The World Cup: A Girl’s-eye view

by Brooks Riley

World soccer ballOkay, I’m not a girl anymore.

In many ways, I never was. I’m more interested in dendrites than dentists, bosons than Botox, solar energy than SPF factors, cosmology than cosmetics, physics than fitness, Leibniz than Lagerfeld. On the other hand, I’m enough of a girl that if I do watch a sport, it’s with the same bewilderment that a homeowner greets an intruder: Where did you come from?

Maybe I’m the wrong girl to write about a World Cup.

When I first moved to Europe, I was peripherally aware of the game we call soccer: It was all those short guys running around in their boxer shorts, trying to engender as much dexterity with their feet as they might have with their forbidden metacarpi–a preternatural challenge that could only end in heartbreak, or so it seemed. I even bought into the cliché that the game is boring (but never as boring, even for a reluctant neophyte like me, as American football, a stop-start time-waster where full-metal hulks huddle longer than they play, in a version of rugby for sissies). What did I know?

In the meantime, I’ve learned that the rest of the world grows up training their lower extremities to be as precise as a violinist’s fingers on a fingerboard. And like violinists, they start early enough, so that by the time they reach the teenage years, talking with their feet comes naturally.

Like all games, soccer is a form of dramatic narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The climaxes come at strange times, though, not according to classic Aristotelian or Freytagian itineraries, but in breathtaking combinations of movement that were not even imaginable seconds earlier. Hubris and hamartia are teammates, equally responsible for goals and missed goals. Aesthetics comes into play: How often has the word ‘beautiful’ been used to describe a kick, a save, a pass, the game?

The World Cup is the biggest theatre festival on earth—tragedy, comedy, catharsis, conflict, climax, denouement, pathos, bathos—it’s all there. Subplots and intrigues abound (the Biter, the Head-butter, the Sepp). Costumes have their catwalk moment. Heroes fall and then rise again from the ashes of their past mistakes—or not. Anthems are sung with solemnity or abandon, or not at all. Most of the world gladly signs up for this cheers-and-tears roller-coaster ride of emotional commitments that have only partially to do with nationalism.

Jorge Luis Borges got it wrong (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118228/world-cup-2014-why-did-borges-hate-soccer). The World Cup is not about nationalism: It’s about seeing how the game is played in different parts of the world. It’s about cheering on Iran for its determined and nearly successful humbling of mighty Argentina. It’s about cheering on the Netherlands because Arjen Robben also plays so magically for your home club, Bayern Munich, and Robin van Persie’s gravity-defying goal just took your breath away. It’s about cheering on those spunky little nations like Costa Rica and Uruguay, whose land mass and population would fit into the palm of your hand. It’s about cheering on France, who have finally got their act together, or Ghana because they dared to endanger the German Juggernaut. It’s about cheering on Nigeria, whose fans back home are paying the ultimate price for their enthusiasm–with their lives. It’s about cheering for tiny clockwork Switzerland whose tiny guy Xherdan Shaqiri dazzled with a hat-trick of his own. It’s about cheering on talent and determination, wherever it comes from.

Allegiances change from one minute to the next. In the game between Algeria and South Korea, I switched my allegiance to the Koreans in the second half, because they started to fight back against all odds, turning a rout into a respectable 2-4 loss.

If it were all about nationalism, the World Cup would shrink to an exclusive viewership of the few nations left over at the end of the month-long festivities. Maybe the USA will turn away if our boys go down in the next round. I hope not. What Americans have yet to learn is that it’s not all about our team winning. It’s also about process, the process of enduring, or crashing out, or daring to be better than you are. It’s about looking out at the rest of the world for a few weeks. It’s about loving the game itself.

Borges also seems not to have understood that club football is far more important to fans than the national teams, who only matter every 2-4 years. If Borges had been right, cheering for anything would be suspect (and his condemnation of sportscasters like killing the messenger). But cheering for a national team—or any team–is a short-lived and benign form of mass hysteria, less about power than performance, more about love than hate.

Soccer is a fluid game, constantly evolving: This is not just a better World Cup (many more goals in the first round), it’s a different World Cup. The game itself has changed, and will continue to change. Tiki-taka is on the wane (the reign in Spain all but over). Attacking style has replaced defending style. The short guys have made room for a panoply of body types, from mile-high beanpole Per Mertesacker or the pec-packed Swedish giant Zlatan Ibrahimović (sadly missing from this party) to lanky Thomas Müller (‘He has no muscles!’, protested that little guy of yore, Diego Maradona) or as former Brazilian star Giovane Élber says, ‘Look at his calves’, implying you won’t find them. What Müller brings to the game is an 11K run and the instinct to find the right place to be, at just the right time (4 goals in this Cup). Forget the body.

If the World Cup brings a girl like me out of the woodwork, it also engenders some great writing by people whose preoccupations usually lie elsewhere: Simon Schama’s lively take on the Netherlands obliteration of Spain (in The New Republic, by far the best site for good writing about the Cup: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118166/world-cup-2014-holland-defeats-spain), Roger Cohen’s worldly eloquence in the New York Times, Rowan Ricardo Phillips in The New Republic and The Paris Review, especially his expert analysis of Van Persie’s impossible goal (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118172/world-cup-2014-anatomy-goal), or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ode to a Kafka lookalike (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118270/2014-world-cup-tribute-angel-di-maria-karl-ove-knausgaard).

I hope to read more from New York Times sportswriter Jeré Longman, whose reporting of the German victory over the USA in 2002 provided the motto that still keeps me going in all things: “Victory is a matter of relentless expectation, not delirious wish.” Thank you, Jeré.

What am I doing tonight? I won’t be doing my nails or deciding what to wear the next day. Instead, I’ll be cheering on Germany, the boys of home who seem almost like friends. What am I doing tomorrow night? I’ll be singing the Star-Spangled Banner with a tear in my eye. What’s a girl to do?

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