Who Should We Root For?

“Harry, keep it simple for us sports fans/idiots,” a CounterPunch reader emailed me last week. “As with the Phoenix Suns, is there any political or moral reason to support one team over another in the World Cup?”

In my reply, I hazarded a few nationalities, but insisted we had to wait for the games to begin before we could decide or advise definitively who to support.

As of Monday afternoon in Ireland as I write this, we’ve seen most of the 32 teams playing. Although we cannot speak with certainty when such compelling candidates as Brazil, Italy, Ivory Coast, Portugal and Spain have yet to appear — we’ll turn to them later in the week — it’s possible to start addressing the question seriously.

The reader mentions the Phoenix Suns, presumably because of the way they took a stand against the Arizona immigration law by wearing their promotional “Los Suns” jerseys. So let’s start with the teams who say something on the field about immigration and ethnicity.

France has been dribbling with that particular ball since at least the 1998 finals, the embodiment of a ‘new France’ narrative, as I’ve written about previously . However, on the field, despite all the talent in their team, on Friday night as they drew 0-0 with Uruguay they were the very definition of dissonance. Now, there is no suggestion that the palpable unhappiness among the French is racial in origin — the fact that black player Florent Malouda apparently had to be restrained from assaulting white manager Raymond Domenech before the game is presumably more to do with Domenech’s stupidity than either man’s skin colour — and dissonance can be interesting; but there is no reason to support an unhappy team.

Their opponents that night, Uruguay, are also multiracial, though not to the same extent as France. Their football was, however, also unbeautiful. Plus they play South Africa this week, and it is never good form, even in the quiet of your own attic, to root against the host-team, especially at least when it’s an underdog. So while we may revisit Uruguay, for the sake of writer Eduardo Galeano if nothing else, for now they’re out of our reckoning.

The unlikely leader in the race to reflect our migratory species with beautiful football has been Germany, who in a 4-0 win got goals from two Poles and a Brazilian, all naturalised German citizens. And their best player, Mesut Ozil, is a German-born 21-year-old with Turkish parents. Plus they’re a young squad. Germany may turn out to be not quite as good as they looked against sluggish Australian defenders, but they are as likeable as any team that has appeared to date, and thankfully shattered the two-goal maximum that governed the first seven games of the tournament, which is worth some goodwill.

Sadly, on Monday the dull Dutch and Danes returned to the cautious rules of the first three days. Neither made any demands on our sympathies, though both have qualities that could just-about see them last an extra week or (in the Dutch case) two weeks in the tournament. If the Dutch give more playing time to the exciting young attackers Eljero Elia and Ibrahim Afellay, we could even learn to love them.

So how about some global underdogs, teams from the regions who quadrennially struggle against the Euro/South American axis?

So far, Ghana are the only Africans who look capable of serious advancement. Their game against Serbia was interesting, albeit marred by the ‘counter-attacking’ approach of both teams, as each waited for the other to make an attack to be countered. (Algeria vs Slovenia was similar, except with poorer players.) Ghana play decent football married to an extraordinary muscular physical presence — man, just look at them in those tight white shirts. And there are other attractions: Ghana is a very poor country, the poorest one represented at the tournament, but it has probably the richest, most interesting football history on the African continent, reaching back to its colonial days as the ‘Gold Coast’. Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah gave the team their name, the Black Stars, based on the name of Marcus Garvey’s ‘back to Africa’ shipping company, the Black Star Line. (Yes, classic-reggae fans, it’s that Black Star Line.) It is an intriguing connection, not least because critics like Colonel Gaddafi have been labelling the football industry’s treatment of African players as “modern slavery”. Come on, Ghana!

Then there’s South Korea, whose 2-0 against a miserable Greek side was one of the best performances of the first three days. If the noise of the vuvuzelas in the World Cup stadia is like a swarm of bees, then South Korea were the visual correlative: constantly in motion, fast, moving coherently as a group, potentially deadly. If they don’t succumb to colony collapse disorder, they’ll be dangerous again: Thursday’s game against Argentina will be a fascinating test for both teams.

