June 19, 2013
An Ode to the World Cup
Posted on Jun 10, 2010
The World Cup is a complicated phenomenon, an event as unparalleled in prestige as it is in contradiction. On the one hand millions upon millions of dollars are spent on the spectacle while the poverty of this year’s host country, South Africa, is conveniently swept aside in the face of stadiums and luxury hotel that serve as symbols of “development” and “modernization.” And on the same hand we also gladly embrace the general timbre on nationalism, an organizing device that pits human beings against each other in a senseless division of our species—a situation that seems particularly inappropriate given the recent flurries of violence between the U.S. and Mexico, Palestine and Israel, and North and South Korea.
But on the other (and admittedly more trivial) hand is the game itself. If you’ve never had the chance to yell “Goal!” at the top of your lungs, I strongly urge you to do so. This exhalation, the truest and most natural in the human world, is a cherished treasure of the most siren-calling sort, an infectious, slightly intelligible slur that evokes an immediate camaraderie with anyone within ear shot. To celebrate a goal is to manifest passion, steamy in its ability to conjure up excitement and earnest in its longevity and unbridled devotion. One can sing along to a song or feign interest in a conversation, but to yell “Goal!” is to be true, honest and beautiful. It is to be entrapped in a collectivity, to vocally release in a cathartic swirl of “go” and “ol” soundings with your colleagues that requires no pitch and no rhythm: just noise, breath and brilliance.
This might seem overly romantic, and it surely is. But what other sport is so akin to love, where chants and songs echo the pathos of a torn suitor (“I’ll love you more each day”), the obsession of an unrelenting stalker (“I’ll follow you wherever you go”), or even the murderous but patriotic frenzy of fascist shock troopers (“We’ll kill the opposition”). And what other sport has become so poetic, a metaphor for war (as Mexican literary superstar Octavio Paz repeatedly said), globalization (a popular book on the subject is titled “How Soccer Explains the World”), or national psyche (as explained by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano in his “Soccer in Sun and Shadow”). So bearing both rhetorical spoils and unbridled passion we enter the forum where these irrationalities come into full view.
The first match of the World Cup begins Friday in South Africa, marking the first in a month of games whose final is likely to be watched, according to conservative estimate, by almost three times the number of people who watched the Super Bowl. The stakes in the Cup are of the highest dramatic order: Legends are made, careers are ruined, and the empowering ecstasy of a win is subsequently castrated only by a team’s eventual defeat as the tournament progresses. The Cup can demonstrate the best of humans in the skill of the sport, the worst of humans in the sorry outbreaks of violence that surround it, and the ambiguous middle ground exemplified by the promise of Argentine national coach/former soccer god Diego Maradona to streak down the streets of Buenos Aires if his team wins.
The Cup is an event that serves many different masters, from the state to corporate sponsorship to the people themselves. Yet the Cup most certainly isn’t just a bread-and-circuses moment, a contemporary equivalent of Roman distraction in which we forget about injustice or our own relative despair as we drunkenly demand the metaphorical blood of a red card or mourn for the metaphorical death of a missed penalty. Rather it provides us with a moment of solidarity, a moment quite unlike the Olympics with its focus on national pride and the athletic specimen—the project of masculine power, of which country can birth the finest specimens of the human species from the loins of the motherland. The Cup is also about pride, but pride in the most collective and egalitarian sense: creating a solidarity almost unmatched by politics, religion or other forms of fandom. It affiliates itself with a kind of public nationalism, of what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community,” that doesn’t necessarily interface with the ruling government of a country. Instead it is a nationalism of shared experience and collectivity, of attentively watching one’s team play on the world’s stage while knowing that the entirety of his or her country is doing the same.
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