Friday, July 14, 2006

Soccer Geekery Round-Up

Like I said the other day, I recommend Franklin Foer's Book How Soccer Explains the World. If I were to sum it up in less than ten words, I'd call it Tom Friedman Becomes a Soccer Fan. Soccer is a useful lens for examining the worldwide tensions between tribalism and globalism--rather more useful, I'd venture, than McDonald's franchises or many of Friedman's illustrations.

The book begins with several fairly hair-raising profiles of hooligan subcultures. It opened my eyes quite a bit to read about the rabid Serbian nationalism of the supporters of Red Star Belgrade, and to read that the Serb government actually mobilized Red Star gangs into militias that carried out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The city of Glasgow is home to two world-famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic (identified with Catholics) and Glasgow Rangers (identified with Protestants), and when the clubs face each other, young rowdies cross via ferry from Belfast to press their sectarian cause and keep their street-fighting skills in practice. In other words, one of the hottest fronts in the now mostly cold war over Irish nationalism, takes place in Scotland on the days of key soccer matches.

But the book moves from pessimism to optimism. I find it debatable how significant soccer is as an economic engine, and whether to applaud the flow of young players emigrating from the Third World seeking to strike it rich in Europe. But Foer persuades me that the sport can provide an important means of civic expression, and a valuable safety valve. One of the final chapters focuses on Iran, where the love of soccer is a legacy of the Shah and is one aspect of modernity that the ayatollahs try to control but dare not try to eradicate. Women are known to remove their burkhas and dress as men to attend matches, and Islamic laws against alcohol use are unofficially suspended when Iran's national team records a big win.

Two criticisms of the book. A minor one is the presence of some really stilted sentences; I suspect Foer is reaching for the style of the English sportswriters he admires, but I think he falls short. Second, for all his fine observation and analysis of soccer's intersections with the larger culture, the book is light on discussion of the game itself. The advantage here, I suppose, is that a reader doesn't have to know the sport well to get the book, so on balance maybe this was a smart move. Bryan Curtis had Frank Foer in mind (he says as much) when he wrote this piece in Slate about the attraction some young American intellectuals feel toward soccer. Curtis implies that for many of these writers, it's a deliberate fashion choice, and doesn't have much to do with the game on the field.

Whereas I marvel at what the players can do. Take this fairly routine scenario in the World Cup: a defender chases the ball into his own deep corner, then spins and turns the ball almost 180 degrees, booming it 30 or 40 yards upfield to his attacking teammates. One touch; 180 degree change of direction; an authoritative kick downfield. It would take me three touches to turn the ball, and the resulting pass would be a 10-yard roller. It almost seems unfair to me, like steroids in baseball or graphite rackets in tennis. But these guys are just that good.

Here's a Foer essay that's pretty typical of his approach, discussing what form of government (socialist, fascist, social democratic) is most advantageous for a country's chances to win a World Cup. It's a little cute, it claims more empirical certainty than it has a right to, but it says more about sports and about politics than most writers could manage with this word count.

The New Republic's World Cup blog Goal Post (archived here, at least as of this writing) was really well-done too; I've been reading back over it this week. It was a lively extension of the book: Foer invited some soccer-loving friends and colleagues from abroad to contribute, and even invited Susie Felber, a soccer skeptic but a smart NYC-based cosmopolitan voice.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Zidane Sent Off

I'm still in a daze. It's one of the most dramatic, even tragic, conclusions to a major sporting event, ever. Has anyone ever gone from the heights of hero status to the depths of ignominy in the blink of an eye the way Zinedine Zidane did yesterday in Berlin?

I'm straining for a comparison to Zidane's circumstances yesterday: starring for and captaining France in the final match of the World Cup. He has announced he's retiring and this is his last game, ending his brilliant career with an unforgettable resurgence in the sport's biggest tournament. The match is tied 1-1 (Zidane having France's goal), it's late into overtime, and hundreds of millions of people are tensed and watching Zidane, destiny's man, sensing that in the next few minutes he will write soccer history.

And boy, did he ever. It's hard to find a comparison this side of "The Natural." I recall that in 1969 Bill Russell won an NBA Finals Game 7 with the Boston Celtics in the last game of his career, against the vaunted L.A. Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. Now imagine if in the fourth quarter, Russell had gotten mad, hauled off and kicked Chamberlain in the gonads.

Only Zidane's head butt was bigger, worse: Zidane whaling Italy's Materazzi while play was stopped. Why did he snap? Maybe because he was exhausted and in pain, and Materazzi insulted him in a way calculated to make Zidane snap. That's the only explanation I can bear to consider. (Why a head butt? His shoulder may have been separated, for one thing. Also, Zidane can deliver more force with a snap of his head than I can behind the wheel of my car.)

I'd like to state a couple of things that may go unsaid in the furor over Zidane's gaffe. France outplayed Italy. Granted, it's possible that a bad offsides call cost Italy a goal, but if Italy had won on that goal, it would have been a flukish result. In overtime, both teams were fatigued, but France had made a couple of late subs and seemed a little fresher, seemed to be have the upper hand. Until the moment Zidane was red-carded, at which point did Italy press its man-up advantage? No, Italy stalled, playing for the cheap way out, penalty kicks, where France seemed without hope with Zidane out, and France's Barthez considered a weaker goalkeeper than Italy's Buffon. And not to attack anyone, but Buffon did not win the PK contest for Italy, David Trezeguet lost it for France, and if kicks had gone on more than five deep, France's chances would have steadily improved.

Thanks for letting me get that on the record.

I love the World Cup to an immoderate and absurd degree. I've been sneaking out of the office, watching matches, reading everything I can get my hands on. And much as it pains me to say anything nice at all about the New Republic, given my blogofascist tendencies, I have thoroughly enjoyed the World Cup blog captained by TNR editor Franklin Foer. I recommend reading through its archives, for the writers' various takes both on soccer and on the national cultures of the Cup contenders, notably the aspect of American exceptionalism that makes us uniquely immune, sometimes even hostile, to "the beautiful game."

Even the intrepid TNR bloggers were struck dumb for the better part of a day by the climax or anti-climax of the France-Italy final. This morning, though, they have posted some videographic evidence of what a dirty player Materazzi is, plus some juicy speculation about what Materazzi may have said to set Zidane off. Could it have had to do with Zidane's Algerian parentage, with overtones of postcolonialism, culture clash, etc.? (Late breaking news: Materazzi denies rumors that he called Zidane "a terrorist.") In some part of his heart, Frank Foer sure hopes so, because it would vindicate his 2004 book How Soccer Explains The World. (Not that the book needs lot of help -- I finished it recently and found it enjoyable and informative as hell.)

I think I'm going to break my train of thought and hold some quasi-intellectual soccer geekery for another post. More later.