Ah, Argentina …. Although they somehow managed to score only one goal against a timid and disjointed Nigeria, Argentina strengthened their grip on my politics of aesthetics. With four or five attacking players constantly changing positions and exchanging short passes, and with the finest player in the world, Lionel Messi, at the heart of all that beauty, I found myself weeping tears of joy before the first 10 minutes were through, as I tried to explain the Argentina tactics to my five-year-old. Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyema credited his own magnificent performance to the intercession of God, but football fans know that God is the Argentina manager.

That manager, Diego Maradona, lived up to our expectations, appearing 90 minutes before the game to greet the crowd and kiss the warming-up Nigerian players as though they were long-lost lovers. He has trimmed his beard so that it is less Castro, more Satan, and some of his decisions were a bit diabolical. But the team selection, and the attacking substitutions he made when he should have been defending a one-goal lead, at least spoke of his love for the game as it should be played. His team’s physical fitness might, however, be questionable on Saturday’s evidence.

There is another reason to support this Argentine team, and that is that they don’t so much represent ‘Argentina’ as they do the Argentine and Latin American left. Flags around the old bastion of apartheid, the Johannesburg rugby stadium — and there were so many flags that clearly some Argentines have sent their banners with friends to South Africa while they watch the games at home on TV in Buenos Aires — reflected the ubiquitous Che iconography that also features in tattoos on Maradona and his veteran captain, Juan Veron.

But you really want to know: can we possibly chant “USA USA”? My brother phoned to let me know he found himself doing so on Saturday afternoon among a crowd of hairy hipsters in a trendy Brooklyn bar, so I guess anything is possible. And when Glenn Beck starts denouncing the World Cup as another pernicious emanation of Obamism, you really do want to see the US getting behind it. Not only soccer’s marginal position in US life but also the team’s demographics are rather endearing.

The very reason that the US soccer team has not excelled — because the game is, apart from immigrant strongholds, a largely middle-class phenomenon — is also a big part of the national team’s attraction: it is among the most socio-economically ‘representative’ side in the World Cup finals, with a mix of college boys and immigrants’ children, instead of the more typical backgrounds of poverty of most elite sportsmen.

But are the USA any good? Frankly, no. They are lucky, not only for the goalkeeping error that gifted them their goal against England, but also because of the group they’ve drawn: the only display of poorer quality than England vs USA was Algeria vs Slovenia in the same group. But compared to the Germans, Argentines, South Koreans and Ghanaians, even the Mexicans, the Brits and Yanks alike looked like they were wearing lead boots. For a glimpse of how the USA might fare against better opponents, see how Australia (admittedly slightly poorer defensively than the US) were demolished by Germany.

The England goal happened because the Americans were mesmerized watching Wayne Rooney, England’s only great player, and when he let the ball run past him they didn’t know where to look. Other teams, albeit not in the Americans’ group stage, will have many more mesmerizing players.
No, you should not ask someone in Dublin for an objective assessment of England. I admit they are likely to get better as the tournament proceeds, but that’s mainly because they could scarcely get any worse.

But, even if we accept the corporate/nationalist logic of international football — and I know many of you don’t — should we be supporting this World Cup at all? I’ve loved it, like a fool, but objectively it hasn’t been great. In the mostly-cagey first seven games of the tournament, no striker managed to score from play, and two of the mere nine goals scored came from goalkeepers’ fumbles. Then Monday the Danes gifted the Dutch a comical own-goal.

Is it all the fault of the vuvuzelas? Or of this Adidas ball, newly introduced for the tournament, star of a TV close-up at the start of each game, and seemingly disinclined to come down once it’s gone up? (Is it any coincidence, Adidas being a German company, that Germany have been the team who have most looked like masters of the ball?)

Then there’s a suspicion that the TV cameras in South Africa are not showing us just how white the crowds are, especially in the best seats.

I’ll concede all that is wrong with the World Cup in principle and in practice. Then I’ll enjoy the football.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. His previous articles in this World Cup series have looked at Argentina, Spain, Africa, England, Holland and Germany, France and ItalyBrazil and the USA, the final squad selections and the coverage of South Africa as host . Contact harry.browne@gmail.com 

















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