Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Structural Transformation of the Howlersphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society

Charlie Brooker muses on the "conversations" going on in our blog cafes:

"Last week I wrote a load of nonsense about flags and idiocy; as well as appearing in print, it also turned up on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" blog-o-site, where passersby are encouraged to scrawl their own responses beneath the original article.

Some people disagreed with the piece, some agreed; some found it funny, some didn't. For half a nanosecond I was tempted to join in the discussion. And then I remembered that all internet debates, without exception, are entirely futile. So I didn't.

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There's no point debating anything online. You might as well hurl shoes in the air to knock clouds from the sky. The internet's perfect for all manner of things, but productive discussion ain't one of them. It provides scant room for debate and infinite opportunities for fruitless point-scoring: the heady combination of perceived anonymity, gestated responses, random heckling and a notional "live audience" quickly conspire to create a "perfect storm" of perpetual bickering.

Stumble in, take umbrage with someone, trade a few blows, and within about two or three exchanges, the subject itself goes out the window. Suddenly you're simply arguing about arguing. Eventually, one side gets bored, comes to its senses, or dies, and the row fizzles out: just another needless belch in the swirling online guffstorm.

But not for long, because online quarrelling is also addictive, in precisely the same way Tetris is addictive. It appeals to the "lab rat" part of your brain; the annoying, irrepressible part that adores repetitive pointlessness and would gleefully make you pop bubblewrap till Doomsday if it ever got its way. An unfortunate few, hooked on the futile thrill of online debate, devote their lives to its cause. They roam the internet, actively seeking out viewpoints they disagree with, or squat on messageboards, whining, needling, sneering, over-analysing each new proclamation - joylessly fiddling, like unhappy gorillas doomed to pick lice from one another's fur for all eternity.

Still, it's not all moan moan moan in NetLand. There's also the occasional puerile splutter to liven things up.

In the debate sparked by my gibberish outpouring, it wasn't long before rival posters began speculating about the size of their opponent's dicks. It led me to wonder - has the world of science ever investigated a casual link between penis size and male political leaning?

I'd theorise that, on the whole, rightwing penises are short and stubby, hence their owners' constant fury. Lefties, on the other hand, are spoiled for length, yet boast no girth whatsoever - which explains their pained confusion. I flit from one camp to the other, of course, which is why mine's so massive it's got a full-size human knee in the middle. And a back. A big man's back.

Anyway, if we must debate things online, we might as well debate that. It's not like we'll ever resolve any of that other bullshit, is it?

Click. Mine's bigger than yours. Click. No it isn't. Click. Yes it is. Click. Refresh, repost, repeat to fade." (Charlie Brooker, "Supposing ... There's Only One Thing Worth Debating Online," The Guardian, June 2, 2006).

Hypothetical Grotesquerie

Charlie Brooker defends evil thoughts:

"The other day a friend told me that whenever he sees someone lingering near the edge of a tube platform, a little voice in his head starts wondering what would happen if he shoved them in front of the train. Don't panic - he's NEVER actually going to do it (at least I hope not) - it's just a fleeting paranoid notion, a darkly mischievous thought about doing the worst thing imaginable.

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I have a similar thing with small creatures. On the rare occasions I've found myself handling, say, a hamster, part of me marvels at how easy it would be to simply crush its head between my fingers, or toss it in the air and kick it around like a Hacky Sack, laughing.

I've never done it, and I never will. But does hypothetically considering it make me a bad person? I hope not, because I think things like that all the time. It's the same bit of the brain that makes me idly speculate about jumping whenever I look over a high ledge. Some tiny inner demon with nobody's best interests at heart.

Speaking as a fully qualified neurologist, I reckon that demon nestles somewhere within the brain's sense of humour. Pretty much every comedy writer or funny person I've ever met is regularly visited by similar fantasies - transgressive siren-songs perpetually flickering at the fringe of consciousness. One described how, while splitting up with a long-term girlfriend, a minuscule part of him wanted to laugh out loud because it considered her weeping, pleading face faintly hilarious. Does that make him a misogynist psychopath? I don't think so. He was just amused by the very concept of doing something so inappropriately, outrageously detached. And then amused that this amused him. You've got to admire the demon's chutzpah.

It's not just real-life situations. My demon encourages me to think about horrible things that aren't there. A while ago, for instance, I entertained myself by thinking up the nastiest restaurant imaginable. It was in Paris, and only served crucified meat. The walls were lined with live cows and pigs nailed to crosses. They hung there, dying slowly and loudly, while diners sliced chunks off them to cook at skillets on the table. It was so revolting it made me laugh.

Obviously, if anyone actually opened such a place, I'd be outside screaming no with the best of them. I'd boo the bloody roof off. In real life, it's almost never right to nail live pigs to the wall. But in my head, it's always hilarious.

