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The Best Teams Got There and I Hope Catalunya Wins

Everyone is playing the soccer sociology game. A week ago, before the quarterfinals, I was out kicking a ball with my daughter when a local seven-year-old, Henry, explained to me what was happening in South Africa: “The countries that are still in the World Cup are very poor. The children don’t have X-Boxes or PlayStations so they have to be out playing football all the time.” Henry spoke with the slight nagging guilt of a child who has a games console but is nonetheless out playing football all the time.

Then we had the four amazing quarterfinals, each of them won by the richer country. And the equally good, if less breathtaking, semifinals left us with two European countries in the final, each of them near the top of the global rankings for the percentage and youth of their games-console players.

Sorry, Henry. Another catch-all theory bites the dust — you might as well go with the psychic octopus over poverty as the better predictor of World Cup success.

Ah, but come on, we can’t leave it at that. What we have witnessed in the past few weeks must have something to do with how children in various countries grow up with the game, the numbers who are exposed to it, the hours they put in. The unexpected success of Germany in reaching the semifinal with an exceptionally young team rightly brought attention to how the German football federation has encouraged youth academies at all the major domestic-league clubs in the country, and used those academies to favor children who qualify to play for Germany. That, in turn, has presumably encouraged children who might qualify for other countries to choose German as their footballing nationality, if not their emotional one: look at all the ethnic non-Germans in the German team who don’t sing the national anthem.

Leaving the questionable pressure of identity politics aside, what can we see? Here, at the top of the global game, at an African World Cup where the idea of a dusty child kicking a bundle of rags across a pitted field has reached its apogee as the archetypal image of ‘the world’s game’, we are seeing the ‘academic’ reality of soccer excellence. The German academies are now relegated to the footnotes, since the German team is an also-ran, but the World Cup final on Sunday, to a huge extent, features boys nurtured in what have long been regarded as the world’s two finest youth-development systems, the football academies of Ajax of Amsterdam and of FC Barcelona.

To be sure, few of these players are from elite backgrounds in Spain or the Netherlands. But they are young men of the global North, raised in relatively affluent and (post-Franco) permissive societies. At these clubs, which some joined before they reached puberty, they typically learned to play creative, free-flowing soccer, and weren’t forced into highly competitive full-sized games until they had developed easy and fluid skills from constant ball-exercises and small-sided games. (American soccer parents, please take note.) They were also ensured a decent education in non-football subjects.

But there is nothing particularly romantic about the poaching of boys from smaller clubs, the rigors of their training or the merciless culling of the inadequate that took place there. These footballers mostly emerged not from the kind of informal rough-and-tumble that creates, say, rock stars and actors, but from the sort of hard and often-cruel regimen that creates ballerinas and classical musicians.

This Sunday’s World Cup final rests on these foundations. Nine players in the Dutch squad are from the Ajax ‘system’, including five or six typical starters. The numbers for the Spanish side from Barcelona are similar. The main difference is that Ajax, playing in the relatively small Dutch league, is a ‘selling club’, so few of the players are still at the club. This tends to hide the national team’s debt of gratitude to Ajax, and to a lesser extent the other two major clubs in the Netherlands, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, both with strong youth systems, and both ‘selling clubs’ too: they basically account for the rest of the Dutch side. Barcelona, by contrast, is in the high-revenue Spanish league and, as one of the world’s richest clubs, keeps its best players. Thus six of Spain’s players have never played at any other club than Barcelona, a remarkable statistic given European soccer’s peripatetic transfer market.

(Ajax and Barcelona have other impacts on the tournament too. For example: Ajax’s feeder club in Cape Town ‘produced’ South Africa’s captain, Steven Pienaar, while Argentina’s disappointing but still sublime Lionel Messi famously crossed the ocean from Rosario to Barcelona when he was just 13.)
The Spanish national team is, if anything, an even more obvious reincarnation of the Barcelona club team than it was in winning the 2008 European championship. Watching Barcelona’s Pedro step into Spain’s starting line-up this week against Germany and do his best Messi imitation was quite remarkable. Barcelona’s failure this year to reach the final of the premier club competition, the European Champions League, may also have left these players with a crucial little ‘something to prove’.

