by FIFA, the international controlling body, which has just announced that it will make a $1 billion “reserve” — don’t call it a profit! — on this World Cup. The machinations in that organization make ordinary international politics look like a high-school Model UN competition.
However, for now I’m more concerned with those writers who have tried to come to terms with how much soccer nonetheless means to us, and why.
The English literati, having largely ignored the game for many decades, got very excited about themselves when books of apparent writerly and political seriousness about soccer began to appear in the 1990s, as a part of the middle-class mission to retrieve the game from the ‘hooligan’ shadow cast over it in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nick Hornby, who went on to novelistic successes and movie adaptations, made his name first with the heartfelt and miserabilist Fever Pitch in 1992, documenting a year in his life as a supporter of north London club Arsenal — though I knew obsessives who cast doubt on the depth of Hornby’s devotion.
Two years later similar accolades went to Simon Kuper’s study-cum-travel-book about soccer and politics, Football Against the Enemy (published in the US as Soccer Against the Enemy), which led him to an enviable career writing serious articles about sport in leading British and Dutch publications.
For those of us who have long cared about soccer and taken its international social and political significance for granted, the reaction to Kuper’s book in particular was frustrating. British reviewers and prize-givers seemed so excited that such a thing could be written that they overlooked the superficiality of Kuper’s work, which in a globe-spanning 18 chapters never got deeper than a magazine feature and rarely delved into the core working-class support for the game. The last straw for me was when Kuper travelled to the Celtic-versus-Rangers match in Glasgow from Belfast — itself a good idea — but with a fans’ club consisting of university students.
Kuper, barely more than a student himself at the time he researched the book, was honest enough to acknowledge that in the rest of the world the soccer-politics axis was old news. “In Argentina,” he wrote, “it is an unoriginal theme. There, football and politics is a respected academic field, almost like particle physics or neurology.” But in Britain he was acclaimed for little more than travelling to various countries to ascertain that, yes indeed, the connection between soccer and politics exists. The discussion has advanced in the last 16 years, but not far: too many people will continue to discuss the World Cup finals tournament as though it were an expression of crude nationalisms, which conspicuously fails to explain why it will top the TV ratings in 100 countries that aren’t even participating, and fails to account for the way national identities are often and increasingly up for grabs, for players and fans alike.
Nonetheless, Kuper, who grew up mostly in Holland in a period when that country produced some of the world’s finest players, did get one thing right: the Dutch hated the Germans, and soccer was the purest expression of that hatred. (The cover of the original Orion paperback shows Frank Rijkaard staring at Rudi Völler during the 1990 World Cup, in what fans will recognise as the moment before the black half-Surinamese Dutchman spit, for a second time, into the German’s curly blond perm.) As the commentators will invariably pronounce at some point during a match involving Germany and some country it hammered in World War 2: “There’s a lot of history between these two nations.” (The Germans, by the way, manage to appear not to really hate the Dutch or anyone else.)
Kuper makes a partly persuasive argument that the Dutch hatred of the Germans has its origins in… soccer. Yes, of course the Nazi occupation left a mark, but it’s the English who repeatedly trot out World War 2 stereotypes to underscore their own rivalry with the Germans, not the Dutch. No, says Kuper, the hatred of Germany brewed quietly through the 1970s, when West Germany helped to ensure the greatest Dutch team ever failed to win any major championship, but really came to the surface in 1988 when Holland beat West Germany in Hamburg, in the semi-final of the European Championship, leading Dutch people to restrospectively connect the soccer rivalry to the anti-Nazi Resistance, and treat this victory as redemption. Kuper saw the hatred largely in cultural terms, as the fun-loving multicultural Dutch (the teams of 1988 and 1990 contained great black players) rejected the dull monocultural Krauts.