It doesn't amuse everyone, of course. Every so often I'll say or describe something preposterously cruel for comic effect and the person I'm trying to amuse simply screws their face up and looks a bit ill. At which point I feel compelled to say something far worse. Anyone who can't stomach a bit of hypothetical grotesquery needs to toughen up, because the way the world's going, we'll all spend our final days scrabbling through a pile of steaming rubble, desperately scavenging for bits of charred baby to eat with our bare hands. And under those circumstances, a dark sense of humour will be a massive advantage.

So you might as well get in training now. Think of the worst things in the world, then laugh at them. Maybe not aloud, but laugh none the less. It's not time-wasting tastelessness. It's future-proofing. It's good for you." (Charlie Brooker, "Supposing...Bad Thoughts Are Good For You," The Guardian, July 7, 2006).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Jogo Bonito

John Carlin's piece below is an entertaining primer to the world cup, flawed though it is by racist "national character" nonsense:

"You look at Ronaldinho, the world's most talented and lethal soccer player, and what you see is the smiling epitome of Brazil's culture of pleasure. You look at John Terry and you have a deeper understanding of how it was that a small island nation once conquered half the known world. Terry — the captain of the English Premier League champions, Chelsea, and pillar of his national team's defense — has the height, the bulk and the air of cold command of the red-coated British sergeant who in days of empire instilled terror in his troops and enemy forces alike. When the two went head-to-head in a game earlier this year, it was more than a clash between two different ways of playing soccer, of approaching life; it was the proverbial case, or so it seemed, of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

It happened in March, at a critical moment in last season's clash of European titans, Ronaldinho's Barcelona against Chelsea, in the round of 16 in the Champions League tournament, club soccer's biggest competition. The score was 0-0, and 12 minutes were left in the game. Ronaldinho received the ball in the center of midfield, 15 yards from the Chelsea penalty area. Around him were four Chelsea defenders. Ronaldinho left one of them for dead and avoided two more. The fourth, the last man standing between him and glory, was John Terry. Ronaldinho's response was to do what he does better than anybody else: the unthinkable. Having mesmerized the Chelsea ranks with the speed of his feet and the swerve of his dancing hips, he met brute force with brute force — and won. He shouldered the English Goliath — perfectly fairly — to the ground. And it was from this abject vantage that London's finest looked on, a picture of defeat, as the samba-loving Brazilian whipped the ball low and true, past the Chelsea goalkeeper and into the net.

That electric sequence of events — barely four seconds elapsed between Ronaldinho's receiving and dispatching of the ball — captured, for the watching millions, one of soccer's great truisms: the English invented the game, but the Brazilians perfected it. They found the game brick and left it marble. They patented what has become known the world over as jogo bonito, the beautiful game, a style of soccer that combines exuberance with success and that Ronaldinho, more than any other player alive, embodies. People respect winners, they admire them, but they don't always love them. The bright, canary-yellow shirt of the Brazilian national team — the canarinho shirt, they fondly call it in Brazil — elicits feelings in soccer fans everywhere that unite reverence for Brazil's unquestioned supremacy (it has won the World Cup, held every four years, five times in the last half century) with an affection, a warm sense of personal ownership, that transcends the sport's inherent tribalism. Every neutral fan following this month's World Cup will want Brazil to win, and every soccer-lover with a national stake in the competition will have Brazil as his second team. Soccer is the world's biggest religion, cutting across race, faith, geography, ideology and gender like no other global phenomenon. Brazil is the religion's favorite church.

Why the love? Some of it comes from the fact that Brazil is a country without enemies. That a defeat at home to Uruguay in the World Cup final in 1950 still ranks, in all seriousness, as one of the greatest tragedies in Brazilian history bespeaks a nation without much of a war-making tradition. Brazilians prefer a rip-roaring carnival. More important, perhaps, is the appearance of racial harmony that Brazil's national team projects. Some players are black, some are white, but usually they are a blend of the two, the shades and shapes representing the range of types that come from the Amazon basin, from West Africa and from the European countries that have contributed so much to the genetic cocktail: Portugal, Italy and Germany. The first superstar of Brazilian soccer was the green-eyed, curly-haired Arthur Friedenreich, who scored the winning goal in a celebrated 1-0 victory over Uruguay in 1919. Racial stereotypes — blacks are more graceful, say, or whites more tenacious — break down. Ask any Brazilian who, in terms of pure skill, was the greatest Brazilian player ever, and chances are he'll be torn between the competing claims of the brown-skinned Garrincha and the blond Zico.

