Not A Safari

South Africa's World Cup, as seen from New York City

unhappy families

Some fall into the temptation—but it is the nature of temptations to be fallen for—of saying that the problem with the teams of Europe comes down to the individual players. They suggest that with cannier substitutions games that were lost or tied could have been won.

Others fall into the different temptation of finding fault only with the tactics.

But there is a third factor: tactically excellent teams composed of brilliant players appear to be experiencing psychological breakdowns that reflect the psychological malaise of the countries they represent.

The two finalists from the last World Cup—France and Italy—were eliminated in the first round of this one. England stumbled their way out of the group stages without at any time looking like the world-beaters their teamsheet would suggest. Spain, possibly the best team in the world, certainly the most beautiful to watch, were listless in their meek capitulation to Switzerland. Even Germany, lively in their first game, slumped afterwards, and only eked out a place in the round of sixteen.

Each team is unhappy in its own way, but Europe’s leading economies share common maladies: vertiginous unemployment rates, tensions over immigration, credit-starved markets hungover from capitalist excess, the increasing popularity of rightwing politicians, Islamophobia: the post-imperial situation bears bitter fruit.

What, or who, are the men of the big footballing powers of Europe playing for when they take the field? What does it mean to be Italian or French or English in the summer of 2010? That little bit of heart and inspiration that wins teams games: where will it come from?

Who would willingly bleed for the coalition of Clegg and Cameron? Who would risk broken bones for Berlusconi or Sarkozy? It is better, the players must reckon, even if they do not articulate it, to save it for the club teams: at least there’s real passion there, and real money. It is grimacingly evident, watching them, that the players do not play for each other, as they would in their clubs.

In contrast, the body language of the players of Slovakia, Uruguay, Mexico, Ghana, and New Zealand is telling: they are from small countries and, whatever their problems, are eager to register something on the footballistic consciousness of the world. They have something to play for, something on which they are all agreed, something, whatever it is, that seems to matter a great deal to them.



Filed under: peroration, pessimism

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