With an audience of three billion, the World Cup is the biggest spectacle on earth, a grand stage upon which 32 nations have a minimum of three games each to present themselves to the world.
Some teams are out to distract attention from the strife going on in their homelands; others try to call attention to it, as a cathartic form of activism; most are thrilled just to be involved, and devote themselves to enjoying every moment of the experience. In many small countries, the day following qualification for the World Cup is declared a national holiday. When the national team plays, the nation shuts down, as the population gathers around whatever TV is most convenient – the corner pub’s plasma screen or the bush village’s hand-cranked black-and-white. Presidential elections, civil wars, nuclear crises: anything can be put off when a game is on; yet any aspect of national character can be seen in the way a nation relates to the game.
In Jorge Luis Borges’ story, the Aleph was a miraculous object into which one could look to see everything else in the world. The World Cup is like that: it is an event that contains all other events – or at the very least, it offers a point from which to view every other event. Many observers concentrated on Italy’s victory in the final, or on French star Zinedine Zidane’s dismissal for headbutting Italian defender Marco Materazzi; but many other facets of the world were on display at Deutschland ’06.
Germany has worked for eight years solid on this World Cup: first, preparing the bribes necessary to host any event with a worldwide governing body; next, building new stadiums and repairing the old, in order to limit the number of crowd-crush asphyxiations; then, preparing the provisions, the police, and the prostitutes needed to accommodate tourists from every country on earth, while trying to remember which countries hate which others and why; finally and most importantly, figuring out how to brand and market the damn thing.
Of course, for an ad campaign of this scale, with so many taboos to work around, the highest praise possible is “inoffensive.
By that standard, Germany’s World Cup must go down as a success. Often, the branding was so aggressively inoffensive that it risked coming off as euphemism. The official World Cup logo bears the slogan “Friends invite the world” (Die Welt zu Cast bei Freunden), or much more loosely, “Time to make friends. be forced through the lips of Major Toht (the Nazi sadist from “Raiders of the Lost Ark ) as roll off the tongue of a busty Oktoberfestive barmaid. The tenor of European history in the coming decades may depend on which image prevails.
Though Germany (as opposed to Prussia, Saxony, and so forth) has been a “nation” for only 130 years or so, it has collected names for millennia. The name we Anglophones use came from the Celts: most sources trace it back to Ushout” (gar) or Battle cry” (gairm), though some hold out for the less noisy Uneighbor” (gair). The Finns use Saksa, from the same root as our Saxon,” or swordsman.” The Slavs have their own views on the matter, calling the German people various names based on memory, or “mute” – that is, a barbarian, someone who can’t speak properly.
Germany refers to itself as Deutschland, the “land of the people.” It’s a name of ill omen given their past century’s experiments with one Yolk, one Reich – experiments that a small but growing group of Germans are eager to resume. It should be no surprise that these neo-Nazis, resurgent in German culture and politics, resplendent in Iron Crosses and imperial eagles – not to mention smuggled swastikas – are drawn to an event where flags are waved and the nation’s pride is at stake. Because these neo-Nazis are resurgent, and because the nation’s pride is at stake, the German government is desperate to live up to another of the country’s names: Ale- mania (or Allemagne, s’il vous plait), “all men”: a confederation of many groups. Hosting the World Cup gave Germany a chance to show off its new identity, to demonstrate its shift from the militarized racial mythology of the Aryan thugs to the peaceful, global mythology of the marketplace.
Thus, the opening ceremony that must be endured before any large-scale sporting event can begin was organized around the theme of “Germany! But not that Germany!” The Germans dug their lederhosen out of mothballs, and danced around slapping their heels, even though there were no tubas to be heard. They dug even deeper into their shallow reservoir of inoffensive native stereotypes to explain the presence of the giant hive-shaped papier-mache bells dangling from the arena roof: apparently, Germans once used bells to drive their flocks down the Alpine slopes to market.