All this would be of merely anecdotal interest, however, were the Brazilians not so darn good. For the first six decades after the arrival in 1894 of soccer's first evangelist in Brazil, a handlebar-mustachioed British gent by the name of Charles Miller, Brazilian soccer made few waves beyond Latin American shores. But then, in 1958, when the World Cup was held in Sweden, Brazil's impact on the competition was seismic. Thanks to grainy black-and-white images still replayed on TV today, the aftershocks of a goal scored in the final by a 17-year-old named Pelé, a spindly unknown, continue to deliver their timeless thrill. What Pelé did no one had ever seen before. Wearing the clumpy boots of the era, he flicked the heavy leather ball used in those days over the head of a towering Swedish defender, spun around him, got to the ball before it touched the ground and drilled it, on the volley, into the net.

Brazil also won the next World Cup, held in Chile. This time Pelé was out injured most of the tournament and Garrincha was the star of the show. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says of Garrincha, in a lyrical little book titled "Soccer in Sun and Shadow," that "in the entire history of football no one made more people happy." Partly deformed from birth by polio (one leg was shorter than the other and both were bent like bows), he possessed such genius with a ball at his feet that each game he played became, as Galeano writes, "a circus ... a party." Clown and juggler at the same time, he entrenched the myth — so much a part of the Brazilian legend — that in his country people play soccer less for victory than for fun.

Brazil's apotheosis, and Pelé's, came in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. The consensus is absolute among soccer's intelligentsia that this was the greatest team ever to grace the game. Some debate lingers as to who was the greater player, Pelé or Diego Maradona (who would win the World Cup with — or rather, for — Argentina in 1986, also in Mexico). But no one questions the pre-eminence — the peerless combination of flamboyance and effectiveness — of that 1970 Brazil team, with its supporting stars like Jairzinho, Rivelino, Gérson and Tostão.

A lean period followed: it would be 24 years before Brazil won the World Cup again. But such was the power of the spell cast by that triple-winning Pelé team that the legend not only remained alive but, as legends do, flourished. It didn't matter how strong or weak they looked on paper, no team ever got the pulse racing the way the canary-shirted Brazilians did. Then in 1994, led by Romário, Brazil resumed its dominance by winning the World Cup in the United States. Brazil lost in the final against France in Paris in 1998, but then won again in Yokohama in 2002 as the unstoppable onslaught of "the three R's" — Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho — swept all before them.

This time around Brazil is again the favorite to win, on rational as well as sentimental grounds. A 4-1 crushing of Argentina (a two-time World Cup winner and always among the favorites) in a tournament in Germany last summer has lent force to an idea that has been building since 2002: that Brazil would not only win again, but do so in a fashion not seen since 1970. Ronaldo, the game's most admired striker in recent years and three times the winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year award (voted on by all the national-team coaches and captains), is back. So is Cafu, the captain, and Roberto Carlos, the most offensive-minded left back in the history of the game and the one with the most thunderous shot. Three new young superstars have emerged: Adriano, a bull of a man up front with the touch of a ballerina; Kaká, a midfielder who glides over the grass like Gene Kelly; and the young Robinho, small and doe-like but reckoned by many in Brazil to be a Pelé in the making. And, most exciting of all, this year's team has Ronaldinho, the reigning two-time winner of World Player of the Year and winner of the no-less-prestigious European Footballer of the Year prize last November. In May, he led Barcelona to its second consecutive La Liga title in Spain and to European victory in the Champions League.

Whatever happens at this World Cup (and there are some who worry about the aging legs of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu), Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, an attacking midfielder known to everyone as Ronaldinho, has already done more than enough not only to keep the Brazilian legend alive but also to breathe new life into it. Not so much because of what he has achieved (an enormous amount for a player who just turned 26), but because of the manner in which he has done it. Like Pelé, he scores sublime goals, and lots of them; he is arguably the world's best and most penetrating passer, the master of the assist; he may be unequaled in the dominion he exerts over the ball. On top of all that, he plays with a big smile on his face, even when he misses a shot. Whereas so many professionals in every sport seem to carry the world's worries on their faces as they play, Ronaldinho radiates the fun of a carefree 8-year-old boy. Which happens to be how old he was when his father suffered a heart attack in a swimming pool and drowned. After that shock, which he has never forgotten (following every goal he scores, he looks up to heaven and points a finger that says, "For you, Dad"), Ronaldinho might be excused were he introverted or morose. Yet he seems the exact opposite.

He is courteous, too — one of those "After you," "No, after you" types — and seems to have few of the airs and graces one might expect of a regular superstar, to say nothing of the most globally celebrated sportsman alive. He does not strut so much as shuffle, and when asked to describe that goal during which he sent John Terry tumbling to the ground, he gracefully makes excuses for the Englishman. "I had the good fortune to be coming at him having built up some speed, while he was moving from a standing position," he says, "so I had a big advantage."

