Friday, June 11, 2010

World Rivalries, Cultural Diversity, and USA v. England, a World Cup Match With a New Complexion

Black. Paint it black. Black as night, black as coal. Black as oil.

This will not be the first time that politics has intruded upon the world’s most popular game in the world’s largest sports stage: the World Cup. Over the decades, the clash between the four great European powers –- Britain, France, Italy, and Germany –- has had an undercurrent of political and historical enmity, most of it bellicose. With the EU’s formation and globalization of football at the club level, historical rivalries have waned. At least that’s the idea behind the Euro, unless you talk to some old-timers wearing the Croix de Guerre or the DFC.

In South America, football rivalries are no less nationalistic, but with the sport as a symbol of one country’s cultural superiority over another. Mostly, it’s just a way to knock the big guy down a peg or two. Actually, it’s pretty one-sided, with the Bolivarian (Spanish-speaking) countries ganging up in their obsessive fan hatred of Brasil. (Don’t get me wrong, outside of football, the people are as friendly and cordial as can be.)

The biggest rivalry in South America is between Brasil and Argentina. It’s so fiercely competitive that after a century of confrontation on the football pitch and hundreds of games played, the number of victories and defeats among the two great continental rivals is practically even, perhaps with a slight edge to Brasil. Amazing. Just the other day at his South Africa presser, asked about the excessive smiles among his teammates, the great Argentine field general Juan Sebastián Verón mocked Brasil:
“If it’s about smiles, I don’t know that we’d go well but I think Brasil would be champions every year. (Ed – but Verón, the Cup only happens every four years!) It’s good coexistence, it’s good to be well. But once we’re on the field, we’ve got to play ball. We don’t do the samba on the field, otherwise the yellow jerseys would win every time.”
Brasilians are used to the razzing, and don’t really mind it or get angry. When los hermanos Argentinos start trash talking, Brasilians will hold up five fingers on one hand and two on the other. That’s the number of World Cups won by Brasil (five, most by any country) and Argentina (two). Brasil is the only country to win outside its own continental region; in fact Brasil has won in every regional group: the Americas, Europe, and Asia. If Brasil wins the 2010 Cup in South Africa, it will be the one nation to have won in every continent on planet Earth. Not too shabby, and definitely something to shoot for. (The Cup won’t return to Africa for at least another generation.)

Maybe Verón is frustrated because it seems to come too easy for Brasil. That’s just a surface impression, though. Brasil’s got game, lots of it, derived from its cultural African roots, born in thousands of playgrounds for poor kids who learn early in life to be creative and surmount the most difficult obstacles and conditions. They play on dirt and sandy beaches, they play on grass and hard courts. They play with makeshift balls stuffed with rags and old socks, and sometimes goal posts marked by T-shirts. They dream of defending the scarlet and black colors of Flamengo, the world’s most popular football club. And sometimes the lucky few, like American kids playing hoops on inner city courts, they make it to the Big Show.

Brasil and Argentina are two great football traditions. Brasil plays attacking football, with joy and finesse and improvisational art that brings a smile to people’s faces. Because of it Brasil has reached the pinnacle of the sport, but also has had its share of bitter defeats. 1950. 1982. Maybe it’s that devil-may-care attitude Verón touched on, the total joy of playing the game for its own sake. Take that away and Brasil is not Brasil.

Besides, what’s wrong with lots of smiles and samba? Hell, we could all use a smile these days. Argentina has a potent World Cup squad and the world’s best player in Lionel Messi. This might be their year. Or maybe the two great South American rivals will clash in the final. In which case all bets are off.

Despite its high crime rate driven by pockets of poverty, Rio de Janeiro was recently voted the world’s friendliest city. Actually, friendliness is a distinction, a saving grace, Brasilians share with Americans. Both countries are steeped in a democratic spirit that doesn’t exist in Old World democracies with royal traditions and history.