Before the audience had time to linger long on thoughts of creatures being led to the slaughter, the Germans pulled attention back to their newfound sense of humor, and new-lost sense of order, by parading representatives of all 32 nations
The World Cup is an event that contains all other events – or at the very least, it offers a point from which to view every other event.
in whatever traditional garb each was willing to pretend its residents still wear. With that many costumes in one place, the field was only a drag queen and a dwarf away from a Mexican game show.
London Times columnist Simon Barnes, understandably confused by the proceedings, did his best to sum up the madness: “Let’s assume that a small boy had a dream about football and then world peace broke out.” Or, from the German perspective, let’s assume that the world had a dream about war, and after a hundred years or so a game of football broke out.
Or was scheduled to, anyway. Ten minutes from the start of the first game, the field was still covered with hundreds of people, a three-tiered stage, and a stadium-size red carpet. It appeared that delay was inevitable – but leave it to the Germans to wipe from their soil all evidence that other cultures had ever been there: the game started precisely on time.
The one other nation allowed to remain on the field was Costa Rica, Germany’s opposition – and opposed in more ways than just facing them on the soccer field. Well before Bismarck incorporated Germany with an eye toward control-
Germany set out to demonstrate its shift from a militarized racial mythology to the peaceful mythology of the marketplace. Thus, the opening ceremony was organized around the theme of “Germany! But not that Germany!”
ling Europe, Costa Rica found it had broken off from the necrotic Spanish Empire; so remote from the center of power were Costa Ricans, it took them six weeks to be told they were independent. While Germans busied themselves with military prowess and regalia, Costa Ricans disbanded their army, becoming the first democratic republic to function without one. Thus the omens were good, the entrails in order: the only thing left was for the German team to show that they’d been transformed too. They did not disappoint.
German soccer teams have always been known for strong defense, for discipline, for machine-like efficiency – which is to sa~ for having no soul. But how different they were in this game: free-flowing and spirited, attacking not like methodical panzers but like exhilarated cavalrymen, slashing across the middle and charging up the flanks at every opportunit}r, even though it meant leaving themselves open to counterattacks. The excitement generated by this freewheeling 4-2 win was astounding: the German populace, who had until this evening been skeptical of their team’s chances of success, began painting their faces, sticking flags on their cars, and generally flaunting the kind of goofy patriotism for which they routinely mock Americans. It was as if they’d realized all of a sudden that loving Germany didn’t necessitate hating any other country or people – a critical rediscovery for a nation that, given France’s precipitous decline (and the continued absence of a Habsburg monarch), is again Europe’s natural leader.
Selection as one of a dozen host cities for World Cup games is only the second good thing to happen to Gelsenkirchen in six decades (the first was hosting World Cup games in 1974). It was once Uthe city of a thousand fires,” the biggest coal- mining town in Europe. As such, it made a convenient target for Allied bombers, which flattened three-fourths of the city; though the collieries struggled on, by 2000 they had all been forced to close. Which left Gelsenkirchen without a sense of itself as a city: imagine a Detroit without cars, or better, a Newcastle suddenly without productive mines, so that carrying coals there would be a sensible business proposition.
Cities in transition are well advised to stick with what they know. Since Gelsenkirchen knew energy, the obvious choice for industrial leadership was its oil refineries, which are now among the biggest and most advanced in the world. But the German Green streak runs deep: oil and leadership are only allowed to share a sentence when they’re being used to unveil international conspiracies. Needing an energy industry that was both Green-friendly and potentially lucrative, Gelsen-kirchen doled out heavy subsidies to solar power plants.
But as solar power has proved inadequate as a replacement for fossil fuels, so also has it failed to rejuvenate the city, which still has the highest unemployment rate in western Germany. And now hundreds of TV crews would be turning their attention to the droves of young unemployed men, ideally catching them in the act of burning cars or breaking open each other’s skulls. Stir into this mixture of idleness and television a sizable Polish minority riled up by “professional” Polish hooligans entering Germany surreptitiously, and suddenly a game involving two countries with no history between them – Poland and Ecuador – had the potential to spark a riot.