In 2010, however, it is Holland that appears to be at the cutting edge of European rejection of multiculturalism, with the rise there of anti-immigrant right-wing sentiment. And sure enough, the Dutch team is a rather colorless affair in every sense. For example, their high-scoring winger, Arjen Robben, looks like a banker: he is prematurely bald and plays his club soccer in Munich. And the Dutch qualified for this summer’s World Cup finals with efficiency that even the Germans would envy: eight games, eight wins, 17 goals scored, two conceded.
But theirs was an exceptionally weak qualifying group. The result is that they go into the South African tournament as the fourth-ranked country in the world in the official FIFA list, but with few people outside the Netherlands talking about them as potential winners. The Dutch stereotype is that the team enter the tournament with some of the world’s best players, but they argue among themselves and with the management and fall short, perhaps in a tight, bad-tempered quarter-final. Perhaps, just perhaps, this unglamorous Dutch team, with few hyped stars and little burden of expectation internationally, could go further. They certainly do not lack talent: their other main creative threat, along with Robben, is the equally bland-looking Wesley Sneijder, and an index of the two players’ ability is that, barring injury, they will face each other in the European Champions League final, the single most prestigious game in club soccer, on May 22nd. On paper, the Dutch path to the quarter-final in South Africa looks to be reasonably comfortable.
The Germans, meanwhile, are normally expected to go at least that far, however uninspired their team appears. And at least that squad now appears in various hues: children of Turkish parents are turning up in the German numbers, including excellent midfielder Mesut Ozil, and the squad can count among its strikers two Polish-born men, a naturalised Brazilian and the half-Spanish Mario Gomez. The German league, after many years when its teams trailed behind Spanish, English and Italian clubs in European competitions, is going through something of a renaissance, partly because the clubs didn’t succomb to financial bubblenomics to the same extent as their counterparts in those countries. (That upcoming Champions League final is going to be a surprisingly old-school affair, as Bayern Munich, with a Dutch manager as well as the Dutch players Robben and captain Mark van Bommel, play the equally venerable Inter Milan, though unlike in the club’s Sixties glory days, Inter has hardly any Italian players.)
Part of the middle-class soccer revival in western Europe has been an interest in soccer tourism, and Germany has a great reputation among the tourists as a place where you can still attend games and buy a few beers in compact stadiums packed with enthusiastic mixed-class crowds; and in recent years the league is not always dominated by the same two or three clubs.
The overall consequence of this charming combination of change and tradition is probably the least hated German World Cup team in living memory.
But maybe the Germans are better off being hated. The cliché that invariably travels with them, “never write off the Germans”, is worth rolling out again, though without much conviction this year. This is not the Germany of Franz Beckenbauer, the great player of the 1970s who was, briefly, a great manager, lifting the World Cup both as playing captain in 1974 and as West German manager in 1990. Since Germany began playing as a unified country, it has never done better than the runner-up position earned in 2002.
Every four years soccer fans approach the World Cup looking at what appears to be a limited German team and try to think the unthinkable: could Germany — three times winners, seven times finalists — actually be knocked-out in the group phase, for the first time ever? Well, the Germans have not even lost a group game since 1986 (when they nonetheless rolled on to the final), but they are not necessarily safe this time, with only two teams to proceed from a four-team group that includes the rising talents of Serbia, the African power Ghana and the doggedly defensive Australia — the ‘Socceroos’ will surely try to squeeze the Germans into a dull draw in their first game on June 13th.
The tournament draw has kept the Dutch and Germans apart until at least the semi-final, or, if they both win their groups, the final. While there is something to be said for northern European teams in this World Cup, as the South African winter in June and July won’t tax them with undue heat, it’s hard to see these Dutch or Germans toiling to a renewal of their old rivalry in such late stages. Sadly, North Korea and South Korea are similarly separated, and considerably less likely to progress that far. We will probably have to find some other local hatreds to entertain us: how about the off-chance of Serbia vs Slovenia in the second round, or, just maybe, USA vs Mexico in the quarters?