June 11, 2010

World Cup Fever.

The excitement has been mounting for weeks and months, years even. And now after long last it is officially on!

Every four years the world comes together to celebrate the World Cup. This single event captivates more people around the globe than any other event in the world, sporting or otherwise. During the World Cup, people gather in large numbers to cheer for their heroes around televisions and transistor radios. While the settings vary from pubs to corporate boardrooms to thatched huts to flophouses, the excitement is the same. The setting for this year's tournament, South Africa, where apartheid was the law of the land until 1994, only adds to this year's heightened sense of celebration.

The First World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930 to mark the country’s centennial. The hosts won beating their neighbors, Argentina 4 to 2. Since then, there have been 18 tournaments—1942 and 1946 were canceled on account of larger global concerns—and only seven countries have ever won. The Germans have won the World Cup three times (1954, 1974, and 1990) and have been in more finals than anyone else. Brazil has won the title five times, more than any other nation, the current runner-up is Italy with four titles, they are in fact the defending champion of this year's tournament. The best the US has ever done was in the first tournament in 1930, where they came in 3rd.

The author of the blog "Stuff White People Like" jokes that part of the excitement for Americans is that this world event allows them "to pretend they are European for a few weeks, and more importantly, it allows them to get drunk at odd hours." Yes indeed, that may be part of the fun. But the importance of the game surely transcends beyond the ability to drink Brazilian caprihinas at early morning hours without a sense of shame while watching Brazil take on their next opponent.

It has long been recognized that the World Cup is about a whole lot more than just soccer. For most people around the globe, these players are more than just showstoppers -- they are gods. And they enjoy the personality cult and salaries to match. In fact, some call it the "most important sport in history," and the numbers are telling of its elevated importance.

It has been estimated that more than 715 million people watched the cup final in 2006, notably 10 times the number of people who watched the Super Bowl that year. Known as a "lingua franca," for most nations around the world, the game becomes an expression of national identity, in fact, 204 nations tried to qualify for 32 spots in this year’s World Cup, while there are only 192 states in the United Nations. This startling statistic is in part fueled by examples like this: the British use it as an excuse to dissolve their union and play as four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Despite the astronomical salaries of football’s greatest stars and the marketing and manufacturing of the whole sport, there is a powerful link between the boys kicking a ball around on the beach to the stars in the stadium, in a way no other sport can claim. There is a purity at the heart of the game, especially as players rarely come from the middle classes, rather their heartlands are the slums and shantytowns, the favelas and the mean backstreets.

But perhaps the real reason people get so engulfed into the World Cup every four years, is because countries seem to play in line their national identities as though these often referenced stereotypes are sewn into their uniforms. The stereotypes live large and provide much fodder to the bar banter.

An excerpt from the Vanity Fair's "authority" on football claims the following (note - this information has neither been confirmed, nor denied in other credible sources):
“The Germans are disciplined, ruthless, and relentless, always with a huge impenetrable goalkeeper. The Italians are vicious, vocal, and cheat. It was an Italian who provoked the Algerian-French Zinedine Zidane to a reactionary foul in the 2006 final by telling him that his sister was a prostitute. This is typically Italian. The Argentines, who are half Italian, play much the same way. The French are terribly inconsistent: one moment glorious and attractive, the next petulant and confused. Portugal and Spain are Europe’s underachievers. In America, “soccer” is still considered a children’s game in many respects, so they are still in the process of growing up. African football is marvelously exciting. No African country has ever gotten past the quarter finals, but they play with eager, individualistic enthusiasm, often without any apparent defensive strategy.”

For the June issue of Vanity Fair, Annie Leibovitz set out to capture some of soccer's biggest stars, including Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, Ghana’s Sulley Muntari, the U.S.A.’s Landon Donovan, Brazil’s Kak√° and Pato, Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, Serbia’s Dejan Stankovic, England’s Carlton Cole, and Germany’s Michael Ballack.
Yum. Annie’s revealing portraits make it easier to decide where your patriotic allegiances may lie.

And as always in the interest of remaining balanced, here is some eye candy for those of a different persuasion.
South Africa opens the World Cup against Mexico on June 11, as is tradition for the host nation's team. Must-see games include England vs. U.S.A. (June 12) as well as matches within the so-called Group of Death—Ivory Coast vs. Portugal (June 15), Brazil vs. Ivory Coast (June 20), Portugal vs. Brazil (June 25).

Let the games (and bar banter!) begin.




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