While proudly Brazilian — "I just love the way we play the game!" — Ronaldinho acknowledges a debt to Europe, whose faster, more aggressive style of play has obliged him to become a more complete, "much stronger" athlete physically. (And a lot richer: Brazil is a dynamic and sensual country, but also a poor one — in Europe, players can earn 5 or 10 times more money than they can in Brazil.) Still, Brazil provides an edge, in Ronaldinho's view, in the extra degree of obsessiveness with which soccer permeates national life. "It doesn't matter where you go in Brazil, it doesn't matter where you look, there are people playing football. All day and all night, children with children, fathers with their sons, grandfathers with their grandchildren, adults with adults, women or men — everybody, everywhere. And if they're not playing with a ball, they'll be playing with a soft-drink can."

Yet there does seem to be some essential characteristic, something more than mere quantity, that distinguishes Brazilian soccer from that played by everyone else. Juca Kfouri, a leading TV and newspaper commentator in Brazil, likes to compare Brazilian soccer with the English original. The latter, he says, "is more tactical, more disciplined, more rigidly adhering to the rules the coach imposes. In Brazil, methods exist in order to be dismantled. That is why, when Brazil and England have played, Brazil almost always wins by scoring goals that are not out of the book, goals that come as a complete surprise."

Tostão, who played with Pelé on Brazil's team in 1970 (beating England along the way), is a huge fan of Ronaldinho, and he agrees with Kfouri that what sets Brazilian soccer above the rest is what he calls its "daring" imagination.

"Globalization has obviously impacted on soccer, too," says Tostão, who is now Brazil's most respected sports newspaper columnist. "Strategy and tactics are practically the same the world over. In that sense, soccer has become more like basketball. Even in terms of sheer skill, the difference is not all that great between one country and another. And good technique can be taught. Look at a player like Zidane," he explains, referring to Zinédine Zidane, the midfielder for Real Madrid and the French national team. He has as much ability on the ball as any Brazilian. That is why, Tostào says, the difference lies in the mind. "Brazilian soccer has more of the imponderable about it. There is more variation in the Brazilian game than in the European one. Brazilian players have more of the magic of invention."

The English team captain, David Beckham, Tostão suggests, has the skill to do what a Brazilian player might, but he doesn't because he is trapped in his English cultural mind-set. He cannot tap into what Tostão says is "the imaginative unconscious of Brazilian football, transmitted down from one generation to the next."

That collective unconscious is what Ronaldinho perhaps refers to, without quite articulating it that way, when he addresses the conundrum of how it is that all of the top Brazilians play in Europe yet somehow contrive to function as a team when they put on the canarinho shirt. "We left Brazil young but remained there till we were at least 15, usually more," he says. "So we all served the same apprenticeship, and when we meet in the national team, there is an ease of understanding. Also, to be in the Brazil team you have to play football of very high quality, and when you play with people so good, the game becomes easy and things work out naturally." (Ronaldinho is determined, however, as is Tostão, to dispel the myth that Brazilian players are so naturally gifted that victory comes easily to them, no sweat or discipline required. "It's an absolute myth," Tostão says. "We play a collective game, as disciplined as anybody else's." Ronaldinho says: "We prepare for a game a lot more than people imagine. People think that we run out on the pitch, all laughter and joy, and then it's goal, goal, goal. No.")

Ronaldinho may get close to the secret of Brazilian soccer — the alliance of discipline and skill with superior imagination — when he explains his role with the team. "When I train," he says, "one of the things I concentrate on is creating a mental picture of how best to deliver that ball to a teammate, preferably leaving him alone in front of the rival goalkeeper. So what I do, always before a game — always, every night and every day — is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strengths of each teammate to whom I am passing the ball. When I construct those plays in my mind, I take into account whether one teammate likes to receive the ball at his feet or ahead of him, if he's good with his head and how he prefers to head the ball, if he's stronger on his right or his left foot. That's my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game."

Ronaldinho imagines the game so well that something is happening in the world of soccer that would have seemed unthinkable 10, 5 or even 2 years ago. People are beginning to wonder whether Ronaldinho may be worthy of mention in the same breath as the holy twosome of Pelé and Maradona. "The big polemic is already on here in Brazil," Kfouri says, "and older guys of my generation, we resist making that comparison, naturally. But you know what? There is no way of avoiding it — Ronaldinho is reinventing football. He is the most creative, most entertaining player we've seen anywhere in years."

Maradona himself said much the same thing in an interview with the Spanish daily Sport. "It's impressive how Ronaldinho can combine both technique and speed," the Argentine said. "It's only possible because he has a privileged mind. He's such a quick thinker. He knows what he's going to do before the ball gets to him. ... He's a show on his own."

