Ah, the Beautiful Game. The 2014 FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup begins today in Brazil and lasts a whole month (June 12 – July 13), and the whole world will be watching (except, perhaps, Americans sadly). If you think you know England, but you don’t know anything about English football (translation: soccer) then you don’t really know England. England is much more than Buckingham Palace, high tea, and Oxford; and in many ways, football—and its accompanying hooligans—is just as representative of English identity if not more so. An analogy is like saying you know the U.S. if you know only cowboys and New York City. No—clearly, there is so much more! In fact, I would say you also don’t really know Latin America if you don’t know “futbol.”
I lived in the U.K. for five years (one in Edinburgh, Scotland; and four in Oxford, England) and I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Latin American missiology, and my hometown is Los Angeles (home of the L.A. Galaxy which was David Beckham’s team from 2007-12—in fact I was there in person for Beckham’s first full game with the Galaxy, against the New York Red Bull), so naturally football/futbol must flow through my veins. In fact, it is one of my three favorite sports, the other two being baseball and tennis. Why these three? I think part of it has to do with the fact that these are the three most multiethnic sports in the world, and as a missiologist I am always interested in the idea of the gathering of the nations (though I have a loftier purpose in mind than just sports! But I think it is fascinating that something as seemingly inconsequential as sports brings together the world better than religion or politics or anything else). I love culture, I love international gatherings, and the World Cup—along with the Olympics and the Super Bowl—are the three most-watched sporting events in the world. But I think the World Cup, more than any other sporting event, helps you to understand the world’s religions, politics, and cultures. Like the Olympics, the World Cup is played every four years, but it is always two years before/behind the Olympics. So every other year, I can happily look forward to a wonderful international sporting competition.
What’s in a name? Why does everyone else call it football/futbol instead of the U.S. and Australia who call it soccer? Well that’s because the U.S. and Australia already have another sport called “football” so they have to use the word “soccer” to distinguish between them (Australian-rules football, btw, is very different from American football and is quite a spectacle to behold). But ironically, “soccer” actually was coined by the English. Because they used to have similar names for these two sports: rugby football and association football, which they shortened to “rugger” and “soccer” respectively. Of course now the English just call them “rugby” and “football” but the U.S. and Australia took the word “soccer” and ran with it. So if any English person ever makes fun of Americans or Australians for the word “soccer” we can just throw it right back at them and tell them that they invented the term!
Here are some personal observations about soccer/football/futbol and the world:
-England is the birthplace of sport. The English invented football (and rugby, and cricket, and tennis—though I’d rather not mention curling), while the Scottish invented golf; but football remains the most important athletic contribution of England to the world. This is why they are so angst-ridden whenever they don’t win! It is central to English identity.
-Football is nationalism. Unlike the Olympics or other sporting events, the World Cup is hosted by a country, not a city. This breeds tremendous national unity, not just provincialism. So, while it is Rio de Janeiro who will host the 2016 Olympics, it is Brazil who will host the 2014 World Cup. Huge difference. The whole country unites under one flag during the World Cup.
-The one exception to the previous point is the United Kingdom. During the Olympics, they fly the Union Flag (it’s only called the Union Jack if it’s flown on a ship) and compete as Great Britain. During the World Cup, they separate into England, Scotland, Wales, and (Northern) Ireland—the British flag is nowhere in sight, but you see prominently displayed the St. George cross (the English flag) instead. There is no love lost between these bitter rivals of England and Scotland. I remember watching the 2006 World Cup in a pub in Edinburgh, and all the Scottish fans were cheering for the Portuguese to defeat the English. When that victory happened, a great roar of triumph went up. Good thing I wasn’t wearing my England “kit” (translation: uniform/jersey) at the time! Now that would have been a cultural faux pas if there ever was one (and I’m sure most Americans would have errantly thought, “What’s the difference? It’s the same country!”). The Scottish feeling of defensive inferiority to the English gets expressed mightily during the World Cup. (Incidentally, it doesn’t go the other way around—the Scottish hate the English but not vice-versa. Andy Murray, the Scottish tennis player who has won two Grand Slam events, best summed up England’s qualified love for Scotland when he said, “When I win, the media calls me British—when I lose, I’m Scottish.”)
