Sadly, the scourge of terrorism marred the final day with an attack by a Somali terrorist group in Uganda, killing and wounding dozens of people who were enjoying World Cup final parties. South Africa hosted the games without so much as a security hiccup and should not be held responsible for this cowardly attack in a neighboring nation. Signs of the times.
Spain, a Deserving Champion - Congratulations to España for playing consistent if not brilliant football throughout. It was pragmatic, results-oriented, and good enough to win. Spain came to the competition with creds as European champion and the world’s best team, Barcelona. Of course, the globalization of the sport is such that the top European stars in European leagues are foreigners. Aside from a lack of offensive punch in Spain, it didn’t affect the team as much as England. FIFA president Sepp Blatter noted that some British players couldn’t even crack the starting lineups on their English Premier League teams. Oops.
Final, a Pelada - The final match was, frankly, forgettable. A Brasilian blogger likened it to a glorified pelada, which translates to a ramshackle pickup game. When a team comes out not to lose, as the Dutch did, bad things usually happen. In the match with Brasil the Dutch played the inexperienced Japanese referee like a vuvuzela, with a disgraceful display of simulated dives. This time around the British ref allowed unabated rough play, without so much as a red card, until OT came around. There were plenty of yellows, though, a record number issued. The Brasilian ESPN broadcasters (far superior to the arch British game callers) noted that the ref was “administering” the game with yellow cards. He had the uncanny knack of singling out the Dutch players who hadn’t yet been booked. “Who’s left,” asked one of the broadcasters, “the goalkeeper?”
The carrasco –- executioner -– of the Dutch team was their number 6, Mark van Bommel, who looks like a serial killer (see photo) and plays like one. Van Bommel rarely made any attempt to play the ball, fouling opponents with a viciousness that breaks legs. Eventually, he was booked. One Brasilian game caller wondered rather sardonically whether Johann Cryuff would pay to watch this Dutch team play. To his credit, the caustic Cruyff spared Holland no criticism either: “Sadly, they played very dirty —- so much so that they should have been down to nine men immediately. Holland chose an ugly path to aim for the title. This was vulgar, hard and hermetic. They ended up losing, playing anti-football.”
Eternal Bridesmaid? - The Stadium Gods are cruel and unforgiving but their verdicts are fair, if not always just. (There is a difference: When the best team –- Brasil –- doesn’t win, regardless of the circumstances, it has only itself to blame.) The Dutch had their chances, back-to-back in 1974 and 1978, and again in 2010. Each time they failed. Cruyff’s legendary “Clockwork Orange” deserved the title, lost fair and square to a good German team. They had two chances to redeem themselves, and failed of their own devices. So far, Holland is fated to be an eternal bridesmaid. That’s the cruelest cut of all -- the horror of rooting for those “almost” teams. A cruel –- but fair –- verdict for this Dutch team.
Germany’s Renewal - It was Germany that played the most entertaining football of the tournament; an offensive style quite unlike German teams of the past, with verve and panache -- a joy to watch. Germany was the youngest team in the competition, and the lack of seasoning probably did them in against Spain in the semifinal. But Germany will be back. Muller, the talented 20-year old striker won the golden boot with five goals and three assists, as well as best young player. Pelé did it as an 18-year old in 1958 when he scored six times.
Blatter should look no further than Germany if he is concerned over the future of European football. The German Bundesliga isn’t as flashy and talent-laden as the Premier League and La Liga, but it has developed the best homegrown talent. Beside Muller, there’s Özil, the young midfielder with the oomlat in his name who looks like Franz Kafka and plays like Franz Beckenbauer. Old school German captain Michael Ballack won’t have a spot on this team of Özil, Muller and Schweinsteiger -- the new young Turks (literally, in Özil’s case).
A Tale of Two Nations - So what is Germany’s secret? As the old cliché goes, what happens on the football pitch is only a game. But every so often the “game” can reveal profound lessons that reach beyond the field of play. Germany’s storybook run as the youngest team in the tournament was in sharp contrast to France’s complete and total breakdown. Germany played as a team. France fractured as a team, with accusations of a “traitor” in its midst and angry government intervention at the presidential and ministerial levels. FIFA’s Sepp Blatter issued a stern warning for the French government to stand down and leave to FIFA what are FIFA’s prerogatives. After all, it’s only a game isn’t it? The historical irony cuts like a Blitzkrieg punching through the Maginot line.
It’s comforting, perhaps, for some to say that Nazism –- a sick ideology based on the lie of racial purity and superiority -- was unique to Germany, therefore it could not happen in our backyard. Yet those who claim a nation’s dark past is its destiny, let alone a fatal cultural flaw in its people’s collective character, don’t know much about History. To understand how Germany has thoroughly freed itself of its dark past, one need only glance at the German national team’s roster and the background of its players:
- Cacau – A Brasilian national, naturalized German
- Aogo – Son of immigrant Nigerian father and German mother
- Boateng – Son of immigrant Ghanaian father and German mother
- Khedira – Son of immigrant Tunisian father and German mother
- Özil and Tasci – German-born sons of Turkish immigrant parents
- Podolski – Born in Poland, emigrated to Germany as a child
- Klose and Trochowski – Also Polish immigrants
- Matias Marin – Fled with his parents to Germany from war-torn Bosnia during the Balkans conflict
France’s cultural chauvinism, protectionism really, is an anachronism and a source of social instability. It’s hard to look past the dynamic success of the German team as compared to the French team’s implosion without drawing the obvious conclusions. The sooner French elites recognize that immigrants, whether or not they wear burkas and worship Islam, will strengthen –- not weaken –- their society, the better. French cultural and political elites should take a lesson from Germany and World Champions, Spain:
Those players paraded in Madrid on Monday as “campeones” are saluted as modern gods who it is hoped can provide Spain with a pleasurable distraction to regional divisions that remain from the Franco dictatorship that ended 35 years ago.FIFA Does Some Things Right - There is much to criticize FIFA for -- its archaic anti-technology ways, its resistance to instant replay -- but one high-profile FIFA campaign is very cool indeed: That is, the unfurling of banners before games with the words, “SAY NO TO RACISM,” followed by a statement of principles reinforcing the message, read by each team captain. Instead of the plethora of United Way campaigns with TV spots by superstar athletes, imagine the impact of a simple but powerful FIFA-style campaign, with a large banner held by umps and players from both teams in, oh … how about Arizona: SAY NO TO RACISM.
This is a team that the Catalans can support because of Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. And yes, Andrés Iniesta because, though he was born in central Spain, in Albacete, he has been a part of Barcelona’s training academy since he was 12. It is a team that has a Basque, Xabi Alonso, in its midfield. A team led by goalkeeper Iker Casillas of Real Madrid.
Hellooo … NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, MLB … Any takers?
It would be presumptuous to say that the World Cup can solve the world’s problems. But at its best, through the universality of this sport, it breaks down cultural and nationalistic barriers. Even as fans colorfully, and noisily, celebrate their cultural differences, it’s what people have in common that binds them together. And it’s the realization that we have much more in common than separates us that is the World Cup’s most enduring gift.
See everybody in BRASIL 2014!