Indeed, he's such a one-man show that, Kfouri points out, Tostão caused a great flutter in the soccer world when he asked in a recent column in Brazil's biggest newspaper, Folha de S. Paulo, whether Ronaldinho might be placed on the highest pedestal of all. It was a momentous thought, and mildly shocking, coming from a man who had had the good fortune to play in the Brazil forward line 36 years ago alongside the player known ever since in Brazil as O Rei — the King.

"Yes," Tostão admits, "I have raised this question. I have made the point that in 2002 Ronaldinho was as important a player as any in the Brazil team, and yet today he is more of a footballer than he was then. Look, I played with Pelé. Pelé has always been the greatest for me. And I believe Ronaldinho is still beneath him, but — "

But that goal against Chelsea? That triumph of Brazilian poetry over English prose? Wouldn't Pelé have been proud of that? "Yes. But it's not just the goals Ronaldinho scores. It's those passes he lays on a plate for his teammates. He knocked a great Milan team out in the semifinal of the Champions League that way, delivering a magically weighted assist. His passing is as decisive as his goals are.

"Yes," Tostão continues, pensive, hesitant, flirting with a heresy, "it is possible. Who knows? A year from now, we could be saying that Ronaldinho is as good as Pelé was."

(John Carlin, "Most Bonito," New York Times, June 4, 2006).

Jogo Bonito

Sport has long functioned as a metonymy of "national character" (in other words, it remains one of the greatest channels of tribalism). Perhaps it is then inevitable that the soccer world cup has triggered a burst of crude stereotyping (from fans and writers alike). Tony Karon shows how:

"I have a pretty good idea where Osama bin Laden will be on June 14 -- and June 19, and again on June 23. Not his exact location, but it's a safe bet he'll be in front of a TV tuned in to Saudi Arabia's World Cup soccer matches with, respectively, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Spain. Legend has it that soccer is one of bin Laden's guilty pleasures. He's unlikely to miss the spectacle of the men from the land of the Prophet taking on the infidels of al-Andalus. He probably has a soft spot for Tunisia too, that country being the only one on record thus far to see one of its professional soccer players attempt to join al Qaeda's martyrs.

Nor will bin Laden be alone among America's enemies in spending June engrossed in the quadrennial spectacle of the World Cup, staged this time in Germany. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad has even threatened to show up if Iran progresses beyond the first round. Seeking to burnish his populist credentials at home, Ahmedinajad recently allowed himself to be photographed in sweats kicking a ball around with the Iranian team during a training session. You can bet Kim Jong-il will watch, too, even though it is South Korea that represents his nation's hopes this year.

President Bush may give the event a miss -- one can only wonder what he would make of a game in which the U.S. has a negligible chance of being world champion; for Americans with qualms about their country's imperial role, by contrast, supporting the plucky and rather well-liked outsiders of Team USA is an opportunity for guilt-free patriotic fervor. But you can be sure that Bush allies like Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Jacques Chirac, Junichiro Koizumi, and Silvio Berlusconi (who actually owns AC Milan, one of Italy's top teams) will watch their countries' every game.

No global event commands anything close to the attention paid the World Cup on all five continents. As many as 3 billion people are expected to watch some of it on TV, while 250 million more will cluster around radios to follow every play. Having caught the 1974 and 1978 tournaments by radio from a South Africa without TV coverage, I can sympathize with the TV-less Angolans, Togoans, Ghanaians, and Ivoirians of today. (I took in the live drama via the BBC on short-wave, then waited two weeks for the visuals, courtesy of the White House Hotel, a Cape Town brothel that was diversifying its revenue stream by showing imported pirate videos of the games.)

The billions who tune into the World Cup are watching a game that, at the highest level, largely negates all advantages of social class or even physical stature -- the combination of speed, skill, imagination and organization required to prevail is a great leveler. But at the World Cup, soccer is far more than a game.

"What do they of cricket know who only cricket know," wrote the legendary Trinidadian historian and socialist CLR James, insisting that the spectacle of men in white flannels on a grassy oval engaged in a five-day contest of bat and ball, with strictly observed breaks for lunch and afternoon tea, could only be properly understood in the context of the political and cultural conflicts of the British Empire. If James had lived long enough to see the national team of his beloved Trinidad qualify for the elite 32 teams that will contest the 2006 World Cup, he'd surely have made the same point about soccer (even if, like most of humanity, he'd have called it "football").

James recognized sport as a ritualized combat, matching only war in its ability to channel national passions. Those passions are tied, for better or worse, to an almost mythic connection fans make between their team and their national narrative -- when facing Germany, English fans routinely chant lines like: "Two World Wars and one World Cup" (linking their defeats of Germany on the battlefield and the soccer field).

