Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I'll kill myself if Portugal doesn't win

It's World Cup time, and none too soon. Baseball is nearing the end of the tiresome, pitching-starved middle quarter, hockey has lost all its charm with the Sabres' exit and the gift-wrapping of Lord Stanley's cup for Carolina, and basketballzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Federer got served by Rafa in the French, tempering slightly the incessant talk about history and Federer's place among the all-time greats. What better time for the world's most popular tournament to arrive to bring us together in competition-slash-ass-whupping-that-will-likely-make-your-average-American-tune-out?

Jokes aside, it's finally dawned on me how good the Cup is, a showcase for a sport that's accessible to just about all the world (not just the portion that can afford the best equipment/training/beer commercials), and a real opportunity to explore the meaning of playing for nation. For all the jingoism in the post-9/11 U.S. media environment, this is a concept that doesn't really mean anything to most of today's Americans. We are regional creatures when it comes to our sports, and if we talk about anything national it's only to discuss what outcomes will play best in major-media markets but ignoring any consensus bonds, perhaps because we have so few - a discussion thoroughly covered in the political realm. Even the Olympics, our favorite opportunity to rally around the nation's athletes, mean less than they used to here. I'd attribute this partially to the loosening understanding of what passes for sport in this country. Poker players consider themselves athletes. Mountain-climbing is not a personal activity/hobby but an 'extreme sport.' Our nation probably leads the world in the invention of sports, because when we tire of one we can trade it for another. In such a highly fractured region of society, the greater bonds of national sport (and in particular a rather ancient sport) function as just one of many options rather than an occasion for national kinship, hysteria, fandom, and pride.

The other thing is we're just not anywhere near the greatest at this particular sport. In much the same way that everybody loves a winner, everybody pretty much ignores a loser, unless the losing is of epic proportions. In the history of the Cup, Americans have pretty much been losers. They have access to some of the best training and standards of living of any nation in the competition -- but lack the passion.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world delights. Netherlands tries to erase a past filled with unfulfilled promise. Germany tries to win it at home. Racial problems do exist and can't be swept under the rug. The Czechs kicked our behinds. Will Africa send a team (or two) to the second round? Is Brazil just too damned good?

It's all too fun to ignore, even for an American.

1 comment:

Evan said...

I am all about the Czech Republic right now. Though if my dear Krauts do well I will be pleasantly surprised and they will regain some of my obvious affections. Brazil looked far less impressive today than I expected, suggesting as usual that when overhyped, even Brazil can't get it up.

Most hilarious World Cup-related news: Condi Rice's letter of moral outrage to Germany about the importation of sex workers, which, given that Germany is widely acknowledged as one of the very best countries on combatting human traficking, clearly had much more to do with our objection to legalized prostitution over there. Closeted jealousy, as usual.