-Home is where the (trophy) is. For much of the history of the World Cup, home field advantage has carried great weight. Out of 19 World Cups thus far, the host nation has been in the Final Four 12 times, and actually won the World Cup 6 times. The only time England has won the World Cup—yep, you guessed it—was when they hosted it in 1966 (just mention the year ‘1966’ to any Englishman, and he will beam with pride). Why the advantage of home field? A large part of it has to do with rabid fan support which is greater than anything you’ll ever see in American sports.
-Football is not just once every four years. In addition to the national team, there are also the English “clubs” (translation: city, not national, teams), the most important four in the Premier League being Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United (Man U is a bigger deal, and makes more money, than the New York Yankees). I myself was an Arsenal “supporter” (translation: fan), especially under manager Arsène Wenger and “striker” (translation: forward) Thierry Henry, the latter being one of the truly nice respectable guys in sports. Unfortunately Henry moved on to FC Barcelona and then New York Red Bulls, but at least Wenger is still with the club. I’m still waiting for Arsenal to win the “Treble” (translation: “Triple,” which includes the Premier League, FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League trophies, all in the same season, which has only been achieved once in English history—by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man U team in 1999; Jose Mourinho, “The Special One,” also won an Italian Treble with Inter Milan in 2010 with his victory in the Champions League, combined with the Serie A and Italian Cup trophies).
-Sport can be the greatest unifier. Everyone loves football, whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female. It cuts through social stratifications. (This is especially true in Australia, where sport makes this classist country very socially egalitarian). I also remember several years ago when I lived in a certain city on the East Coast, and I desperately wanted to watch the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match, which was a battle of unbeatens that season. I called around, and one local pub said they were airing it at 7am (the equivalent of noon in Britain). But they told me, “You must sneak in the back door” (I assume because they were not licensed to serve alcohol at that time of morning). I walked in at 7:05am, and the pub was filled with townspeople—both British and non-British—wearing their kits supporting their favorite club. It was remarkable, everyone was united by their common interest in the match!
-Sport can be the greatest divider. Ugly nationalism can also rear its head. Sven-Goran Eriksson, the enigmatic Swede, was the somewhat successful manager of the English national team for many years. In their bid to desperately secure an English manager as a successor to Eriksson, England decided to reject many other worthy candidates and instead went for the very English—but truly awful—Steve McLaren, who failed to get England qualified for Euro 2008 (the UEFA European Football Championship), one of the first times in history that has happened. The English then realized that talent is better than xenophobia, so they did much better under the direction of manager Fabio Capello, from Italy. Now they are back under an Englishman, Roy Hodgson, so let’s see how that fares.
-The ugly team in European football is Spain. They are one of the major world football powers along with Portugal, Uruguay, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Brazil, France, Italy, and Argentina), and they are the most racist country in Europe (ironic, considering that many Spaniards are not exactly “white” but olive-complected, they’ve racially mixed with a lot of indigenous Indians in the Americas, and they’ve had a long history of Africans and Muslims inhabiting their country). Notice that they are the only Western European country not to have a black player on their team. As one example of Spanish ridiculousness, the Spanish basketball team took a team picture at the Beijing Olympics imitating slanted eyes by pulling their eyes back with their hands—and they claimed they were just honoring the Chinese hosts! (See this photo for what I mean—I’m a Laker fan and all, but c’mon Pau Gasol, I can’t believe you participated in that). As another example, Spanish fans are notorious for making monkey noises at visiting black players from other countries who come to play in Spain.
-The only two major world football powers never to have won the World Cup are Portugal and the Netherlands. I am rooting for one of them to win this time! Or perhaps an African or Asian country to finally win it for the first time.
