June 11, 2010
Quick. Name one memorable match from the 2006 World Cup.
If you’re like most people I’ve popped this question to, you are either stumped, or point to France’s Zinedine Zidane’s head butt in the finals against Italy – which is not a match but a moment and one more synonymous with professional wrestling than soccer.
Yes, folks, the last World Cup was that forgettable.
There’s a perfectly logical explanation for this.
While the World Cup is great in theory – national teams playing every four years in front of the world – and on occasion provides for some unforgettable drama, that likelihood is diminished by the sport itself, which more often than not is dull, repetitive, and predictable, with a goal here or a red card there watched among drinks with friends to convince us otherwise.
Seldom does soccer find a flow. Pass sequences are broken up. Goalies boot long balls that bounce aimlessly like a pinball off heads and shoulders. Whistles blow; the action stops, and for matters that rarely lead to anything – a throw in, a goal kick, a player flailing around on the pitch for an injury he may or may not have acquired. Soccer plays like an out-of-tune instrument that once in a long while sees those notes synchronize to produce a fleeting magical melody.
Soccer (a term invented by the Brits, who are also quick to scold those who use it in lieu of football) shares the same basic construct of most team sports, including rugby, basketball, American football, water polo, hockey, lacrosse (but not baseball and cricket). In one you may employ your feet, in another your hands or a stick. Or the ball might be prolate spheroid rather than spheroid. But in each case it’s essentially a matter of: you struggle to put an object in a target on this end, we in one on the opposite end. Soccer is more a variant than something truly unique. And it’s far less complex and varied than some of the sports just mentioned.
Soccer fans will tell you that the sport’s simplicity is one of its charms. It also limits scenarios, strategy and outcomes. The 2002 World Cup I think it was saw many weaker teams hold back on defense in the hope of going to a penalty shootout to even their odds of winning. Here one has to ask, how could such an obvious strategy that so sorely detracts from the quality of play be applied so effectively so far along in the game’s evolution? Because soccer has retained some deep flaws over the years, a fact not lost on the sport’s biggest legend, Pele, who in retirement has called for a number of basic rule changes.
Let’s turn to the leagues. The Italian league has been tainted by match fixing involving players and referees. The English and Spanish leagues are dominated by the same few teams each year (La Liga by Real Madrid and Barcelona; English Premier League by Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal), making for many irrelevant matchups with predictable outcomes indeed.
But people keep watching. Which reveals more about soccer fans than the sport itself, and that is that they are, to put it nicely, not the fussiest lot. Hence why they could miss how dull the last World Cup was until pressed to name an unforgettable match (just one).
The fan’s faithful allegiance is brilliantly lampooned in a scene of “The Simpsons” in which an American announcer is eagerly calling the opening of a match between Mexico and Portugal amid a roaring crowd. “Halfback passes to the center. Back to the wing. Back to the center. Center holds it. Holds it.…” As the monotony continues the announcer drifts toward slumber. The scene then shifts to the Mexican booth next door where interest remains feverish: “Halfback passes to center, back to wing, back to center, center holds it! Holds it! Holds it!”
The scene is also a reminder of the unyielding media hype that nurture’s the fan’s dedication. Here in Africa for months leading up to the World Cup we have been bombarded by TV ads romanticizing the sport, depicting gleeful kids on Third World sandlots, or Asians, blacks and whites bonding rapturously as one over a match of extraordinary grace. Actual pre- and post-game shows milk the same few highlights of matches lacking in real drama to give the false impression they were full of it.
More proof of the average soccer fan’s indiscriminateness can be found in his penchant for buying and actually wearing league-team jerseys. Some of the World Cup uniforms are quite handsome. But league jerseys tend to be terribly unimaginative, with a corporate logo where you would expect to find a team name. The jersey of Manchester United, the world’s most popular team, for instance, is plain red with AIG across the chest in block letters. Their rival Chelsea wears royal blue with Samsung stamped across the front. It’s the stuff that only a blindly devoted soccer fan could love, some of whom take to the web to pronounce which uni is the greatest in the world. Here is one who seems to have confused Chelsea’s uniforms for a Michelangelo. But, of course, a sport whose jerseys give priority to a corporate logo can’t claim to have a best uniform. They are all a mistake.
Before I’m accused of not understanding the sport, let it be known that I started playing in a league at age four and continued up till high school. Having played competitively, I can certainly appreciate the skills of a good footballer and the various forms they take on.
Unfortunately, the sport rarely lives up to the hype. So it’s wiser not to expect too much from this year’s Cup.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, as I hurry along to a bar down the block to catch the opening match between Mexico and host South Africa, secretly hoping this year’s Cup forces me to reconsider my position.