The day of the game saw embattled protests by aggressive racists and equally aggressive antiracists – though more tomatoes were thrown than punches. In Gelsenkirchen these displays are commonplace, mere ritual; word was that the real violence, the spark that would again light the city’s thousand fires, would strike after the game.
Yet it wasn’t to be, not that night. The Polish team lacked fire, and one goal in each half for the Ecuadoreans stole the fire from the crowd as well. Such a dispirited performance wasn’t a loss the spectators could even get properly angry about, just properly drunk, before going home to sleep and forget. Was it a near miss? Had it all been an exaggerated threat? There wouldn’t be much of a wait to find out: five days later, Poland was set to play Germany in Dortmund, and fears were that old battles would flare-up in the streets.
The police, taking no chances, deployed officers in riot gear to monitor the city center and other gathering places. This strategy of preventive (or proactive) policing is a bugbear for libertarians: on the one hand, it seems to assume guilt on the part of the targeted group, thus violating the suspects’ rights; on the other hand, it seems to aim at provoking said suspects into committing the crimes they’re assumed to be guilty of. Yet by any empirical measure, the preventive police offensive in Dortmund was a success: there weren’t any deaths; there weren’t even any serious injuries. Why did it work so well here (and elsewhere: during the tournament about 1,500 people were preemptively jailed, including 600 belligerent Brits), when it has so often failed at preventing anything other than the exercise of due process?
1) The operation had a clearly defined goal. The object wasn’t to stop hooliganism – or, for that matter, any other ism – in the abstract. It was to prevent actual hooligans from committing specific acts of violence.
2) The various agencies cooperated fully with one another. In the rush to claim credit for arrests, law enforcement agencies often view themselves as competitors rather than partners, and blunders predictably result. Here, German officials relied on the expertise of Polish police to identify and arrest 40 Polish hooligan leaders – many of whom were carrying switchblades or other street-fighting knives. (And note: it wasn’t the knives that got the hooligans detained; it was their reputations for using knives, or rocks, or boots, to injure others.)
3) The police set a schedule and stuck to it. In all, about 300 Poles and 150 Germans were taken into custody; 48 hours later, with the game over and the flashpoint passed, all but three (one who punched a cameraman, and two who hit cops with bottles) had been released.
The restraint of the German police turned a would-be riot into a localized brawl that one official described as “less serious than those before an average German league game.” In the end, the only losers in Dortmund were those hard-luck Polish fans who came not to raise Cain, but to support their team: they had their hearts ripped out when the Germans scored in the game’s final minute to win 1-0, denying them even the moral victory of a stalemate on German soil. They would have to content themselves with the less immediately inspirational feat of finding their way safely back to their hotels, and returning to a Poland that is free, after half a century of struggle, from collectivist ideology. It’s a smaller fire, more suited to a hearth than a factor)!, but perhaps it will warm a few hearts.
In one of the strange juxtapositions that globalization seems to foster, during their game with England the Paraguayan players spoke not in their usual Spanish, but in Guarani, a Mesoamerican language rarely if ever heard in Europe – even in Frankfurt, busy Frankfurt, with its city-sized airport through which seemingly every international traveler must pass.
A few years ago, English captain and media icon David Beckham was sold by his very wealthy team, Manchester United, to an even wealthier Spanish side, Real Madrid. (This kind of big-money, big-publicity transfer was once rare; with
German soccer teams have always been known for strong defense, for discipline, for machinelike efficiency – which is to say, for having no soul.
the EU easing work permit requirements, it’s now a staple of the soccer season, as the world’s richest clubs seek to gather the world’s best players, regardless of their countries of origin.) While in Spain, Beckham picked up the local lingo, or at least enough of it to communicate with his colleagues. The Paraguayans, wanting to keep their on-field banter private from Beckham and thus from the rest of the English team, switched to their nation’s other official language.
But the strategy backfired: the game’s lone goal was scored after only four minutes, when a Paraguayan defender, misunderstanding his teammates’ directions, headed the ball into his own goal while trying to get rid of a long pass from Beckham. Even though England played poorly, the team never looked like losing the game, especially after being given the lead.