-The World Cup really lives up to its name. Unlike the baseball “World Series” which really just involves the best of the American teams (though it does have a fair share of international players), the World Cup is a truly global phenomenon. But it was not always that way. For most of its history, it was hosted, and dominated, by Europe and Latin America, alternating between the two continents. In 1994, it finally was hosted by the United States; in 2002, it was held for the first time in Asia (Korea & Japan co-hosted); and last time, in 2010, it was in Africa for the first time in history (South Africa, to be precise). All that needs to happen is for Australia to host it, and then every continent will have had its day (I predict that Australia will host it soon, since North America got it in ’94, Asia in ’02, Africa in ’10, and the Middle East will have it in ‘22). When I was an undergrad at Yale, I remember seeing a World Cup match (don’t call it a “game”!) in ’94 at the Yale Bowl, my alma mater’s stadium (the famous Rose Bowl in Pasadena was modeled after the Yale Bowl, btw). It was Costa Rica vs. Italy, a fabulous matchup, and the Italian supporters in the crowd kept chanting, “Forza Italia!” (“Forward Italy!”). I’ll never forget that—it was my first taste of international soccer and the passion it evokes.
-Sport requires insider knowledge of history, e.g. kit colors are often not what you may expect. Of course Brazil and Argentina wear yellow & green, and blue & white, respectively, because those are the colors of their flags. But why does Italy wear blue? Or the Dutch orange? Or Korea red? Or Australia green & yellow? None of those match their flags! You have to be “in the know” to understand: Blue is the color of Savoy, the ruling house of Italy from 1861 until 1946. Orange stands for William of Orange, the Netherlands’ first prince who ushered in the country’s independence from Spain. RED is an acronym for South Korea’s economy: Resilient, Enthusiastic, Dynamic. And the Wattle tree is the national tree of Australia, which has green leaves and yellow flowers. Each team also has their own nicknames, which the media often uses: Spain [“La Furia Roja”], Portugal [“Selecção das Quinas”], the Netherlands [“Oranje”], Germany [“Die Mannschaft”], England [“Three Lions”], France [“Les Bleus”], Italy [“Azzurri”], Brazil [“A Seleção”], Argentina [“Albiceleste”], Japan [“Blue Samurai”], Korea [“Red Devils”], Belgium [“les Diables Rouges” which incidentally is the same name as Korea], Australia [“Socceroos”], and New Zealand [“All Whites” because of their uniform, and their rugby team is “All Blacks” for the same reason].
-Sport is fascinating if you know colonial history. In the 1986 World Cup, Diego Maradona scored the two most famous goals in the same match: the infamous “Hand of God” goal, and the “Goal of the Century,” to help Argentina defeat England 2-1–all this in the midst of an Argentina-England dispute over the ownership of the Falkland Islands. So it wasn’t just a battle on the field, it was a battle off the field too! In the last World Cup, England played the USA in the first round, and that made for an interesting match because obviously one is the mother country and the other is the daughter country. Last World Cup, if the Netherlands had won, that would’ve been interesting because they were the colonizer of the host country, South Africa (the language Afrikaans is a variation on Dutch). In this World Cup, not only would a Portugal victory be appropriate (given that it is the mother country of Brazil), but so would a Japan victory because there are more Japanese in Brazil than in any country in the world outside of Japan!
-Sport elicits the highest allegiance in many countries. If you think that the greatest sports rivalries are Yankees-Red Sox, or Lakers-Celtics, nothing will prepare you for European and Latin American football (Brazil vs. Argentina is almost as intense as you can get). You know what’s even crazier than the Europeans and Latinos? Australians. That is the most sports-mad country in the world. They’re the only country in the world to play both rugby and football; both cricket and baseball; and are astonishingly good at both the Olympics and World Cup. Watch the Ashes (England vs. Australia cricket) for an example of utter insanity and the most historic sports rivalry.
-Sport is religion in many countries. During the 2002 World Cup which was hosted by Japan & Korea, I was living in the U.K. and I remember the first day of the tournament when the English “side” (translation: team) played at what was 8am on a Sunday morning. What happened? All the pubs opened so people could watch, and everybody missed church. And football has even affected the Edinburgh 2010 conference which I attended. This conference was the centenary celebration of the Edinburgh 1910 missionary conference which was held from June 14-23, 1910. Why did we celebrate it June 2-6, 2010, instead? Because the conference organizers didn’t want it conflicting with the World Cup. Again, sadly, sport trumps even theology. This never would’ve happened 100 years ago!
