Welcome to the bandwagon. Take a seat and snuggle in with one billion of your closest friends as Lapham’s Quarterly introduces its World Cup correspondents Joshua Jelly-Schapiro and Simon Maxwell Apter, who will be glued to the television at all ungodly hours of the day for the next month to bring you the history behind the matches: the unforgiven losses; the downfall of empires, football and otherwise; the curious specter of the Falklands War; team USA’s continued
global dominance ability to kick and pass, and the essential unrelenting absurdities of the world’s pastime.
Late last month, as the minds of soccer fans and the world at large began to turn Cup-ward to the grandest of all sporting spectacles, the world’s largest sporting corporation released an ad that quickly broke the record for the most watched viral ad ever, with 7.8 million You Tube views in the first week (the current tally is almost 14 million). Nike’s three-minute “Write the Future” features some of the game’s most iconic stars: England’s Wayne Rooney, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and Didier Drogba of Côte d’Ivoire (who may or may not make it onto the field). Capturing the players’ on-field movements in fetching slo-mo, the ad is hardly the first to dramatize the qualities of grace and grit its makers wish to convey. What’s unique about “Write the Future”—which was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the in-demand Mexican filmmaker of Babel fame—are its cutaways from the action: to an African city erupting in ecstasy at Drogba’s moves; a stock-market’s rises and falls in response to Rooney’s heroics. The ad is suffused with the same treacly, everything’s-connected conceit as Iñárritu’s films. And well it should be—what happens in World Cup stadiums, as the ad and its fans well know, can both shape and reflect larger dramas in the world.
For the American audience, soccer changes our global outlook, making us feel cultured and sophisticated, creating the illusion that we’re not really watching sports, but instead some kind of international caucus. Soccer lets us embrace poor sportsmanship and prima donnas, sporting brilliance and even smoking on the field, in a way that briefly allows us a respite from the doping, sex scandals, and tired celebrity pairings of our own beleaguered sports stars.
It’s well known, but not entirely accepted, that the U.S. is not the best at soccer by any means. If you believe the official rankings (which no self-respecting fan does), Team USA sits at number fourteen, a little worse than Greece and a little better than Serbia. This is noteworthy because it’s refreshing when the world doesn’t have to acquiesce to “Do as we say” bullying. Americans have loved telling Europeans what to do and how to do it ever since D-Day and the Marshall Plan, so any time a Swiss-based organization like FIFA says “no,” it’s like putting on a brand new, starched white shirt. Michael Phelps won all of his gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the morning, so that his victories could be broadcast live in America during primetime. In South Africa, the World Cup kicks off at 9:30am ET on a weekday. And it will kick off at 9:30—rare is the FIFA event at which the opening whistle is more than fifty-nine seconds late. It will last ninety minutes flat with no commercial interruptions, making the most watched sporting event also one of the most expensive to air.
Of course, whenever a nation allows itself to be represented by an athletic team, we find ourselves getting squad and state mixed up. But blessedly, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it allows for fabulous allusions to history, art, and current events. Most Argentine and English players were born after the 1982 Falklands War, for example, but that doesn’t stop commentators and fans from treating each subsequent meeting between the two nations’ teams as yet another battle in that short little skirmish. Spain will play Chile on June 25, so why can’t we use the occasion to reacquaint ourselves with nineteenth-jcentury South American independence leaders Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín? Will a Benedict Arnold strike the American side when they take on England on June 12? (Update: Or did the British have a traitor in keeper Robert Green, who, after a fumbled goal for a 1-1 tie with the US, may never be able to show his face in a pub again.)
Soccer is not merely our planet’s most popular sport by far; it may also be our most global human activity. If this is true of the game at large, then the World Cup—the most-watched televisual spectacle on the planet, with an average audience of 93 million for each of the 2006 matches—is an event unsurpassed not only in dramatizing the world’s nations’ relations with one another, but in providing an avenue for humankind to imagine itself as a species possessed of profound affinities and shared desires. That the World Cup will be held on the African continent for the first time—and in a nation with a particular historical and political resonance in the world’s mind, as the place where old-style racist colonialism was finally vanquished from the planet—renders these dramas only more piquant.
Over the course of the month-long tournament—in conjunction with LQ’s Summer 2010 issue, “Sports and Games”—we will be blogging about some of the historical dramas being played out in South Africa. While both of us are obsessive fans who will be spending much of our waking life over the next month scrutinizing on-field tactics and techniques, we won’t be oversharing those musings here. Rather, in describing the tournament’s matchups, we mean to highlight some of the historical and social resonances of those contests beyond the field of play: relations between colonizer and colonized; Old World and New; Teutonic technocracy and tropical flair.
The extent to which the foibles and fortunes of the World Cup’s stars can in fact write the future may vary: World Cup matches have served, at times, not merely to allegorize wars but also start them. That doesn’t mean, thankfully, that they always will. And wars or no, it’s hard to undercredit the historical import of an event that billions of people will spend this summer engaged with static-filled screens and HD alike. Those billions will be projecting myriad narratives, historical and otherwise, onto what they see on those screens. We look forward to highlighting a small few, and to exploring what the soccer writer Phil Ball meant when he wrote that “the essential absurdity of football—that it has become so important—is nine-tenths of the poetry.”June 11, 2010
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