Not A Safari

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

fleetness, furtherance

The schoolboy poet is involved in the games, but rarely is he ever the best schoolboy athlete or the focus of the activity. Even when he stands in the middle, he stands to one side, tracing arcs, noting the game’s intangibles. This is how it is in James Joyce, in Seamus Heaney, and in Orhan Pamuk: an involvement that focuses on everything but the writer’s own singularity. What’s evoked rather is a kind of collective soul. Take for instance this, from Heaney’s “Markings,” which is like a capsule world history of boyhoods:

Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world…
It was quick and constant, a game that never need
Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.



Filed under: magic, peroration

not everyone likes it

By the time the ball is nestling at the back of the net, David Villa is already halfway to the touch line at which he will do his torero-inspired arm sweep. It is simple, direct, and beautiful.

Not everyone likes it.

In Spain, Catalan friends told me this weekend, in Catalonia in particular, some take a dim view of the bullfight echo because—this is the official reason, according to my Catalan friends, but not the real one—they find the killing of bulls objectionable. The real reason for the objection, my Catalan friends said, is that many Catalans find the celebration too Spanish. But, I said, why should this be a problem? Villa is Spanish, and he celebrates as such while playing for the Spanish national team so why should he worry about the sensibilities of Catalan viewers?

Precisely because Catalans are sensitive, my Catalan friends said, and anything too Spanish alienates them, and because Villa will soon be playing for Barcelona Football Club at the Camp Nou, and you don’t want to be too Spanish there, and because some say, my Catalan friends said, coming to the nub of the issue, the torero sweep is something Villa has used in a television ad and thus each time he does it he is sending a generous wink to his sponsors.


Filed under: peroration

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


This thing is also about finding the self in others, in the experience of others, in the experience of watching with others far away from home.

The angle is nostalgic, and nostalgia as a word has some positive uses. Watching with others—to watch with others is a privilege we have entered—one enters into their idea of the past as surely as their idea of the sport. None are new to football, and none are watching the Mundial for the first time. Spectatorship is keyed to invisible pasts, to “remember when.”

The surface of spectatorship, the surface of this spectatorship in exile, is excitable, but below the surface more complicated experiences lurk.

At Meytex Café in Brooklyn, a man now in middle age experiences a frisson. He is a working man. It is the banku with goat, combined with Ghana’s national anthem and a word spoken by someone else in Twi, a word not heard in decades, that all conspire to open a door into distant yesterdays. His face flickers with those pasts.

In Astoria, Queens, a specific Brazil is available, the Brazil of the correct color-range, the Brazil that made this great crossing. My sense of it is limited, but in the crowd of two hundred, only a handful are as dark as I am, none as dark as Pele. As with all stories of émigré communities, this one has its shape and borders, it has its relatively advantaged and relatively disadvantaged. But the crowd in Astoria sing—with fervor sing at the moment black Maicon scores a wonder goal—a single Brazil.

The Germans in Fort Greene are a younger crowd, male and female, and something complex races across their faces to the tune of Deutschland, Deutschland. On 116th Street in Harlem, the Ivoiriens are older and all male, and in their faces is an even more intense experience of “remember when.”

I’ve mine too…

There’s lately been a slight shift in the Mexicanness of being Mexican in El Norte, if you look for it. Their team, beautiful to watch, incisive and intelligent in the footballistic arts, has inspired pride. The shirts of El Tri seen on trains and streets and kitchens code like the chain of lighthouses that keep merchant ships safe, the Mundial a personal Helicon for each.


Filed under: peroration

and then time

So that after a while you get felt up by time. You, locked up in the game’s sense of dimorphic time, first half in which time is of no essence, second in which it is all that matters.

How long is a minute? It depends on what you’re on what you’re after whether that thing you are holding is a one goal lead please God let’s not let it slip or a hope to cross out a one goal lead cross it out and replace it with a one goal lead of your own. That’s two goals you’re asking for. You eye the clock at sixty minutes, and what an eternity, as Billy Blake almost had it, that whole half-hour you have left.

A minute later what happened to the time, seventy already? Christ.

Maybe we can equalize now, now, and sneak a last minute goal later, eighty, eighty five. The pacts with the Almighty begin, you haven’t equalized yet, a draw for heavens sake never mind the win, time loses its mind and the minutes reck, less and lessly, eighty six, eighty seven, a sudden jump to ninety, then the surreal zone of stupid hope and extra time.

