Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Ballad of Zinedine Zidane

Thoughts on football, the World Cup in general, and the 2006 World Cup in particular

Football vs The World Cup
The football World Cup has very little to do with ‘football’, as most football people understand the term.

Football is about freezing Saturday afternoons spent yelling torrents of fruity abuse at hapless wingers, misfiring forwards and clod-hopping centre-backs in between sips from paper cups of extra-salty Bovril and tentative nibbles at absurdly hot steak-and-kidney pies. Football is about daft one-eyed optimistic views on your club’s prospects at the start of the season followed shortly by extreme pessimism before each actual match, then followed by the crushing reality of mid-table mediocrity, ignominious cup exits and managerial fiascos. Football is the weight of club tradition, character and history, the decades of heroes and villains, thrashings and narrow squeaks, rare triumphs, occasional disasters and very common disappointments. Football is about love-hated local rivals, the supreme, vicious, tribal joy of victory over them and the deep chasms of despair that follow defeat. Football is the brief, ecstatic moments of light between long seasons of darkness and failure. It’s also about having a pint and a plate of chips afterwards and treating all those imposters just the same. Football is about sitting through all the rubbish irrelevant highlights on post-pub-closing Match of the Day only to miss the bit you really stayed up for because you couldn’t wait any longer to nip to the toilet. Football is about wondering why your absurdly hot steak-and-kidney pie has no kidney in it – can kidney really be more expensive than steak? – and if it is, what the hell kind of ‘steak’ is this, and what sort of effect might it be having on my digestive system?

But I digress. The point is that for 99% of football-lovers in football countries, football is about following a football club.

The World Cup is a different animal altogether. Football is a fan’s day job – it goes on week in, week out for most of the year, every year. The World Cup is a unique, bizarre, far-too-big festival that happens for a month, one summer in four. It has a superficial resemblance to football, but it is really about two things quite unrelated to football…

Patriotism vs Nationalism
Firstly, the World Cup engenders thinking about your country’s place in the world. Football happens to be the physical game that teams play in the World Cup, but fundamentally the actual game played is secondary to the questions about patriotism versus nationalism.

Patriotism is a good thing, nationalism is a bad thing. When it comes to the World Cup, patriotism means supporting your country and hoping that it wins, but accepting rationally that other countries might play better football in a better way, and enjoying others’ success when they deserve it. Nationalism is the irrational belief that your country is superior to all others, has nothing to learn from them and if it loses then someone else (referees, cheating foreigners, Cristiano Ronaldo etc) is to blame.

Watching the World Cup in a World Cup-mad country like England (or Germany, or Italy, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Sweden, Ghana, Czech Republic etc) focuses on this tension between nationalism and patriotism all the time.

Now that we’ve given up world wars, this doesn’t happen to the same degree with any other event. The Olympic Games foster patriotism, but they are too unfocused, too splintered, too much about individual achievement to raise serious questions about nationalism. The World Cup allows each qualifying nation to compete on a level playing field at the same game, and thus to discover how their particular national approach stands in the world.

Football vs Soccer
The second thing that the World Cup is supposed to be about, is a joie de vivre celebration of ‘soccer’. Here, I idiosyncratically define ‘soccer’ as ‘the game of football in its highest-quality expression.’ (In the World Cup, people start talking about ‘the good of the game’. The good of the game is of practically no interest to the football follower: his club comes first, his country some way behind that, and the good of the game an extremely distant third.)

In theory, the best players from the best football nations are all gathered together in one place, and thus the best possible soccer will be played, with the best possible soccer team eventually triumphing, all for the shared entertainment of the big happy family that is humanity. In theory, of course. But as with so many things in life, there is a significant gap between theory and practice, of which more later.

The 2006 World Cup then, should be judged against all preceding World Cups in the light of these two spheres: nationalism/patriotism; and the soccer spectacle.

Germany vs History
In the first sphere, the competition was an undoubted triumph for the host nation. In a country where games were held at places like Berlin and Nuremburg, and where guests included the Polish, the French, the Dutch and the English, the spectre of Germanic nationalism was a rather awkward presence.