As James saw it, playing cricket matches against England offered its former colonial subjects, at least ritually, a chance to demolish the claims of cultural superiority through which the British had for so long rationalized imperial rule. So, too, soccer: The roar heard across the Irish Diaspora when the Republic of Ireland team scores against England expresses a passion that long predates the game of soccer -- the more jingoistic among the English fans respond with bloodcurdling anti-IRA songs. Millions of Africans walked a little taller that summer's day four years ago when Senegal beat its former colonial master, France, then the reigning world champion.

James also noted the tendency of colonized peoples to develop their own idiom of play, evolving styles based on their skills and patterns of social organization that tended to confound the colonizer even while playing within his rules.

The last World Cup final pitted Brazil against Germany, teams that represent global North-South polar opposites in the way the game is played. As Muhammad Ali was celebrated not just for his unique skills in the ring but for his iconic resistance to the racial order, so the universal popularity of Brazil is based not only on its exquisitely poetic style -- the "Joga Bonito" (beautiful game) -- but also on its role as a proxy representative of the Global South.

The German game epitomizes the industrialized West: physical power, relentless drive, unshakable organization and a machine-like efficiency in punishing opponents' mistakes. It's a kind of Blitzkrieg -- the modern German game, as Simon Kuper has noted, had its roots in Nazi sports culture and the militaristic virtues it lionized -- that overwhelms opponents with physical power on the ground and in the air, often winning "ugly" by a single goal. The best-known German players of the past half century have been goalkeepers, field commanders in defense and midfield, as well as clinical if artless goal-poaching forwards. There has never been a Pelé on the German team; in Brazil, by contrast, each year brings a new crop of awesomely talented teenagers from the favelas whose audacious skill and flair inevitably anoints them as "the next Pelé."

Brazil's style is more akin to advanced guerrilla warfare in which the insurgents have the momentum and the confidence. They combine impossible skill with breathtaking audacity and guile, an ability to shoot from great distances and apply boot to ball in a manner that improbably "bends" its trajectory. The telepathy with which they are able to anticipate each other's movements allows them to dazzle both the opposition and the crowd with the fluidity of their passing movements and their propensity for doing the unexpected. The adversary literally never knows where the next attack will come from, or what it will be. And the smiles of the Brazilians, even in crucial games, tell you that they're enjoying themselves. On the field, you'll rarely see a German player smile.

When Ronaldinho, currently rated the greatest player in the world, spotted the English goalkeeper David Seaman two yards off the goal line in their 2002 World Cup clash, he unleashed a 40-yard free kick that looped over Seaman's outstretched gloves, wickedly dipping and curling into the top corner of England's goal. So thunderstruck were the English TV commentators that they insisted the strike was a fluke, a pass that went fortuitously awry. It's for such moments that the soccer fans of the Global South live.

Globalizing the Local Game

National idioms of play may, however, be on the wane, as Europe's professional club leagues -- housing almost all of the world's leading players -- create nearly year-round the sort of spectacle for a global-satellite TV audience once restricted to the World Cup. In many developing countries today (including Brazil), ever fewer people attend domestic league games, reserving their soccer time religiously for TV broadcasts of the top European leagues where they're more likely to see the best players from their own countries.

Today, a match in London between Arsenal and Manchester United involves players from Latin America, much of West Africa, the Arab world, northern, southern, and eastern Europe, and Asia. The global TV audience it attracts is good news for the marketers of players' jerseys and other soccer paraphernalia, even if it's a tad bizarre for a British army squaddie patrolling Basra in southern Iraq to encounter a Mehdi Army militiaman sporting the shirt of Arsenal, the soldier's "local" London team – a jersey that he and his mates might wear on a night out back home to signify a kind of tribal identity. But there's nothing "local" about Arsenal anymore: When it played Real Madrid earlier this year in the Champion's League, there were only two Englishmen on the field, both playing for the Spanish side.

With this rapid globalization of the "local" game comes a homogenization of styles: England, today, has one or two players who like to run at the defense with the ball at their feet and can bend a shot from 40 yards; Brazil now plays with one or two "holding" midfielders, that traditional European demolition man whose job is simply to break up opposition attacks and win the ball for his more creative teammates.

By some estimates, there are now more than 4,000 Brazilians playing professional soccer abroad, which is why Brazil's starting lineup in Germany will consist entirely of European-based players. (Indeed, Brazil could probably field two teams for the tournament, each of which would feature many of Europe's leading club players.) Germany's squad, by contrast, is almost entirely home grown, although even in the German league, many of the leading lights are Brazilian imports.

