Not A Safari

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

at a loss

A fan of Mexico watches his team concede a second goal to Argentina.


Filed under: pessimism

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


Let us admit this as a general fact: it is amazing how quickly other people can get over what pains you, and though I see it sitting there—the temptation to make this about something serious, I mean—I’ll shimmy to its side and talk instead about something graver than death itself: our feelings when we lose a football game or when we fail to win one in which we expected to do better than tie.

Everything about this matter of losing is in question—the earth trembles because it is unsure of its grounding—and this intensifies the pain involved. We are bewildered about the very material of the “our” in question. Are we homooúsios (of the same substance) with the eleven men who play for us on the field—I am certain that scientists will discover that spectators’ neurons are activated in ways parallel to those footballers they are watching—or are we merely homoian (of similar substance) with them? We are angry that our vociferous involvement, even at televisual distance, was insufficient to sway the outcome. We are confused at how much deeply loss plunges than victory elevates, one a springboard, a matter of a few feet, the other a diving bell, ominous and far-fetched.

Above all, we are tainted by the bitterly concentrated flavor of a game in which we have been vanquished not by the opponents’ skills or by our own foolishness but by the misjudged intervention or miscalculated disregard of the referee. A murderous thought against this man boils on the shorelines of our brains like frustrated surf, it’s unfair, it’s unfair, though our expectation has never been that the game will be fair, only that it will be unfair in a way that favors us, and from the time we were very young, we have instinctively known that little joy would remain for us in this cosmic matter of football if the videographers, stenographers, and other mortuary specialists were allowed to grasp the game with their deadening fingers, to attempt to “improve” it, and to leave to chance nothing of what happened to have been seen or what happened to have passed unseen.

Keep your improvements. We prefer football.


Filed under: magic, pessimism, unexpected

the poor get poorer

My states are two: Nigeria and the United States. The latter has shown such little feeling for the spiritual essence of the game that my only real World Cup country is, as always, Nigeria. Americans players have become more and more technically competent, and I expect them to do well this year. But there doesn’t seem to be among American supporters the apt emotional vocabulary for the beautiful game. Even the word “soccer,” said in the American way, grates on my ear.

This leaves me with Nigeria, disorganized, passionate Nigeria, pleasantly surprising when facing giants, shockingly poor against minnows. So poor has Nigeria’s preparation for the World  Cup been that even Nigerians, never ashamed of a foolish optimism, are saying “You can’t use an ATM card to withdraw money from a piggy bank.” But I have been harboring contrarian hopes that Nigeria will shock the world, that the Super Eagles will navigate past Argentina, South Korea, and Greece, and win a spot in the next round.

Forget it. With the sudden ankle injury (the gods are being especially heavy-handed this year) to our only bonafide star, John Obi Mikel—aka John Mikel Obi, aka Obi John Mikel—Nigeria’s scant hopes have vanished.

Some hitherto uncapped Patroclus is taking Mikel’s place. And I’m offering my patriotism to the highest bidder.


Filed under: pessimism, ,