But in perhaps the only instance of the World Cup working some magic, the German people discovered something remarkable: it is possible to be patriotic without being nationalistic. The German football team itself had an unexpectedly successful tournament, playing great attacking football all the way to the semi-final before losing in the best game of the tournament to Italy. The Germans waved flags, hooted horns and sang about Deutschland without shame, and without alienating their guests. They even seemed to take great joy in winning that most worthless of games: the third-place play-off. For the first time in memory, English fans were hoping Germany would win after their own knockout.

If the discovery of positive, healthy German patriotism is the only worthwhile legacy of the 2006 World Cup, then it’s no small one.

Coaching vs Talent
If the World Cup was a success from the patriotism/nationalism point of view, it was a pitiful failure from the soccer spectacle angle.

The great pity was that it started so promisingly. A rush of thrilling games (Germany 4 Costa Rica 2; Argentina 2 Mexico 1) and great football (Argentina 6 Serbia & Mont 0; Spain 4 Ukraine 0) in the Group Stages fooled us into thinking we were in for a classic competition. But as soon as the knockout stages arrived, fear of losing conquered the will to win well, and the defensive shutters came up. Sven Goran Eriksson, England’s overpaid idiot of a coach who managed to take the best set of naturally-gifted attacking players the island has produced in 40 years and make them play with all the grace and instinct of a team of shop window dummies, was merely the worst. Brazil and Ronaldinho never got going and even Argentina sacrificed their attacking sprites Riquelme and Messi in favour of midfield thugs when they came to the quarter-final.

With the sole exception of the Italy-Germany semi-final, all the knockout games were pretty dismal affairs. There was no single outstanding teams and no outstanding strikers.

But why did this happen? Where are the unexpected superstars? Where was this year’s Maradona or Roger Milla or Carlos Alberto or Paul Gascoigne? Where was the exotic spectacle we used to associate with World Cups, when young, wide-eyed geniuses we’d never heard of appeared from some godforsaken South American ghetto to shock and awe us with fearless, joyful, raw talent?

Sadly, the chances of World Cups recapturing those glory days are shrinking every year. The single biggest reason is that the World Cup is no longer the place to find soccer in its highest-quality expression. The place for that is in club football: specifically, the European Champions’ League. That’s where all the best players in the world actually are, including those from countries who miss out on the Finals due to the positive-discrimination of the qualifying rounds. And since the richest clubs buy up all the world’s talent in its teens and play them against each other every year, there’s no longer much chance of the ghetto kid shock. Familiarity – of the players of even the more obscure countries to the fans, and of the players to each other – deadens the exoticism of the spectacle.

Zidane vs Zidane
This was a tournament in which cheating, diving and referee-baiting reached new lows of frequency and sophistication, and the time has come for retrospective punishment using video evidence. Portugal were the worst offenders, but not the only ones.

Germany, coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, the man famed for taking the dramatic dive to laughable extremes in the 1980s, were ironically the best-behaved team by the latter stages.

When they went out, the only ray of light left in the soccer spectacle stakes was Zinedine Zidane, the Marseilles magician who won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euro Championship largely by himself. Zidane came out of retirement and ignored the universal consensus that he was too old and too slow, to play football that confirmed suspicions that of the two current players with claims to Pele/Beckenbaur/Maradona/Cruyff-style ‘greatness’, his was still much stronger than Ronaldinho’s.

But alas. ‘King Zizou’, the Algerian-heritage backstreet boy with an other-worldly aura who was worshipped like a god in France, performed a banlieue back-alley bit of GBH on Marco Materazzi’s chest with ten minutes of his illustrious career to go, created the unforgettable image of a very forgettable tournament, shocked and awed his faithful followers and instantly proved once again that men are not now, never were, and never will, in fact, be gods.

Days later, it was announced that due to an unfortunately premature voting schedule, Zidane was officially the player of the tournament.

