We hear it every four years: the World Cup hasn’t really begun until we see Brazil come out and play their inimitable brand of samba soccer.
On such terms, this World Cup has yet to begin. In truth, if we take it literally, we haven’t really had a World Cup begin in at least 20 years. Brazilian football’s unique selling point, the ‘brand’ that allows random Brazilians to set up ‘samba soccer’ summer-schools across the Western world, bears hardly any resemblance to how the national ‘seleção’ actually plays.
Apart from Robinho’s charming but repetitive tendency to indulge in fancy step-overs, Brazil couldn’t even turn on the style on Tuesday against a dogged but extremely limited North Korean team. Even leaving that country’s regime aside, the notion of breeding a powerful soccer squad in the isolation of Pyongyang goes against the cosmopolitan, miscegenating spirit of football — North Korea’s best players were two who live and play abroad.
But Brazil won, which is what the game, as opposed to the art, demands — even as fans back home and around the world wept for the missing art. And by playing a cautious game against one of the tournament’s weakest teams, they got in some practice for the tougher tests ahead. All over the field, Brazil seemed to want to emphasize that they are bigger, stronger, faster, rather than more beautiful, than the opposition. It was merely a happy accident that the biggest, strongest, fastest man in the game, Brazil’s incredible right-back Maicon, also contributed a beautiful goal.
In South America, in particular, there has been for at least half-a-century a debate between football’s romantics and its pragmatists, sometimes expressed as fútbol arte vs anti-fútbol. It is not, strictly speaking, a Left versus Right debate: in the early days of the argument, especially, there were plenty of political left-wingers who advocated the rigorous collective endeavor and frequent success of essentially negative soccer. But it seems to me that the occasional romanticism of the New Left, alllied to specific teams such as the almost-hippyish, ultra-democratic Dutch club and national sides of the Seventies, left the argument with, at least, a political coloration for the last 40 years. This version of the divide is also sustained by fútbol arte’s decline in international soccer at the same time as the game has become a commercial plaything of TV multinationals and corporate sponsors.
So it feels like no mere coincidence that football’s leading anti-imperialist, Diego Maradona, is also in this World Cup one of its leading advocates of artistic football. (The fact that he is treated like a crazy outsider by the soccer establishment makes him all the more endearing.) There is some historical irony in this, since Argentine clubs and coaches were notorious pioneers of anti-fútbol. While it would be wrong at this early stage to identify 2010’s Brazil with the tag — there are plenty of teams more deserving of being called anti-fútbol at this tournament — it is something of a twist for fans of a certain vintage to be supporting Argentina over Brazil because of the high style of the Argentines’ play.
Argentina’s style remained pretty high on Thursday in their second game, when they eventually hammered a very good South Korean team, 4-1. Among the positive signs were the sparkling performance of Carlos Tevez, the fact that previously misfiring striker Gonzalo Higuaín made his mark, and the sound of the Argentine fans outsinging the vuvuzelas. More worrying was the injury to defender Walter Samuel, probably the only really solid link in the wonky chain that the Argentines call a defense: the result was the whole team turning nervous for much of the second half.
The last time Argentina went to the World Cup playing something like fútbol arte was in 2002, with their obsessive coach Marcelo Bielsa (from a prominent Perónist family) trying to marry technocratic detail with ‘the way the game should be played’. The team, full of talent, failed utterly. This year Bielsa is managing Chile, whose performance against Honduras was one of the most joyously entertaining of this tournament so far. It was merely Honduras, but you can only play against the opponent placed before you, and Chile fearlessly attacked the game as few other teams have done in this World Cup. The surprise, and the worry, was that they scored only one goal.
Still, that’s one goal more than Spain managed, as they were defeated 1-0 by Switzerland on Wednesday. If the Swiss can fairly be accused of anti-fútbol — though you might not blame them, against the European champions and pre-tournament favorites — then the Spanish embodied the deficiencies of fútbol arte. With two-thirds of the possession, the Spanish seemed to think a goal would inevitably come as a consequence of their essential superiority. Instead, their defenders’ complacency allowed Switzerland in for a goal amidst a veritable ballet of tumbling bodies, and their attackers didn’t rise to the standards expected of them. Spain were insufficiently beautiful, maybe; insufficiently effective, for sure. (Given that Spain usually start brilliantly in tournaments before a knock-out phase collapse, maybe straw-clutchers can take their defeat as a good omen.)