Critics of globalization are badly mistaken about the economics of world trade, but their criticisms, if applied to a game like this one, would have some validity: the whole affair was blunt and boring, and the less developed country simply could not compete on a “level playing field.”
The World Cup sparks strange alliances. This year, Scot- land,. whose national team. again missed out on a major tournament, rallied around Trinidad and Tobago, primarily because there’s a player on the T&T roster named Jason Scot- land (it also didn’t hurt that T&T would be playing the Auld Enem)T, England).
So also did Ireland muster to support the Ivory Coast (whose team is nicknamed the “Elephants,” with a touch of the wry humor that pervades Africa), because the two nations’ flags use the same color stripes.
Cote d’Ivoire needs all the support it can get. Its entire history as a nation was aptly, if unintentionally, summarized by a “Facts About the Ivory Coast” graphic on ESPN2: “World’s largest producer of cocoa. Currently in state of civil war.”
It was a cocoa farmer, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who set Cote d’Ivoire on the road to independence, and it was this same farmer who for two decades steered his country clear of the nationalistic coups and wars that savaged the surrounding nations. In the late ’70s, it was Houphouet-Boigny who bravely stood before his fellow African leaders and chastised them for being every bit as racist as the colonial overseers they’d overthrown.
Sadly, his legacy was not limited to the UNESCO Peace Prize bearing his name. As one might guess from the fact that his name also adorns the nation’s biggest stadium and airport, as well as his own personal presidential palace, Houphouet- Boigny turned out to be as adept at shuffling money as any
The entire history of Cote d’Ivoire was aptly, if unintentionally, summarized by a graphic on ESPN2: “World’s largest producer of cocoa. Currently in state of civil war. ”
career politician this side of Robert Byrd. For a man of H-B’s talents, the state-run cacao and coffee plantations were as lucrative as oil fields or diamond mines. While embezzlement ranks rather lower than genocide and cannibalism on the list of atrocities perpetrated by African dictators, H-B’s graft was sufficient to leave the country’s already-mismanaged industries teetering, and the nation’s economy faded along with his health.
After his death in 1993, the Ivorian elite quickly realized that the impoverished country had been held together by the old man’s heart and brain alone. Lacking both, new president Henri Bedie tried to unite Cote d’Ivoire around the concept of Ivoirite, or shared cultural heritage. It took less than five
It took three years of killing, three years of broken cease-fires and children’s legs blown off by landmines, for a potential source of unity to emerge – and it was soccer, not culture or politics or blood.
years for this nationalistic abstraction to morph into a blood test barring from the presidency anyone not of “pure Ivorian” stock, effectively excluding from the political process every- one in the Muslim-tinged north. The descent into civil war was swift and all but inevitable.
It took three years of killing, three years of broken ceasefires and children’s legs blown off by landmines, for a potential source of unity to emerge – and it was soccer, not culture or politics or blood. Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” His is a sentiment shared by many Ivorians, almost of necessity: soccer alone offers a temporary release from the cycle of murder and retribution. When the Cote d’Ivoire team, featuring players from both north and south, qualified for its first-ever World Cup, people all over the country put off killing one another and celebrated. Here was courage; here was pride; here, at last, was Ivoirite.
The real problem with stories, wrote Neil Gaiman in “The Sandman,” is that if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death. The story of the Elephants’ visit to the World Cup was a great one, and it ended pleasantly, if abruptly: the team earned rave reviews for its spirit and skill, but try as they might, the players could not get past traditional powers Argentina and Holland. The team returned to Cote d’Ivoire to· be honored for its valiant representation of the country. But history keeps going: it won’t be long until the jeeps that bore the team in its celebratory parade will again be laden with machine guns and stuffed with swaggering pubescent soldiers, valiantly representing their country by trying to kill the other half of it. The rift is too deep; try as they might, the Elephants could not get their homeland past its quarrels. As with the 1914 Christmas Truce, soccer could never be more than a brief reprieve from combat.
The World Cup sparks strange alliances, indeed. In 2006, the strangest may have been the alliance of Cote d’Ivoire with itself.