The Beautiful Game


World Cup 2010

A few Saturdays ago, Inter Milan, an Italian team without any Italian players that’s coached by a Portuguese, won the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, a German team, coached by a Dutchman, whose two best players are Dutch and French, known in Germany as FC Hollywood, by playing that most Italian of games: Il Catenaccio.

Catenaccio translates loosely as door bolt. It is Italy’s gift to the world game; it is anti-space, anti-movement and it seeks to corral the match in the defensive third of the field. It’s how they won the last World Cup. In tandem, that is, with being fitter than anyone else. They simply wore the other team out by making them do all the running and then scored in the last ten minutes when the other team was knackered.

Inter’s victory can confidently be described as Italianate in the sense that it is in the Italian tradition, but can it be called Italian? It is an Italian club in an Italian city owned by an Italian and supported by Italians. On the pitch itself though, these are foreign mercenaries representing Italy (an idea that complicatedly makes the Inter team more-rather-than-less Italian in a Swiss Guards, Borgias are actually from Spain kind of way). Would it have still been an Italian victory if the soccer itself had been less Italian in its style; if Inter had played like Barcelona would that have made it a more or less Italian victory? Does Italian heritage and Italian style outweigh the complete lack of Italians playing in the actual game itself?

These questions do not present themselves in the World Cup. In the matter of national identity, the World Cup is very simple: the team is the country, and the country is the team.

Over the course of the tournament, there will be endless mentions of jogo bonito, the beautiful game, as played by Brazil. Commentators will run wild talking about Samba soccer. It’s very possible that some wise pundit on ESPN2 will say that the Brazilians disapprove of winning without flair, that they believe it to be shaming to their country, to their very sense of who they as a people are.

The list will go on and on from here: ruthlessly efficient Germans, overelaborate Spaniards, heroic but inept Englishman, argumentative post-Enlightenment Dutchmen, all playing out their manifest destiny on the world’s TV screens. Depending on how culturally sensitive your national broadcaster is, there may even be talk of the way African teams play with an almost childlike pleasure.

In 1998, France won the World Cup with a team made up of whites, blacks, and Arabs; most notably the very clearly of Algerian descent Zinedine Zidane but also the Senegalese-born Patrick Vieira and the unironically named Laurent Blanc. This team was known collectively as Les Bleus and it was a source of great delight to the culturally enlightened Frenchman when this team triumphed. France was clearly a post-racial paradise. Eight years later when Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi, there was muttering on the Le Penite right that this was typical Arab behavior.

It does not matter if you have an Italian manager (England) or if your center forward was born in Brazil (Croatia) or even Teaneck, New Jersey (Italy). This is one of the critical comforts of the world cup. As a country is, so its style of play, its jogo, bonito or otherwise, goes.