This fusing of different styles has been accelerated by the migration of coaches as well as players. Last season, the coaches of the top five clubs in England's Premier League were Portuguese, Scottish, Spanish, French, and Dutch. Three Dutch coaches are bringing non-Dutch teams to the World Cup; most African teams are coached by Frenchmen and Germans, the English team by a Swede, and Portugal by a Brazilian.

Kicking People, not Balls

Despite the urge of fans to invoke national mythologies from a distant past, many European national teams now reflect the continent's increasingly cosmopolitan makeup. Thanks to postwar economic migrations into Europe from former colonies, many of the best players available to a European national team are second- and even third-generation immigrants. France fields a team in which all but one, sometimes two, players are of African or Arab origin. The racist politician Jean Marie Le Pen actually complained in 1998 that the World Cup winners were "not a real French team." Some English fans are more accepting of their cosmopolitan fate, as reflected in one of their chants that extols Britain's new national cuisine: "And we all love vindaloo..."

The world soccer authority FIFA allows players to play for the country of their citizenship or the one of their origins. This creates oddities: Dakar-born Patrick Vieira marshals France's midfield, while Paris-born Khalilou Fadiga stars for Senegal. In addition, the ability of emerging players to make professional migrations seeking fame and fortune sometimes tempts soccer federations to recruit for the national team by fast-tracking the citizenship of promising players. In recent weeks, a Dutch effort to expedite the citizenship process for Ivoirian striker Salomon Kalou fell afoul of that country's new chill on immigration.

If it had succeeded, Kalou would have been in the bizarre position of playing against an Ivory Coast team that happens to include his brother, Bonaventure. Meanwhile, the luckiest Brazilian going to Germany is surely Francileudo Dos Santos, a France-based striker who wouldn't even come in tenth among contenders for his position on the Brazilian team; but fast-tracked into instant citizenship by Tunisia, he is now that country's leading goal-scorer. (Hopefully he will have learned to avoid offending the fans of his adopted country, as he did two years ago by draping himself in the Brazilian flag to celebrate victory.)

Although many of the stars of almost every domestic league from Russia westward are from the African Diaspora (which includes Brazil), an astonishing level of racism persists among fans and even coaches at the highest levels of the game. Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin, for example, bemoaned the globalization of his domestic league thus: "The more Ukrainians there are playing in the national league, the more examples there are for the young generation. Let them learn from [our players] and not some zumba-bumba whom they took off a tree, gave two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian league.''

Then there was the Spanish team's coach, Luis Aragones, caught on TV telling striker Jose Antonio Reyes that he was better than his French Arsenal teammate Thierry Henry. Except Aragones didn't say Henry's name, he said, "that black shit." A few days later, he insisted that there was nothing racist about the remark: "Reyes is ethnically a gypsy," said Aragones. "I have got a lot of gypsy and black friends. All I did was to motivate the gypsy by telling him he was better than the black."

In many European stadiums, today, black players are targeted for racial abuse in the form of ape noises and bananas thrown from the stands. In fact, the World Cup offers a range of opportunities for the racist xenophobes in the ranks of many countries' "ultra" football fans -- those who go to games not only to support their side in a ritual of combat, but to seek actual combat against the ultras of the other side. For years, England's games were a rallying and brawling point for the racist far right. They nonetheless looked positively tame when compared with the Serbian ultras originally grouped around the fan club of Red Star Belgrade. Under their leader Arkan, they became the core of the notorious "Tiger" militia accused by the Hague War Crimes Tribunal of some of the most brutal "ethnic cleansing" violence in Bosnia from 1991 to 1993.

As Europe confronts the challenge of integrating millions of immigrants on whose labor the survival of their welfare economies depend, soccer matches increasingly become the avenue for a political ritual of a different type -- channeling rampant racism. Not without reason do German authorities fear that the country's resurgent neo-Nazis will use the World Cup as an opportunity to announce their presence to a watching world. If they do, they will have plenty of allies in the "ultras" of Serbia, Poland, Italy and even England.

Branding the Game

Although the "national narrative" that binds fans to their teams is open to progressive or reactionary appropriation, it's not the game's driving force any more. Soccer, today, is a multibillion-dollar global industry whose power centers are transnational corporations -- the moneyed clubs of Europe whose financial well-being depends on the ability of their "brand" to sell merchandise from Baghdad to Beijing. Manchester United may be based in a city whose prosperity has declined with that of the British textile industry, but most of the young men sporting its jersey from Gaza to Guangdong would undoubtedly struggle to locate the home of "their" team on a map. And it's a safe bet that the Ecuadorian busboy and the Bangkok cab driver wearing the blue and red jersey of Barcelona are blissfully unaware of "their" team's centrality to Catalan nationalism.

