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Schadenfreude

July 14, 2014 | by

Gotze

Götze kicks the match-winning goal. Photo: Danilo Borges/Portal da Copa, via Wikimedia Commons

How apt that the Brazilians are living off Schadenfreude: after the debacle against Germany and a little extra humiliation from Holland, all Brazil’s fans seemed to want was for Germany to prevent Argentina from victory dancing on the beach at Copacabana. Believe me, I get it. As a lifelong supporter of Tottenham Hotspur FC in the English Premier League, much of my soccer pleasure in the last half-century, sadly, has derived only from misfortunes experienced by Arsenal FC, Tottenham’s arch rivals. In the years 1960–1962, Tottenham was clearly the superior team—since then, not so much. Like Brazil and Argentina, the two clubs are neighbors, and Arsenal, like Brazil, has the larger fan base and more money.

But I want to tell you, Brazilians: Schadenfreude (yours and mine) is unhealthy. It mocks the meat it feeds on. Brazil (population two hundred million) is in a much better position that Argentina (population forty-one million) to do something to transform its lackluster team into world-beaters. They need look no further than Germany, where, over a twenty-year period, an entire system from youth soccer up was revamped in the wake of defeat and disappointment to produce the superior team that yesterday won the World Cup in style: a triumph that not a soul would deny they deserved. Is this why the U.S. keeps spying on Deutschland? Looking for the blueprint that will take us to number one? Or are we simply after Angela Merkel’s recipe for Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte?

The sun set behind Christ the Redeemer, and then Argentina went down, too. Lionel Messi won the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament (not that he cared), but it could just as easily have gone to Arjen Robben or Bastian Schweinsteiger or Javier Mascherano. After two overtime games in five days, Messi looked, at times, as if he were walking through treacle. When, as the final minutes ticked away, he stepped up to take his last do-or-die free kick, he was already a forlorn figure; that ball was going wide, or over the bar, and everyone in the Maracanã knew it. Messi’s problem? He was too much on his own, dropping ever deeper, as if a retreat into the shadows of his own half would conjure a Di María to run back up the field with him. In his most successful years, Pelé was surrounded by players of great genius—Garrincha, Tostão, Jairzinho, and Rivelino—individuals with talents that didn’t quite match the master’s, but enabled them to provide stellar support. While Mascherano was a beast in the Argentine defense, Messi had no one quite at the level required for his game to shine at its brightest. He’ll have to return to Barcelona for that.

Of course, there’s always the feeling that he should have been able to do it on his own—a feat Maradona is believed to have accomplished in World Cup 1986, when he scored or assisted on ten of Argentina’s fourteen goals. But, even with the great Lothar Matthäus on board, the West Germany that Argentina beat in that final was not at the same level as Germany 2014, the first team to win a major international championship since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Where Germany is concerned, everyone reaches for the engineering metaphors—it’s knee-jerk—and, this time around, it doesn’t apply. Okay, Germany is well coached: Is this why Ian Darke, the English ESPN/ABC commentator, described Jogi Löw as resembling a Bond villain? Baffling. The team played with a smoothness not like that of a well-oiled machine, but more like that of the movements of choreographed dancers. It looked like art out there, not industry. Certainly Mario Götze’s lovely goal from André Schürrle’s cross was full of grace: one swift movement, chest to foot to back of net. Götze’s father is a professor of computer science at Dortmund University. His son’s goal may be the best thing that has happened to academia this century.

I’ve watched fourteen World Cups, and 2014 is the best I can remember since 1970, bites and all. And now we move on to Putin-land, where Russia (population 146 million) will take on their greatest rivals, the eleven courageous young women of Pussy Riot.

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

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No More Tears

July 9, 2014 | by

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This “Jesus Wept” photo became a meme in the aftermath of Brazil’s defeat yesterday.

O Lachryma Cristi, what has happened to our weepy Brazilians? Since day one of this tournament, it seems, they have been in tears. As the technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira reported, “They cry during the national anthem, they cry at the end of extra-time, they cry before and after the penalties.” The sports psychologist Regina Brandão was rushed in, but failed to stem the flow; then it was the Pressure! The Pressure! A nation’s hopes, et cetera, et cetera.