That’s part of it. The other part is the great cultural diversity in both countries, truly a source of strength, not something to be feared. A friend once told me that if anyone looked closely at the children of immigrants in America, they’d realize how silly the alarmist anti-immigrant xenophobia coursing through the body politic is. In less than a generation, no matter how they look, these children of immigrants are totally Americanized. (If there is a silver lining to such extreme attitudes, it’s that it’s not a new phenomenon in American history and politics. In the 1850s and 1860s the “Tea Party” of that turbulent era were the “Know-Nothings” whose major plank was anti-immigrant xenophobia against, at that time, the immigration of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics to this country.)

Brasil is the multicultural colossus of South America, the dominant economic power, more racially and ethnically diverse than its neighbors to the west. Brasil has a distinctly spiced culture that is less Eurocentric than African, in the arts, music, food, all of the good things in life. The European contribution, in large part, has been the white colonial social oligarchy. In South America, cultural contributions must always be viewed through the prism of colonial rule.

Even in North America, where the United States broke free of its colonial shackles in the latter half of the 18th century, asserting its hemispheric supremacy, white Europeans who clamor for their “country back” are really pining for an Old World across the pond that no longer exists. Not after the devastation and redrawn maps of Europe wrought by two world wars. If they took the time to visit New Orleans, the part of our country currently under assault by British oil barons and oligarchs, if they stayed long enough to absorb some of the culture, get a taste of creole food, listen to the lilting sounds of Zydeco in the back roads where country folks speak a form of French, maybe then they’d understand. Maybe then they’d not feel so threatened.

Because tomorrow the United States of America meets England on a green football pitch in South Africa, before thousands of fans. And because tomorrow the United States team will be, for a brief moment in time –- 90 minutes, not counting halftime and injury time --- the most popular World Cup side in the world. Not universally popular, to be sure, but silently and volubly cheered by millions (perhaps billions) of people who love this planet of ours and quietly cry for the wanton destruction a greedy British corporation has inflicted on our shores, on all of us.

It’s nothing personal. It’s not even about the United States, whose popularity waxes and wanes with the venality of its government. It’s not even about the British, a faded shadow of the days when the “sun never set” on its Empire, although Africans have suffered more, and more recently, under the yoke of European colonialism than most oppressed peoples. It is about the power of transnational corporations. America’s hands aren’t clean, but the American people do not deserve to be ravaged by the criminal deregulation of the Bush-Cheney regime.

The United States will take the field as a decided underdog against the mighty British squad. It’s almost like the 1950 World Cup in Brasil all over again. Well, almost. In what has become World Cup lore, a motley crew of working class immigrants recruited from the Italian-American Hill neighborhood of Saint Louis, MO and Irish-Americans from the Corky Row district of Fall River, MA, represented the United States and beat England -- against all odds -- in the game of their lives. To this day, that 1-0 U.S. victory is considered one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

Sixty years later Team USA has plenty of world-class talent, with players toughened in the best professional leagues of Europe. They may not be as star-studded as the British Team, but neither is Team USA in the least outclassed. And tomorrow they’ll be riding the positive energy of millions of football fans who love life on this planet and mourn BP’s eco-genocide of the Gulf of Mexico.
Paint it black. No colors anymore, I want them to turn black.
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away.
Maybe then I'll fade away and not have to face the facts.
It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black.
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted black.
No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue.
I could not foresee this thing happening to you.
If I look hard enough into the setting sun.
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes.
I wanna see it painted, painted black.
Black as night, black as coal.
I wanna see the sun blotted out from the sky.
Painted, painted, painted black …
Black as OIL.


All the world’s a stage, said Shakespeare. Not everyone likes football, or cares who wins or loses in the World Cup. But everyone should celebrate and embrace it as a venue that brings together the rich diversity of the world’s cultures around a beautiful game, in peace and joy and the rich pageant of life.

1 comment:

Carlos said...

1-1 draw as Adidas' terrible orb claims its first victim (and not the last, I'm sure): England's keeper Robert Green pulls a Bill Buckner and allows Clint Dempsey's 25-yard shot to roll off his arms and, slowly, past the goal line as he paws after it helplessly.

I wonder how the Brit tabloids will react tomorrow, and will Green be at goal in England's next match?