Local icons have become global brands. Mancunians might put away their Manchester United jerseys and don England's colors during the World Cup, but most of their team's stars will actually be playing against England in the shirts of Holland, Portugal, Argentina, Serbia, and France. For Manchester United's management, however, having their stars represent any nation's team is a problem. Wayne Rooney, United's star striker, for example, is being raced back to fitness from a broken foot because England's hopes depend on him. Should he aggravate the injury playing in the World Cup, Manchester United -- which paid close to $40 million to sign Rooney -- could suffer potentially huge financial losses once the league season resumes in September.

That's why Manchester United and 17 other top clubs in Europe are agitating to be given a share of the revenues generated by the World Cup. They argue that it is their "assets" who are generating the revenue, at great risk to the clubs that hold their contracts. As the employers of most of the world's best players, soccer's collective corporate management has considerable leverage in challenging the sovereignty of national federations in the organization of the game.

No such problem exists for the other major corporate interest in the game, the makers of equipment and apparel. Their sponsorship of the World Cup and its teams stands to make them billions of dollars in revenues. Nike has an advantage, sponsoring Team Brazil as it does, as well as Holland, Portugal, Mexico, South Korea, and the USA among others. Adidas holds its own with Germany, France, Spain, Argentina, Japan and Trinidad (whose shirts will no doubt become a nightclub standard, and have already been adopted as the fetish of choice by Scottish fans whose own team failed to qualify). Puma sponsors mostly outsiders like Cote d'Ivoire and Iran, although Italy remains a credible contender.

Adidas could, however, be said to have the killer advantage. It supplies the tournament ball, whose appeal crosses all affiliations. Having already sold 10 million World Cup balls, and expecting another 5 million to bounce out of the stores by year's end, they could rack up close to a billion dollars in sales simply by catering to the desire of the rest of us to kick the "same" ball the stars do.

From contemporary geopolitical and cultural conflicts (or their historic echoes) to the impact of globalization, the World Cup offers a real-time snapshot of the state of our world. This summer, when Portugal plays Angola or England meets Trinidad, colonial history won't be forgotten among the fans of the formerly colonized. Whenever England has played Argentina in the past 24 years, the fans of both countries have been asked to relive the Falklands/Malvinas War -- and I'd be surprised if World War II memories escape a mention when Australia plays Japan. Yet, the game will also be infused with contemporary political drama, should fate decree that the USA meets Iran.

Sometimes more than just a game, the World Cup nonetheless remains a contest whose outcome is never certain. Winners are still determined by an alchemy of balletics and poetics, skill and cooperation, athleticism and sheer luck. Orchestrating the movement of a ball and eleven players across the field with such rapidity would be hard enough, even without eleven other players trying to disrupt them. The power relations that prevail in the real world count for little in those 90 minutes of play -- and, no matter how fierce the "combat," at game's end, in a time-honored World Cup ritual, players from both sides exchange shirts in a mark of respect and friendship. A snapshot, then, not only of a world in conflict, but also of the possibilities of resolution by means other than war. (Tony Karon, "How To Watch the World Cup," TomDispatch.Com, June 8, 2006).

Monday, July 03, 2006

American Civilization, Barbaric Iraqis

In memory of Abeer Qasim Hamza. My thoughts go out to you, little one, and to your family:

"Fifteen-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza was afraid, her mother confided in a neighbor.

As pretty as she was young, the girl had attracted the unwelcome attention of U.S. soldiers manning a checkpoint that the girl had to pass through almost daily in their village in the south-central city of Mahmudiyah, her mother told the neighbor.

Abeer told her mother again and again in her last days that the soldiers had made advances toward her, a neighbor, Omar Janabi, said this weekend, recounting a conversation he said he had with the girl's mother, Fakhriyah, on March 10.

Fakhriyah feared that the Americans might come for her daughter at night, at their home. She asked her neighbor if Abeer might sleep at his house, with the women there.

Janabi said he agreed.

Then, "I tried to reassure her, remove some of her fear," Janabi said. "I told her, the Americans would not do such a thing."

Abeer did not live to take up the offer of shelter.

Instead, attackers came to the girl's house the next day, apparently separating Abeer from her mother, father and young sister.

Janabi and others knowledgeable about the incident said they believed that the attackers raped Abeer in another room. Medical officials who handled the bodies also said the girl had been raped, but they did not elaborate.

Before leaving, the attackers fatally shot the four family members -- two of Abeer's brothers had been away at school -- and attempted to set Abeer's body on fire, according to Janabi, another neighbor who spoke on condition of anonymity, the mayor of Mahmudiyah and a hospital administrator with knowledge of the case.

The U.S. military said last week that authorities were investigating allegations of a rape and killings in Mahmudiyah by soldiers of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 4th Infantry Division." (Ellen Knickmeyer, "Details Emerge in Alleged Army Rape, Killings," Washington Post, Monday, July 3, 2006).