Sometimes what you want there happens, usually not, but there are no atheists in extra time. All credit miracles.

And then you’re shat right out of the marvelous as you knew it ref’s peep peep peep out of being extraed and extraordinaried back into inelastic time of: ordinary time.

Me, my sense of the game’s time began to develop in the early 1980s and show a child the way to go for when he is a man he shall not depart from it.


Filed under: magic, peroration

the tears

The tears of the DPRK players

as their national anthem was played

is another thing

the noise

won’t wash away.


Filed under: peroration


The story, so often retold now and familiar, of the World Cup played in Spain in which, after a beautiful performance by an Algeria that won two group games and that, through Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi, gifted the world with gorgeously crafted goals, West Germany and Austria collaborated or, one might say, cheated, or one might even go as far to use the word Anschluss, to throw their game, ensuring a one goal victory for West Germany, in a ploy, successful, to see them both through and knock out the Algerians, is yet another thing, owing to my tender age at the time, that I do not actually remember about 1982.

Filed under: peroration, , ,

a loss on june 12

All nations have days in their national calendars freighted with meaning good or bad. Many of these are known by some name associated with a date, but others are named for the date itself. In the US, the Fourth of July and 9/11 are examples of the latter. Nigeria only has one such date: June 12.

June 12 is June 12 1993, the date on which Nigeria held what was widely considered its fairest presidential election. The winner of the election was Chief M.K.O. Abiola, a populist millionaire. Not long afterward, to massive outcry from the people, the result of the election was annulled and Chief Abiola was arrested by the head of the ruling junta, General Babangida. Chief Abiola was later to die in prison, poisoned, many believe.

June 12 was the beginning of special horrors for the Nigerian people, first under General Babangida, then under his more brutal successor, General Abacha. Political struggle organized itself under the mandate of June 12, around what was won and then lost on that day. The force of June 12 has faded now—Nigeria has enjoyed some eleven years of unsteady democracy—but the date remains badged with pain.

For his ability to deceive, Nigerians bitterly gave Babangida the nickname “Maradona,” and the mild irony of the name struck me today, as I sat among Nigerians during a noble sporting loss.


Filed under: peroration, ,

national style

The Germans play attractive football these days, relying on fleet fullbacks like Lahm and creative wingers like Podolski.

The Azzurri play extremely boring football, having introduced “catenaccio” (the doorbolt) into footballing lexicon.

Meanwhile, Brazil, having discovered the pleasures of defensive formations, no longer “play like Brazil”—given Kaka’s loss of form, their main boast entering this tournament is their two central defenders Lucio and Juan, and their muscular fullback Maicon—leaving fancy-footworking Spain as arguably the most “Brazilian” side in the contest.

Meanwhile, African teams like Ghana and Cameroon are tactically very tightly organized, usually defaulting to a conservative 4-4-2 shape.

Of course, these facts don’t stop commentators from relying on the same old tiresome stereotypes. Regardless of what actually happens on the field, we’re probably in for a month of hearing about sexy Italians and mechanical Germans.

Filed under: peroration, , , , , ,

the right register

During the last Mundial, Dave O’Brien, a baseball commentator drafted in by ABC to convert Americans to football, broke my heart when he said, as a player lined up to take a free-kick—I think this was during Italy’s fractious game against the USA—“the referee has awarded a Beckham-style free-kick.” Awarded a what? The other American commentators weren’t much better either, outsiders looking in on a sport with which they had a deformed relationship.

One might say, as did Dr Johnson of a dog walking on hind legs, it’s not a matter of whether American commentators call World Cup matches well: tis a wonder they do it at all.

I swore off the moronic inferno American English language commentary. When and where possible, I watched the matches on Univision and, with golazo-azo-azos ringing in my ears, I was much the better for it.

Now, I understand Spanish poorly and speak it not at all. At the speed Univision’s Colombian commentators take it, I’m lucky to catch a player’s name here and there. But how much richer the sport becomes given the right register of expertise and enthusiasm.

We’ll watch this year’s matches in whatever languages our hosts choose. But, given the choice, left to our own devices, it’s Spanish all the way.


Filed under: peroration, ,