Since Barcelona has been for many decades the principal popular standard-bearer of Catalan nationalism, it is notable that many players have made it clear they would rather not be representing ‘Spain’ at the World Cup. (Count the anthem-singers next Sunday.) Six players in the Spanish squad, including five who started against Germany, have previously played in the not-officially-recognized Catalonia ‘national team’. I wonder: when the camera caught up with goal-scorer and resilient defender Carles Puyol as he celebrated on the field after the Germany game, was that gesture he made toward the TV audience with his fingers some sort of Catalan star? This Saturday across Catalonia there will be demonstrations against a recent decision by the Spanish constitutional court that accepted most of the region’s governing statute — including allowing that Catalonia’s self-description as a ‘nation’ was okay, it being merely a symbolic word — but rejected key elements such as the primacy of the Catalan language. Then on Sunday Catalonians will gather around their televisions to see their ‘national’ heroes seek to become world champions in the colors of Spain. This phenomenon, like Catalonia itself, represents a fascinating intersection of cosmopolitanism and insularity, and a reminder that ‘nationalism’ at the World Cup is not a term to be used loosely.

The Dutch represent a somewhat more straightforward cosmopolitanism, and nationalism. Before the tournament started, I wrote appreciatively of how Spain play — as well as less appreciatively of the Dutch. All that still goes. But there is no doubt that the Netherlands can give Spain a game on Sunday — not least because Spain’s succession of one-goal wins, four in a row now, means that they leave themselves no margin for error. The Dutch too have been winning narrowly, but without the same flair.

It is instructive to contrast the two teams’ midfield geniuses. Xavi Hernandez, of Spain, Barcelona and Catalonia, is involved at almost every moment of the game, passing, passing, passing, constantly synchronizing and re-synchronizing with the movements of his teammates, seeming to learn something from the doomed manoeuvers as much as the successful ones. Wesley Sneijder, of the Netherlands, Ajax, Real Madrid and now Inter Milan, is, for club and country, a cog in a more pragmatic machine, one that plays the positional percentages and waits for opportunities to present themselves — the game may appear to pass him by, until he pounces with a decisive pass or shot. Sneijder’s goal-scoring record in the World Cup — ridiculously, five goals from seven attempts — is only a slightly aberrant statistical indication of the high effectiveness of his relatively few interventions.

Xavi vs Sneijder, Spain vs, the Netherlands, is in any case the right final for this tournament, offering an interesting stylistic contrast instead of geographical range, and the certainty of a ‘new’ World Cup winner, albeit to be chosen between the two countries who are always mentioned as the should-have-won-its. I cannot think of one other team that has been more ‘deserving’ over the last four weeks, though there are pangs of regret for Ghana, so cruelly denied, and Uruguay, who defied their villain’s role this week with a heroic and unlucky performance in the semifinal against the Dutch, though their clean decisiveness in winning the ball — they had three terriers in midfield — wasn’t matched by a capacity to move it effectively. (Plus they were always likely to get a bad break from the match officials after Suarezgate.) As for Ghana, as much as we wanted to see Africans succeed, their draw with Australia and defeat to Germany — after which they were lucky to scrape through to the knockout phase — were not the results of potential champions. Spain, by contrast, have been immaculate since an opening-game shock against Switzerland; and the Netherlands have won every game, including a fightback against Brazil.

It is just possible that the Dutch have enjoyed some sort of cultural and linguistic leg-up from playing in South Africa, with its history of Dutch colonialism and the continuing presence of the Afrikaans language. I find it very hard to get worked up, as some have done, about this as a reason to oppose the (multiracial) Dutch as some sort of carriers of Boer supremacy — but it is wonderful the way the confusion between a country’s history, its government, its society and its soccer team gets played out by watchers of the World Cup.

But if it’s all right with you, I’m going to root against the Dutch because I prefer Spain. Not their history, their imperialism, their government, their football federation, even their clashing nationalisms — just the scrupulously fair and eminently intelligent style of play of those guys who, come Sunday, will be stroking a football around a field in Soweto.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’sHammered by the Irish. Contact harry.browne@gmail.com

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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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