Please note that the poems and essays on this site are copyright and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Sunday 13 July 2014

The meaning of world football


Car in India with Lionel Messi's number and Barcelona FC colours: photo by Umeshsrinavasan, 29 August 2011

After an exciting and hectic round of group stage matches in which the persistent brave overachievement of an interesting set of unfancied sides from nations not customarily included in the rankings of global football superpowers promised a fascinating tournament, the Brazil copa has gone sideways in subsequent rounds, with tense, risk-phobic matches agonizingly drawn out through injury and extra time to inevitable grudging trumphs by the predictable favourites -- those few that remained after the entirely satisfying early culling of the once mighty European powers. The sadness and humiliation of the host nation's inglorious exit would have reduced grown adults everywhere (even outside Brazil, that is) to tears were they not aware that these fallen heroes, with their glazed my-life-is-over thousand-yard-stares, were multi-millionaires, and those ultimately most desolated the typical low end futebol faithful of this land in which futebol, along with a peculiar witchy brand of post christian voodoo, constitute the religions of popular subscription. 

So it all comes down, as we knew it would, to the Mannschaft. They didn't mean to embarrass Brazil; the Brazilians did that to themselves. Germany merely demonstrated the mechanical perfection of a well oiled machine. Joy has nothing to do with machines, of course. 

The German draw with Ghana in the group stages had, er, troubling aspects. We weren't suppose to find out about these. But you know how it is any more -- cameras everywhere.

Ghana's Sulley Muntari helps to assist a man from the pitch after he ran on during the group G World Cup match between Germany and Ghana at the Arena Castelao, Fortaleza, Brazil.
Slogans written on the man's chest and back included "HH", signifying Heil Hitler, and "SS," referring to the Nazi paramilitary unit: photo by Matthias Schrader/AP, 21 June 2014

Germany fans with with blacked-out faces and improvised "Ghana" shirts  at Germany/Ghana World Cup match, Fortaleza, Brazil, on 21 June: photographer unknown, via ONTD, 22 June 2014

After Ghana the Germans faced US coach Jürgen Klinsman and his mini-mannschaft. Nobody could figure out how the American side got this far in the first place -- not that the average American was going to let his or her total ignorance of the sport stand in the way of the opportunity to get wrecked, wave a flag, yell a bit, feel bored, be confused, get tired, and in the end feel sad... for about six seconds.

Fans in Austin, Texas react to a missed goal attempt by the United States in their World Cup game against Germany: photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News, 26 June 2014

A US fan in Austin, Texas reacts after Germany scored the single goal of their match against the United States: photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News, 26 June 2014

Fans in Austin, Texas watch the United States in their World Cup game against Germany. The US team still advances to the next round despite losing to Germany 1-0: photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News, 26 June 2014

Fans of the U.S. national soccer team celebrate their team's victory during a live broadcast of the World Cup match between the Unites States and Ghana, inside the FIFA Fan Fest area on Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro: photo by Leo Correa/AP. 16 June 2014

The soggy German victory over the US side of German youth recruits was painful to watch.  But not so terrible as the protracted conquest of a valiant but badly undermanned Algeria, 120 minutes of pure torment. You just always knew where it was going, long before Mehmut Ozil put the tie out of its misery at 119 minutes. The upstart Algeria, only African side to make it through to the round of 16, were one of the tournament's wonders. Other African nations left in sordid quarreling over unpaid bonuses. The refreshing Algeria -- not many millionaires in the side by the way -- elected to do guess what with their $9 million tournament prize money.

Now hold it. He's not going to say they gave it to the suffering people of Gaza, surely? 

Yes. Every last penny.

Algerian striker Islam Slimani said the money should go where it is needed most.“Our brothers in Gaza need help, we don’t need anyone’s money, but our Palestinian brothers need this money.” 

Right there, the moral blow of the Cup.

Algeria's national team has reportedly offered to give their $  9 million World Cup pay che

Algerian national team at the 2014 World Cup: photo by AFP, June 2014

Those crazy Muslims, always doing inexplicable stuff like that. One recalls the 2008-2009 round of Israeli genocide in Gaza. Frédéric Kanouté, a Malian striker then playing with Sevilla, did this: 


Sevilla's Malian striker Frédéric Kanouté (left) celebrates with Luis Fabiano after scoring against Deportivo Coruna during their Spanish King's Cup soccer match at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium in Seville on 7 January 2009. Kanouté's shirt supporting Palestine represents his response to the Israeli invasion of Gaza begun 26 December 2008. Kanouté was fined by FIFA for his gesture of solidarity: photo by Marcelo del Pozo / Reuters, 7 January 2009; image by nice.robo, 10 January 2009

A case of showboating, selective outrage or what you will -- the player's motives were questioned, he was fined. Few noticed -- because of course they weren't meant to notice -- Frédéric Kanouté's consistent history of philanthropic good works. A devout Muslim and native of the third poorest country on earth, he had poured millions into building a children's center and hospital in Mali. What's that you're suggesting now, then? That world football is part of world history, occasionally recognizes its responsibility as such, and sometimes actually responds?

Islam Slimani, who plays his club football for Sporting Lisbon, had a tournament to be proud of. It was his late goal against Russia two weeks ago that ensured Algeria's passage to the round of 16 -- a first for this minnow in bright green, swimming boldly among the big fish. Albert Camus would have Bogarted a smile from beyond the dusty, sandblasted playing fields of Oran. Slimani's Algeria side put up a memorable fight against the Mannschaft.

