The Pitch Is Flat: 2010 World Cup Part I, The Group Stage

The first in Africa. For even the most casual fan, it would be nearly impossible not to know that this year’s World Cup was a continental debut. In promotions surrounding the tournament, we’ve been treated to effusive celebrations and somber reflections on the importance of staging the event in South Africa, in particular. In televised vignettes and assorted commentary, the 2010 FIFA World Cup is placed alongside the 1995 Rugby World Cup (recently cinematized with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman in Invictus) as a sports happening that brings South Africans together after the shameful segregation of apartheid.

Of course, reality is generally more complicated than Hollywood and backlit promos would have us believe. Whatever its state of racial harmony, though, this World Cup is about still more than just South Africa. In many ways, South Africa is the staging ground for a continent-wide reclamation, a way to tell a different story about Africa as a whole. For a part of the world whose identity is generally constructed through the grimmest of news headlines, the World Cup is a way to foreground joy and play in Africa, rather than the expected misery and death.

That reason alone may be enough to excuse the buzzing preponderance of vuvuzela horns that accompany the matches. Though universally hated by American commentators (Americans, it seems, prefer the sound of humans screaming at its sports matches), the vuvuzela is a handy, symbolic expression of enthusiasm for a continent that, if western media is to be believed, has very little to cheer about.

Before it even began, then, this World Cup was particularly predisposed to notions of geo-political identity. To a certain extent, though, all World Cups are an exercise in nationalistic fervor. FIFA, for its part, is happy to encourage such enthusiasms. With players posing behind their nations’ flags, stoically murmuring their national anthems, one of the main attractions of these matches is that they provide an outlet for non-militaristic jingoism. Safely ensconced within the regulations of the game, fans can cheer on their favorite teams and support their countries in the same breath of a buzzing, plastic trumpet blast. Once the games end, so (for the most part) do the hostilities.

By replacing war with soccer, then, the World Cup provides unexpected delights, such as walking past a bar full of raucous patrons chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” — and not seeing Sarah Palin on a dais. All manner of patriotism, really, seems more palatable when tempered through sports. That might be because the players themselves are usually apolitical, focused only on their sporting work. We fans, then, are free to supply a brand of national pride that is constrained by, and limited to, the on-field happenings, defanged of politically virulent overtones.

Still, even this kind of pride can take a severe beating. Just ask England, Italy, or France supporters. Though France and Italy met in the last World Cup final, only England was able to qualify for advancement beyond the World Cup’s group stage, and then only after three games of lackluster effort and paltry results. Fans of all three nations saw their nationalistic hope dashed by losses to allegedly minor soccer countries like Slovakia (Italy) and South Africa (France), and by ties to Algeria and — the horror! — the United States (England).

If there’s any consolation for a frustrated patriot, though, it might be in the realization that the very act of marrying national pride to a sports team is a bit absurd to begin with. In our modern, globalized, “flat” world, national boundaries and collective identity are becoming increasingly slippery. To place an already fraught and tenuous sense of “us” on the shoulders of 11 athletic strangers, then, may be asking too much.

Can a “national” team truly represent a nation anymore, other than through the broadest criteria of citizenship? Consider England, for example. It’s the home of the English Premiere League, widely considered to be the top destination in the world for soccer. Despite hosting such a vast amount of talent for the duration of the EPL’s nine-month season, the English national team underwhelmed in the group stage, looking like a disjointed hodgepodge of top players, not a team. In soccer, where there are no timeouts to confer with coaches, team chemistry is perhaps more important than other sports; knowing your fellow players’ tendencies is key to advancing the ball down the field. The English side, though, spent more time as competitors at the club level (for teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool) than teammates.

The results were painful for anyone who thought that, just because the EPL played in England, the English players would have an advantage. The fact is that there is no truly “English” team in the league, which showcases players from all over the world, as well as owners and managers from the United States, Russia, Thailand, Iceland, Portugal, France, and elsewhere. Ironically, none of the players selected by the English manager (Fabio Capello, himself Italian) had played at the club level anywhere other than England. Thanks to the make-up of today’s EPL, though, that meant that the English players were immersed in one of the most diverse sports leagues in the world.

Other national teams, however, had more success due in part to their abilities to draw from cohesion at the club level. Germany and Spain, for example, pulled a great number of their players from club teams Bayern Munich and F.C. Barcelona, respectively. Both easily won their group stages. Such advantages have prompted English protests. Libi Thomas, blogger for the site “EPL Talk”, noted that, “Had the FA [the body that governs English football] decided to crack its whip a few years ago and make it mandatory for all England based clubs to have a specified number of local players in the playing 11 the situation would not have been as grim and hopeless as it is now.” Such comments walk a thin line of xenophobia and national pride, but they do ultimately recognize that the goings-on at a country’s club level have a particular impact on the shape of their national teams.

They also point out how the shrinking of the world’s distances in the face of economic interest is complicating FIFA’s model of “international” competition. Should the EPL restrict its membership to raise the quality of the home-grown lads? Or, more compellingly, is the notion of a “national” team becoming obsolete in the wake of global capitalism? Left unchecked, might the notion of a tournament of countries — even countries at all — become antiquated?

Any answer at this point is purely speculative, but it’s clear that multinationalist capitalism and international athletic events like the World Cup are fundamentally at odds. One disregards borders in the pursuit of wealth, the other plays up nationalist enthusiasm in the pursuit of… well, wealth. Today, the urge remains to see these national teams as synecdochic representatives of their respective countries. It’s a lot of pressure for 11 players to bear, but it also highlights the grand absurdities that sports often allow us to indulge. While fans’ nationalist fantasies are the engine that drives World Cup excitement, the realities of economic development threaten to undermine the tournament’s own cultural currency.

It was a great poet who asked to “Imagine there’s no countries”. What he failed to point out in his song, though, was that a “country” is already a kind of imaginative act, or really a sum of acts (for example, calling a river a “border”). John Lennon, who also asked us to “imagine no possessions”, may have found the irony particularly cruel that it is, in fact, the unchecked spread of capitalism that threatens to destabilize what we mean when we talk about “nationhood” — on the pitch or elsewhere.

In the same song, though, Lennon may have provided us an answer and, oddly, hope for the future of the World Cup and the coherence of countries. Without them, there’d by “nothing to kill or die for”. In other words the World Cup teams (however they’re configured), like countries (real or imagined), will always be around — precisely because they give us (wherever we live, in body or spirit) something to cheer about.