I’m only a casual soccer fan—hardly even a fan at all—but I do love hockey, a sport that’s in many regards soccer’s bruising inverse, a sort of deranged, wintry fraternal twin to the beautiful game. Hockey is America’s fourth big-league sport, and despite two consecutive Stanley Cups for Los Angeles and a general conviction among the cognoscenti that Western play is the superior style these days, it’s only in the icy, soggy band that stretches from Minnesota through the Great Lakes before curling up to Boston that the sport has anything like real prominence in the US. In bad football years in Pittsburgh, of which, lately, there’ve been more than a couple, the Penguins become the preeminent local team. But even here, any real appreciation and understanding of the sport is elusive, and Pittsburghers will sit over their big Yeunglings at the bar arguing with a straight face that Lemiuex was better than Gretzky before turning to the screen to shout, alternately, “Hit him!” and “Shoot the puck!” Almost invariably, neither would be a good idea. Hockey’s speed and bottled violence distract from the fundamental tactics of the game: position, possession, and puck movement; the critical importance of lines, line-changes, and specific match-ups. Besides which—there is the unaccountable power, especially in the playoffs, of the hot goalie. After a miraculous 2009 Stanley Cup run that kicked off with a mid-year coaching change, my Pens have fallen, again and again, in the pre-Cup playoffs, outclassed by lesser squads playing superior tactical hockey. The Penguins have two of the preeminent stars of the current game, which is fine during the looser, slower play of the regular season, but in the playoffs, stars matter less than systems. This is true in most team sports played at the highest professional levels. Hey, San Antonio.
Anyway, I mention this because Franklin Foer has a weird piece in The New Republic arguing something or other about the World Cup. This tournament, he frets, “lacked a historically great team”; the Germans only beat Brazil because of something to do with psychology; “Germany doesn’t have anything close to a transcendent player.” Well, let’s unpack that last bit:
Despite a roster filled with excellent players, Germany doesn’t have anything close to a transcendent player. (Neuer, at goalkeeper, is the only player who comes close.) And there’s nothing paradigm-shaking about the German style of play. The fourth German World Cup will likely be remembered much like the past three—the triumph of a great system and a team that doesn’t squander its chances.
That “despite” is doing yeoman’s work. The romance of movie-theater sport is the transcendent player; the reality of championships is blocky teamwork, especially in a game like soccer, where scoring chances are generally few. A cliché of American football may be appropriate here: “We’ve got to convert.” That is to say, the difference between winning and losing at the highest level of team sport is not squandering chances.
Yes, Messi was relatively quiet, but the championship game was really quite thrilling, and Germany’s single, winning goal in extra time was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Since I had no natural rooting interest in the tournament, I was hoping for Argentina to pull it out, based on no special affinity beyond a vaguely political preference for a national—if not sporting—underdog. Ah well. The game was a thrill because it could have gone either way. The pyrotechnics of scoring are dull; a sport in which most games are close games is a good sport. The Brazilian collapse was a wild outlier, but the Group Stage that Foer calls “affirmative, almost joyous”—meaning something by those words that no native speaker of English has ever meant before, I’m quite certain, as I haven’t the foggiest idea what they could possible mean in context—did not “[reflect] a buried side of human nature”; it reflected regular season play. Then the best teams moved on and things tightened up. The Germans were a great playoff team. Here’s another sports cliché: they didn’t make many mistakes. The ability to read a cultural moment into the style of a sporting victory is, I suppose, the sort of thing that gets you a job at The New Republic, but if that’s the sort of thing that turns you on about sports, then here, let me explain to you in great detail how American football is sublimated homoeroticism while you’re biting your nails over a critical field goal.
This ability to distill any fundamentally human activity into some dour reflection on “the geopolitical situation” strikes me as the saddest, most pathetic of psychic pathologies, a sort of illness of the soul that makes real joy and affirmation impossible to those who’ve been infected by it. It is, of course, also a prerequisite for writing for that certain kind of middlebrow American magazine that more and more resembles an outdated sanitarium full of mad—but not too mad—patients padding around the gardens believing themselves to be some combination of Clausewitz, de Tocqueville, Hans Castorp, and Jesus Christ. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes a cigar is Vladimir Putin’s surely immense . . .
“Vladimir Putin loomed at the center of the Maracanã today. And in a way, he’s loomed over this whole past month of soccer.” I can fairly guarantee you’re the only one who thought so, Franklin. Forgetting the months of protest in Brazil’s major cities, the forced evacuations of neighborhoods, the official violence, the waste and fraud of the whole affair, Foer pronounces the Brazilian games merely acceptably corrupt—a charming, minor, Latin-American corruption, unlike those dastardly Russians and evil Qataris. This is pure projection of the fixations of the American political class onto an unrelated event; the obsessions of the pundit class are the Vaseline rubbed on the lenses through which they view the world. The distinction between “the grotesque spectacles of preening authoritarian regimes” and the “moment of relative innocence” that was the Brazilian record of minor “misdeeds” is one largely without a difference. Authoritarianism is just a name for any country whose politics you don’t like at any given moment, not a descriptor of an actual political system. I am pretty convinced that Dilma Rousseff is somewhat less personally odious than Vladimir Putin, but she still sent in the riot cops. Meanwhile, I dare you to compare, for what it’s worth, their approval ratings in their respective countries. The world is more complicated than the never-correct and now-less-correct-than-ever teleology of West vs. East. There are real differences between conferences in the NHL; in “geopolitics” rather less so. Were the London Olympics really any less a “grotesque” and “preening” a “spectacle” than the Beijing Games; were either qualitatively different from Sochi? Maybe Western Europe and the US have just been more successful at pre-relocating their poor out of the attractive potential Olympic villages.
International sporting events are—of course—opportunities for the governments of host countries to transmogrify their failures into tawdry demonstrations of national purpose and unity. Hey, it beats invading Iraq, I guess. Is Russian state media sweeping Putin’s record on gay rights under the soccer pitch really more morally odious than the pages of the major organs of American media giving over their editorial and opinion pages to the endless stream of reactionary Neoconservatives and “National Greatness” Conservatives arguing that our own national renewal is just one more bombing sortie away, forever? Qatari slave labor is utterly hateful, but so is America’s internment of tens of thousands of child refugees in desert concentration camps. There is no precise taxonomy and rubric of national wrongdoing that allows us to rank these things like a deranged Wikipedia list: the world’s largest freshwater lakes by volume; the world’s most populous urban agglomerations; the world’s most evil national regimes. I would be perfectly pleased to have no more international sporting events ever, anywhere, but if we must, then the surest way to keep the grotesquerie to a civilized minimum is to always and ever insist that they are only games.