And now this 7-1 pasting, the iconic gone-viral boy in the crowd, glasses pushed up, fingers pressed to eyes, sobbing into his Coca-Cola cup; and somewhere else not too far off, the pretty girl with tears streaming down her cheeks, rivulets slowly obliterating the Brazilian flags she had painted there. Wherever you look, buckets: David Luiz crying; Oscar, his face pressed down soaking someone’s shoulder. Cry me a river—the river cried turned out to be the Amazon. Meanwhile, the Germans never shed a tear, although Mesut Özil looked as if he might cry when Bastian Schweinsteiger yelled at him for missing an easy opportunity to put goal number eight past Júlio César. Lighten up, Bastian!

And now the hundred-foot-high concrete Christ the Redeemer that stands with arms outstretched, gazing over Rio from the peak of the Corcovado mountain, has been photoshopped with its hands to its face, a meme for the ages. Read More »

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O Jogo Bonito

July 7, 2014 | by

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“The Battle of Santiago”—Italy vs. Chile, 1962.

A little more than halfway through Brazil’s horrible, galling victory over Colombia last Friday, I began to wonder what type of foul might actually persuade the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo to issue a yellow card: A studs-up, two-footed, kung-fu fly-kick to the chest, like the one launched by Eric Cantona against a fan in the stands back in 1995? Any one of the number of egregious fouls, including punches to the head, committed by Italy against Chile, and then by Chile on Italy, in the infamous Battle of Santiago in World Cup 1962? Maybe multiple Suárez-type bites by a hyena pack of players on a prostrate Colombian felled by a scything tackle might have done the trick.

As it was, Thiago Silva eventually received a yellow card for stupidly impeding the Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina as he was about to drop-kick the ball upfield (hardly a big deal); Mario Yepes received one for a tackle no worse than countless that had preceded it; Júlio César received one for understandably wiping out Carlos Bacca on his way to a goal that resulted in a penalty for Colombia; and, cruelest of all, the superb James Rodríguez—who, throughout the tournament, embodied all the skill, verve, and fluidity that’s supposed to be the hallmark of Brazilian soccer, including the ability to smack the ball sweetly into the back of the net—received a yellow card for a tackle he had half pulled out of, his first offense. Then, from the ensuing free kick, David Luiz scored what turned out to be the winning goal for Brazil—an even greater injustice, as Rodríguez had been targeted and pummeled, mostly by Fernandinho, more or less from the opening whistle. As Sam Borden observed in an excellent article in the Times, it is all very well for Luiz Scolari, Brazil’s coach, to claim that Neymar had been “hunted” after Juan Camilo Zuniga had kneed his star player in the back and broken his vertebra—no yellow card—but it was his team, under his direction, that had set the tone. Brazil has lost its reputation and doesn’t look likely to recover it in a hurry. Read More »

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Hooray for Losers

July 2, 2014 | by

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Tim Howard in the rain, 2013. Photo: Steindy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it. For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions. (Third was not even worth acknowledging.) While other countries celebrated their silver or bronze medals with parties and parades, American commentators thrust microphones into the faces of the “losers” and asked, sotto voce and with unconcealed disappointment, “What happened?” or “What went wrong?”

But this time around, American irreality, with its dangerous admixture of heady confidence—recall that Times poll, which revealed that a majority of fans in only three countries believed their nation would win the World Cup: Brazil, Argentina, and … the USA?—and its obliviousness of “failures,” has not translated into terminal disenchantment with the U.S. team. Okay, they lost to Belgium, the smallest country (in terms of land mass) in the competition, but the goalkeeper, Tim Howard, put on one of the greatest displays in the history of international football. The team fought until the very end, scored a fine goal, and almost forced the game to penalties. Americans may have thought—absurdly? endearingly?—that their team was going to win the whole shebang, but when it didn’t, they were content to take their place among the multitude of also-rans.

This is extraordinarily good news, psychologically, philosophically, and maybe even in terms of foreign policy. In a way, it made the front page of most papers this morning. Few journalists reporting on the game, or on President Obama’s supportive tweets, failed to observe the good-spirited way in which the team’s fans, both locally and abroad, took the loss. If the U.S. can come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have to be No. 1 in everything, who knows how far this new humility will take it?

Of course, the loss was made easier to swallow by Howard, who broke the record for saves in a single World Cup match—and they were quality saves, to boot. Howard was by turns brave, acrobatic, positionally astute, commanding, and almost invincible. In Howard, Americans discovered a true hero … and he was a loser.