-Sport is politics in many countries. Ever see the movie “Invictus”? Nelson Mandela saw the South African rugby team as so important to national identity that he took time out of his busy political schedule to advocate for it—because sport was politics. I’d say that it’s even more true of football than rugby, because rugby (and cricket) is only limited to the “Commonwealth” (translation: the U.K. and former British colonies), while football is in practically every nation on earth.
-Sport exposes American exceptionalism. Why are we the only nation in the world that runs on Imperial units instead of Metric, and and plays American football instead of soccer? Is it arrogance or apathy or narrowmindedness? However you slice it, it is not good—and this tendency to not play by the rules of the world often gets us in trouble in other arenas, not just sport. Soccer also highlights Americans’ sports ADD (attention deficit disorder): we desire games that score 20-100 points (American football or basketball). But if the final score is 1-0, or a 1-1 draw, that is unbelievably boring to us. This also explains the decline of baseball in America for the same reasons: lower scores and slower pace of game (since the post-steroids era is no longer putting up monster offense numbers) do not appeal to this ADD generation. It’s sad that people would rather see a cheating PED-fueled Barry Bonds more than pitchers’ duels, no-hitters, and perfect games.
-Sport is humorous. I remember in the ’06 World Cup when Germany played Sweden, and the German fans chanted toward the Swedes, “You are nothing but furniture makers!” (think IKEA and you’ll start laughing)
in Rio de Janeiro’s famous Maracanã Stadium, with my Australian friend Alison and Brazilian friend Mateus
-Sport is deadly serious. I remember being in Rio de Janeiro a few years ago, and I saw a football match at the famous Maracanã Stadium, featuring two Rio teams: Flamengo vs. Botafogo. The fans sit on opposite sides of the stadium, and after the match the police let one side out first, then the other side 30 minutes later, otherwise there will inevitably be fights on the subways and buses. Even more appalling, in the ’94 World Cup, Andres Escobar from Colombia accidentally scored an “own goal” while playing against the United States. Colombia lost that match 2-1. Ten days later, back in his hometown of Medellin, Escobar was gunned down for his mistake.
-To gain an appreciation (albeit fictional) of English and international football, watch the “Goal!” movie trilogy. It is about a Mexican-American football player named Santiago who gets recruited to play for Newcastle United, an English club. Then in the second part of the trilogy, he moves to Real Madrid, the richest and most famous club in continental Europe. And in the third installment, he plays for the World Cup. This will give you an idea of three types of football, at the local, continental, and global levels of competition.
-Speaking of movies, remember the romantic comedy “Fever Pitch” which came out a few years ago about a Red Sox fan? Well, that was based on a popular book by Nick Hornby (who also wrote the book-turned-movie “About a Boy”) who wrote it about soccer, not baseball! But the word “pitch” (translation: playing field) doesn’t mean the same in Europe as it does in America. So not only did the Americans mess with the sport in the book, and changed the word “pitch” to mean something that a baseball player throws, but when the movie was exported to England, they had to change the title to “The Perfect Catch” so as not to confuse British audiences. Sigh. Truly two countries divided by a common language.