So much for joie de vivre….

…but what the heck, roll on the next over-hyped, far-too-big, Yank-ignored, nationalistic jamboree, and South Africa in 2010!


Peter Burnet said...

If the discovery of positive, healthy German patriotism is the only worthwhile legacy of the 2006 World Cup, then it’s no small one.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit, aren't we, Dr Pangloss?

Brit said...

Not at all.Hier ist der Grossedeutchepatriotismgedenkenschaft.

Und hier.

Und hier.

Und hier in der Christianpaper!

I understand, Peter. The party is never worth going to, when you haven't been invited.

Peter Burnet said...

Yeah, that's what they told Churchill when he passed on the '36 Olympics.

All to-gether now, mein herren, taking care to remain ever-mindful of those subtle distinctions between nationalism and patriotism:

Eine Prosit, eine Prosit...

Hey Skipper said...


You and Lileks are two of my favorite authors.

Duck said...

Excellent essay, Brit! It almost made me take an interest in the World Cup. Also, I've got to try the steak and kidney pie when I make it to Old Blighty - without the kidney, of course.

Speaking of German patriotism, I was watching a Discovery channel show called Future Weapons, and they were showcasing a German army artillery system called the Panzer Howitzer 2000. The general in charge of the demo, though trying to remain matter of fact, could barely suppress his national pride as he boasted that it was the most advanced artillery system in the world.

It is truly an amazing system, and would have come in handy had the Soviet Union ever invaded Central Europe. The likelihood that the general would ever be deployed outside of Germany to use this system is of course more remote than the US's chances of ever winning the World Cup. But you could read the general's mind - it was saying "if we wanted to, we could really kick butt in the world, again".

Brit said...


Strewth, just as well Poland dutifully lost to Germany in the Group Stages, otherwise they might have expected to see a few of those Panzers trundling up the road again...


"if we wanted to, we could really kick butt in the world.."

Isn't that also the standard American response to failure in the soccer World Cup?


German nationalism is a tricky one, as is whether or not we should so very often remind them of the War.

English football fans have a variety of WWII-related taunts and songs that get aired whenever we play Germany, including Ten German Bombers, "Two World Wars and One World Cup" and "Hitler bombed our chippy." The theme tunes to the Great Escape and Dambusters are sung in every England match.

There's also one for the Polish and the French (to the tune of 'She'll be coming round the mountain'): "If it wasn't for the English you'd be Krauts."

There was a big Government and Football Association push to plea with fans not to 'mention the war' in this World Cup. Fat chance. One of the tabloids was giving out free Tommy helmets with the St George Cross on.

I'm ambivalent about this. Yes, I love modern Germany and I love going there on holiday and they're all lovely people etc. On the other hand, when you've done something that bad only 60 years ago, you've got to expect to be reminded of it for a few generations....


Finally, I have a paranoid theory that kidney is disappearing from our steak and kidney pies and going to the same place as the jam in our jam doughnuts and the ice from the polar caps.

Mind you, steak and kidney pudding is where it's really at. Made of suet. Mmmmmmm...suet.

Duck said...

Isn't that also the standard American response to failure in the soccer World Cup?

Yes, except that we really are kicking butt in the world.

Steak and kidney pudding! Arrrrrgggglllelele....... (sound of droolong)

Oroborous said...

The Panzerhaubitze 2000 is indeed impressive, but...

The inclusion of "2000" in its designation is unwittingly telling. It's a superior 20th century weapon, heading into the 21st century.

The U.S. have developed a Humvee-mounted anti-artillery laser system that can shoot down incoming shells, scheduled to be deployed in '08. Couple that umbrella of protection with counter-artillery, and Germany's world-beating mobile artillery system becomes an irritant, a deposed "King of Battle", as Napoleon rightly labelled his cannon.

Sportingo said...


Excellent article. I really enjoyed reading it. I was wondering if you write opinion pieces often??


Brit said...

All the time, Sportingo.

If you are not a spambot, you can find my contact email on this page.