So now that Belgium, in the powerful form of Romelu Lukaku, has turned out the light, is another big switch soon to be flipped? Last night ESPN culled the highest overnight TV rating ever for a World Cup game. There were 25,000 at Soldier Field in Chicago, outdoor screens and crowds all across the country, riveted attention in offices, packed bars. Is the nation so fickle that France vs. Germany and Brazil vs. Colombia will now hold no interest?

All the signs point in the other direction—and FIFA is already mooting the possibility of the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 2026, smack in the middle of Chelsea Clinton’s second term.

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

20 COMMENTS

Be Afraid

June 30, 2014 | by

The political fear of soccer; how to shame a pathological diver.

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Rama V, via Flickr.

As Americans continue to watch the World Cup in their accumulating millions, the denizens of the political right are running scared. Ann Coulter, whose bark is worse than Suárez’s bite—and whose delusions match José Mujica’s, the President of Uruguay, who referred to FIFA’s punishment of his country’s star as a “fascist ban”—weighed in a few days ago with a column listing the myriad ways in which soccer is un-American. It would be hard to find someone who knows less about soccer than Ann Coulter, but as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel would say, that’s nit-picking, isn’t it? So: soccer doesn’t reward “individual achievement.” It’s “foreign,” meaning French people, liberals, and fans of HBO’s Girls like it. And, perhaps worst of all, it’s wussy: the “prospect of personal humiliation or major injury” essential to receiving the Coulter seal of approval as a real sport, like hockey or American football, is apparently missing in soccer.

Peter Beinart, writing in the Atlantic, has an interesting take on Coulter’s silliness: She’s right to be scared of the World Cup. Why? Because its burgeoning devotees look a lot like the people who elected Obama—first generation immigrants and their children, Hispanics, young people, and, yeah, liberals, who like soccer because they get to play with rest of the world instead of apart from it. Ann the Fan prefers it when Americans aren’t contaminated this way; better just to have a little local competition and call it the World Series.

Fans of Team USA have bought more tickets than any group outside the host country to this year’s tournament. And there they are in the stands, whooping it up, win or lose—reveling, it seems, in being part of a truly international party. Will the enthusiasm last? The test will come, possibly as early as tomorrow, if the U.S. loses. Will the nation switch off? I don’t think so. Read More »

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W.T.Ph

June 27, 2014 | by

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VectorOpenStock, via Wikimedia Commons.

And so the first round of the World Cup comes to an end with a bang from Thomas Müller, and—pace Ronaldo, who put on a fine late show—various degrees of whimper from the departing nations Portugal, Russia, South Korea, and Ghana.

At last, those of us who have followed Rihanna on Twitter for the last two weeks have found certain of her exigent questions answered: for example, to June 19’s “ENGLAND whatchu gon do?!!” we can now confidently say, “Nothing.” Other tweets of hers have been by turn prophetic, emphatic, and envy-inducing: “Uruguay defense is almost disrespectful,” also from June 19, uncannily anticipated Luis Suárez achieving full disrespectful status five days later. “W.T.Ph,” more exclamation than question, has been and will continue to be applied usefully throughout this free-ranging, attacking, and mesmerizing tournament. “Goal keepers getting phucking sleepy” has its own kind of lullaby poetry; and who wouldn’t want to be Germany’s Miroslav Klose, the coholder of the record for most goals scored in World Cup tournaments, who’s now, more urgently, an object of Rihanna’s undistilled affection? “My nigga Klose,” she tweeted on June 21. Lionel Messi, eat your heart out.

Coming up, eight games in four days. Brazil vs. Chile looks like a good one, while Uruguay, hobbled by a dementia of denial to which both team and country appear to have succumbed, probably won’t do much against Colombia. Mexico has played well, but we can expect the Dutch, with Van Persie and Robben, to outclass them. France should beat Nigeria, and most people who are not Greek will be rooting for Costa Rica to triumph over Greece. Germany vs. Algeria is a grudge match: at 1982’s World Cup, in Spain, Germany and Austria contrived a result that would see both teams go through at Algeria’s expense, a shameful performance that has not been forgotten in North Africa. Lionel Messi, whom Nigeria’s coach Stephen Keshi claims is from Jupiter (confirmation awaited from Tom Cruise) will beat Switzerland. And last of all, there’s what might be, in competitive terms, the cream of the crop: Belgium vs. USA. How far can this mercurial USA team go? Or rather: USA, whatchu gon do?

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

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