Thursday, May 18, 2006

Jogo bonito

filed under: | | | | |

My interest in soccer kicks in every four years when the World Cup comes around. Nevertheless, it has been on the wane over a period. This year, I feel totally clueless as to the teams, the odds, and the players to watch. I may have even skipped the telecast, but andkathleen has made a racket that's enough to raise the dead.

All soccer fans are nuts, including the ones who have never set fire to a stadium. I had the misfortune of watching the '94 tournament in a college cafeteria with a Peruvian friend. He ruined every game by talking incessantly, recycling old anecdotes from past championships. It is a still a mystery to me how he picked up on all that minutiae, since he never seemed to have the slightest interest in the action on screen.

There are two distinctive qualities about soccer. First, it is one team sport that can truly be called international, the game of humanity. The FIFA championship is not a hilarious misnomer like the World Series or the Cricket World Cup. Second, it's possibly the simplest game ever devised. No two-point conversions, onside kicks, quota of time-outs, loading of bases. No helmets, face masks, graphite rackets or special teams. You try to kick a leather sphere into a rectangular frame for 90 minutes, and that's all there is to it.

If you have ever hung out with a bunch of soccer crazies, you must have had your fill of crackpot ideas, fantastic stratagems and bizarre conspiracy theories. Never mention England's winning goal in the '66 final at Wembley to a drunk (or even a sober) German. Versailles didn't cause that much resentment, and all the talk about the grassy knoll will sound like a scientific treatise by comparison. One of the enduring sociological truisms held dear by soccerdom is that soccer style encapsulates national character, that it is an expression of cultural essence. The sparse simplicity of the game offers a tabula rasa on which individuality or cultural identity can be writ large, or so it goes.

The German team is noted for ...more »its precision power play, discipline and mental strength. Their game is linear and schematic. Much like the Volkswagen (with the obvious exception of the Beetle), what it lacks in style, it makes up in efficiency and reliability. The most famous German player of all time, Franz Beckenbauer, marshaled his entire troop from the top of the penalty area, creating a whole lot of lebensraum with ruthless determination. He was nicknamed the Kaiser! I suppose 'the Fuhrer' didn't go down well with focus groups.

The Irish couldn't be more of a contrast to the Germans. Utter confusion reigns from the moment they take the field, accompanied by a great deal of shovin' and hollerin'. If one of them perchance gets the ball, he'll give it a high and mighty kick towards the heavens, as if to say, "Stop buggin' me, you dirty bastard! Can't you see I'm havin' a jolly good time with the folks?" George Best, the greatest Irish Hall of Famer, squandered his talent through drinking and womanizing. No Kaiser, that feller.

Dutch soccer is extremely libertarian. They refuse to assign specific positions and responsibilities to their players; everyone is free to do whatever they fancy. They call it total football, which is just another term for: anything goes. The Dutch will dazzle everyone with their brilliance in one World Cup, and then miss the next three, leaving one wondering when they'll get off the pot and put on their boots again.

The French have no particular style; it's all a hodge-podge. However, in every major game I can recall (especially the famous 1982 semi-final against Germany), they have always surrendered. One of their goalies was a long haired fellow who wrote poetry and often cried on camera. In recent years, Team Bleu has shown more grit and toughness, but one can't help noticing that it is increasingly packed with North African immigrants, which may have something to do with it. I look forward to a showdown with Team USA. It will be interesting to see if they get French fried or Freedom fried.

The Spanish team is always great to watch. Their offensive team has players of immaculate skill and panache, who deftly sidestep defensive tacklers like a matador, dribble with the practiced élan of flamenco dancers and shoot goalwards as if driving a sword into the bull's heart. After impressing the hell out of spectators, they always go home half a dozen goals down, because their defense has the incurable habit of taking frequent siestas. I have had Spanish friends who had to be put on suicide watch after every World Cup.

The Italians, at least on surface, play against character. Traditionally, they have an excessively cautious, safety-first approach to the game, offering no hint of the creative verve that one may expect from the land of the Renaissance, floating gondolas and dashing Romeos. Nevertheless, the Azzuri have produced defenders of considerable notoriety such as Claudio Gentile, who bottled up legendary attacking players like Zico and Maradona, using means that are quite a bit, um, unconventional. Gentile offers you no less a glimpse into the Sicilian mind than Martin Scorsese.

No discussion of soccer is possible without mentioning Brazil. Nobody plays it like the Brazilians do. It is a mesmerizing show, like a pack of lions closing in on the gazelle, though their controlled, rhythmic aggression is set to the tune of the samba and visibly steeped in the joie the vivre of the Carneval. Unlike the Dutch, Brazillian coaches and officials do have tight scripts and specific roles for each player, but nobody gives a damn what they have been told. The defensive left back Roberto Carlos was last sighted in his assigned position in 1995. He likes to hang out in the opponent's goal area, teasing them with free-kick curveballs and the choicest Portuguese epithets.

In America, soccer has struggled to find its niche as a professional game. Appropriately for a nation where soccer moms are the swing voters, the women's team has kicked ass for many years, but the men's team were babes in the woods until even a decade ago, though the improvement has been stunning since. I hear they have top billing this time. I do wonder what kind of national spirit they'll display in the championship. Hopefully, they won't be bringing their own referee and scoring a few pre-emptive goals even before their opponents have shown up. That will be embarrassing.

Is it possible that eleven men running around and kicking a stupid ball can somehow, through that effort, reveal a kernel of truth about their cultural heritage and national stereotypes? The notion of a national character, a pat summary of millions of diverse personalities, is conceptually problematic and politically dangerous. Nevertheless, Orwell thought there is such a thing, however elusive, as the "English character", so we may be justified in a bit of philosophical speculation whether David Beckham hasn't articulated it better than good, old Georgie himself.

Speaking of philosophers, Camus played goalie for the Algiers team, and found metaphorical significance in soccer. However, Borges has been quoted as saying: "Football is popular because stupidity is popular." I guess it is a case of sour grapes, since soccer has rendered its verdict on the character of philosophers, and it ain't flattering.

To reply to this post, click HERE. Requires Microsoft Passport.