The title of this blog comes from a book by Franklin Foer called How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. I have chosen the following select observations from his book:
-“across the world—war had been a metaphor for sports.” (p. 21)
-“the Celtic-Rangers rivalry [the two Glasgow football teams, symbolizing Catholics and Protestants, respectively] represents something more than the enmity of proximity. It is an unfinished fight over the Protestant Reformation… [moreover] they know ethnic hatred makes good business sense.” (pp. 36, 39)
-“the achievement stands: Before Hakoah [a Jewish football club], no continental team had beaten an English club on English soil, the same soil on which the game had been created. There was, however, an unintended consequence of this success. On the team’s 1925 trip, Hakoah players caught a glimpse of New York City, a metropolis seemingly uninfected by European anti-Semitism. It replaced Jerusalem as their Zion, and, over the next year, they immigrated there en masse.” (pp. 74-5)
-“Even in posh West London, perhaps the most yuppie stretch in the whole of Britain, Chelsea [Football Club] still manages to draw a largely working-class crowd. The main difference is that it’s an integrated crowd, labor and management, street cleaner and advertising executive together. In the course of [class-conscious] English history, this may be an earth-shattering development.” (p. 97)
-“Americans call their sporting teams ‘franchises.’ Brazilians would never tolerate that use of the term. It has too many commercial associations with chains of McDonald’s and dry cleaners. Instead, Brazilians call their teams ‘clubs,’ because most are actually clubs.” (p. 116)
-“The Brazilian style is so much more aesthetically pleasing than any other brand of play… To paraphrase the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s formulation, where the European style was prose, the Brazilian was poetry.” (p. 120)
-“As part of the culture of the Soviet game, players often obtained advanced degrees [so that they can work other jobs]. Besides, only after the arrival of capitalism have players earned salaries that can sustain them through post-playing days.” (p. 149)
-“Italian men are the most foppish representatives of their sex on the planet. They smear on substantial quantities of hair care products and expend considerable mental energies color-coordinating socks with belts. Because of their dandyism, the world has Vespa, Prada, and Renzo Piano. With such theological devotion to aesthetic pleasure, it is truly perplexing that their national style of soccer should be so devoid of this quality.” (p. 168)
-“[a] widely spread thesis holds that the root cause of violence can be found in the pace of the game itself. Because goals come so irregularly, fans spend far too much time sublimating their emotions, anticipating but not ever releasing. When those emotions swell and become uncontainable, the fans erupt into dark, Dionysian fits of ecstatic violence. Barca [FC Barcelona] redeems the game from these criticisms, by showing that fans can love a club and a country with passion and without turning into a thug or terrorist.” (p. 197)
-“humans crave identifying with a group. It is an unavoidable, immemorial, hardwired instinct. Since modern life has knocked the family and tribe from their central positions, the nation has become the only viable vessel for this impulse. To deny this craving is to deny human nature and human dignity.” (p. 198)
-“Iranians crave international soccer because the game links them to the advanced, capitalist, un-Islamic West… In their papers, photo editors blot out the advertising that graces the chests of Western jerseys. But again, there’s only so much damage control that the conservatives can do. They can blot out the ads but not the players themselves. Any photo of David Beckham, for example, with his protean hair always shifting from buzz to Mohawk to ponytail, represents an idea of freedom.” (pp. 230-1)
-“[There is] a more fundamental difference between American youth soccer and the game as practice in the rest of the world. In every other part of the world, soccer’s sociology varies little: it is the province of the working class… The United States…inverts the class structure of the game…children of middle class and affluent families play the game disproportionately.” (pp. 238-9)
What to watch for:
Whenever there are at least three teams out of four that are very strong in the same group in the first round of the World Cup, that is dubbed the “Group of Death.” Congratulations to the United States, we are in this year’s Group of Death (Group G) along with Ghana (one of Africa’s top teams), and Portugal and Germany (two of Europe’s top teams). It’ll be a wonder if the U.S. even makes it out of the first round! Group D is not much better: with Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, and Italy, probably only Costa Rica is the weak link—even though they are one of Central America’s best teams.
Here is my prediction for the Final Four:
Argentina, Brazil, France, and Spain, with Brazil winning it all because not only are they good—they’re the hosts! That home field advantage is not to be underestimated.
What I would like to see:
Either an African nation winning it all (since that continent has never had a World Cup Champion, and it would be highly appropriate given the fact that they hosted it for the first time last time); or an Asian country (South Korea has the best bet of doing so, and in 2002 they were the first Asian team to ever make the Final Four). More realistically, I’d love to see one of the two football powers that have never won a World Cup do it for the first time ever: either the Portuguese, as they have the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo; or even more, I want to see the Dutch being crowned champions. I will be wearing orange, because it’s the color of Dutch Calvinist Protestantism. I would relish a Netherlands-Spain final again, as it would be historically, politically, and religiously fitting if Protestant Netherlands beats Catholic Spain—especially since the Netherlands had to declare independence from King Philip II of Spain in 1581 (on July 26, which is my birthday no less)! In fact, both teams are in Group B so you’ll see them go head-to-head in the first round. And it would be exciting to defeat the defending champions from 2010 and avenge their loss in the final. You see—soccer really does explain the world!
P.S. I love this New York Times article about soccer’s version of moneyball/sabermetrics.