In any case, aesthetic politics can take you, as a fan, only so far. Take, for example, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. He is unquestionably a beautiful man — as that nearly nude Vanity Fair cover illustrates — and a footballer of enormous elegance on the field. His long-range shot against Ivory Coast would have been a strong early contender for goal of the tournament if it had bounced into the goal off the post instead of bouncing away. And yet he is one of the least-loved greats in world soccer, partly because of the unlovable clubs he has played for, but mostly because of his petulance and tendency to dive to the ground in order to win free-kicks and get defenders in trouble. He also tends to fade in adversity. It is easy to imagine that the Uruguayan referee of Tuesday’s game has, like hundreds of millions of fans around the world, cursed at his TV when watching Ronaldo. The result: Ronaldo got an undeserved yellow-card from the ref, seemingly based more on his reputation than his actions. And most of us watching were probably pleased about the karma of the injustice.
Portugal’s opponents in that scoreless game, Ivory Coast, made few appeals to our artistic sensibilities. The way Ivory Coast finished the game, killing time instead of going for a winning goal, was infuriating for more than aesthetic reasons. If their Group of Death ends, as well it might, with Portugal and Brazil playing out a convenient draw that sends them both through and eliminates Ivory Coast, the Africans will have only themselves (and their rather vacuously pragmatic manager, Sven Goran Eriksson) to blame. Ivory Coast were better than Portugal, but didn’t make sure the scoreboard reflected that fact.
The European capital of anti-fútbol has tended to be Italy, and Italians have rarely made any bones about it. Evidence of the Italian devotion to pragmatism that borders on cynicism, and often crosses the border, is that they have a special and slightly condescending name for the unpredictable, creative footballer — they call him a fantasista. Implied in the terminology is that there is room for only one such player, at most, in each team. The current Italian team has none at all. Their proverbial slow start, with a 1-1 draw against Paraguay, means those South Americans now have a great chance of progressing, though Paraguay were no great shakes against Italy.
It has nonetheless been an exceptionally good tournament so far for South Americans. Alongside Paraguay’s creditable result against the defending champions Italy, the other four South American nations — comprising the cone of the continent, with Brazil the ice-cream on top — have all won games. Uruguay, their reputation for cynicism preceding them, were unpopular 3-0 winners against the hosts on Wednesday, but they had outplayed South Africa thoroughly, occasionally even beautifully with Diego Forlan as a quasi-fantasista, even before they got an unwarranted gift from the referee.
European teams, on the other hand, have started sluggishly: with 13 European countries in South Africa, the only European winners of any games as of Thursday afternoon have been the minnows Slovenia, Germany, plus the Dutch and Swiss — the latter two each beating other European teams.
Ghana apart, the tournament has been a disappointment, nearing disaster, for African teams. As their failure comes into focus over the coming days, the chances of serious discontent among South Africans about the corruption and waste of the World Cup must surely rise; already there has been labor unrest among underpaid stewards. The fact that police saw fit to attack, eject and arrest a group of pretty women for their part in a stadium beer-marketing stunt — for a non-Official-World-Cup brand, of course — shows again the warped priorities of FIFA and the South African organizing committee.
Earlier this week I wondered here in CounterPunch which team we unattached and promiscuous fans should root for, for “political or moral reasons”. I took some criticism from readers for answering this question largely in terms of how well teams were playing. Wouldn’t we be better off asking which countries we actually like, in terms of foreign policy, social justice, treatment of poor people and immigrants etc, and then rooting for them? I say No — not only because a country’s football team is not the same as its state, its government or its society, though it has interesting and complex relationships to all of these things; not only because you could end up supporting lousy teams, if you can find any to support at all; but because in football so much interesting morality and politics happen on the playing field. While it’s natural to feel an itch against England because of, say, BP’s destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, it is most satisfying to scratch that itch for 90 minutes with observations about the bureaucratic, anti-fútbol inelegance of their soccer.