Germany's defender Per Mertesacker (L) vies with Algeria's forward Islam Slimani.

Germany defender Per Mertesacker (left) contends with Algeria forward Islam Slimani in Germany's 2-1 World Cup victory: photo by AFP, 30 June 2014

Germany's next victim was the French, who succumbed as cooperatively as they had in 1940.

The final remaining obstacle, Argentina, would seem hardly an obstacle at all. Angel di Maria, the cleverest player of the next miraculously gifted generation immediately succeeding Lionel Messi's, is a game lad with tons of nerve to go with great vision and the audacious ball skills of an artist, but he is skinny as a stick, has taken a bad knock, and may not play in this final. Still, if the soul of this Argentina side is Messi, the heartbeat is the stalwart Javier Mascherano, whose astonishing stretch to deny Arjen Robben and the Dutch made possible the albicelestial passage to the final. Then there is the one player on earth with so remarkable a history of bringing joy that even in a tournament in which he has struggled, it would be against the poetry of the thing to rule out the possibility he might yet do something to make matters interesting, even if the smart money seems to have been trending away. But do I dare to equate Gary Lineker with the smart money?  The wee genius Messi. Let us pause a moment for a nod in grateful tribute, and a quick look back. 

from Rob Smyth's Guardian minute-by-minute report on Barcelona/Bayer Leverkusen, Wednesday 7 March 2011
GOAL! Barcelona 1-0 Bayer Leverkusen (Messi 25) I was typing 'GOAL!' when he was 45 yards out. It's a sublime finish from Lionel Messi. With Leverkusen having a suicidally high line, almost on the halfway line in fact, Messi curved his run to get beyond the defence onto a straightforward through pass from deep by Xavi. He ran into the area, a little left of centre, and lifted a wonderful scoop over the outstretched left arm of Leno. For most players such a scoop shot would have been a risky finish, but Messi always works within the limitations of his talent. There are no limitations.

Lionel Messi, Bernd Leno

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, left, scores his first past Bayer Leverkusen's Bernd Leno during the Champions League last-16 tie
: photo by Manu Fernandez/AP via the Guardian 7 March 2007

GOAL! Barcelona 2-0 Bayer Leverkusen (Messi 42) For most players this would have been a sublime goal; for Messi it is utterly routine. We've seen him score this type of goal so many times before. He was found by a perceptive angled pass by Iniesta, just outside the area to the right of centre. He ran into the box and then across the area in a straight line, the ball never more than a few millimetres from his left foot. After dummying to shoot a couple of times, he placed the ball into the far corner. He made a difficult chance look offensively easy.

File:039 men at work UEFA 2009, Rome.jpg

Lionel Messi shoots from outside the penalty area against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final: photo by funnydae, 27 May 2009

GOAL! Barcelona 3-0 Bayer Leverkusen (Messi 50) I'm sorry, but this is just ridiculous. It's not remotely fair. Barcelona should be handicapped, made to play with nine men, when Lionel Messi is in their side. Messi has scored his eighth hat-trick of the season – his eighth hat-trick of the season – and this might be the best goal of the three. Again he ran beyond the defence onto a through pass, this time from Busquets. His first touch on the edge of the area was exquisite, but the covering Schwaab seemed to have forced him a little wide. Then Messi produced a glorious chip with his weaker right foot that arced over the head of Leno and plopped gently into the far corner. The extent and the efficiency of his genius is totally beyond our comprehension.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi celebrates one of his four goals for Barcelona against Arsenal in the Champions League:
photo by Darren Staples/Reuters via the Guardian 7 April 2010
GOAL! Barcelona 5-0 Bayer Leverkusen (Messi 58) Messi has four. After some more rat-a-tat passing on the edge of the area, Pedro tries to slip the ball through to Messi. He's blocked off by two defenders and Leno comes to claim, but he's at full stretch and the ball slithers from his grasp. Messi, who kept running, passes the ball in from a very tight angle on the left of the six-yard box.

59 min I am less speech.

Lionel Messi

'Just the five goals for me last night then, tha's all': photo by Gustau Nacarino/Reuters via the Guardian, 7 March 2007

GOAL! Barcelona 7-0 Bayer Leverkusen (Messi 85) Lionel Messi becomes the first man to score five goals in a Champions League match. It was another terrifyingly simple goal, passed into the corner at pace from the D. There's nothing left to say.

87 min Lionel Messi is 24 years old.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League tie: photo by Manu Fernandez/AP

Then again: this wonderful entertainer was in fact merely a human being. And not a large one at that. And it's actually a rough game.  The other guy is trying to win too. So it all had to come down, as we knew it would sooner or later, to the Germans. To bring Messi to ground. Well, metaphorically that is. In the animation below, from the devastating Argentina defeat to Germany in the 2010 World Cup, he is seen not on the ground, but standing. Perfectly still. Watching the German shot land in the back of the net. And then walking away.

File:FIFA World Cup 2010 Argentina vs Germany
 - Thomas Müller 
opening goal.gif

In the 2010 World Cup Germany stunned the much-fancied Argentina side of Maradona and Messi with this fourth minute goal created by two of the tournament's outstanding performers, Bastian Schweinsteiger (7, providing pinpoint service from the left) and newcomer Thomas Müller (penetrating the porous Argentine back line to head home); the reeling South Americans would never recover. Germany, looking imperious at this point, would crumple before the Spanish in their semi-final: photo animation by Zunaid, 2010

There would be a great many later moments of pure joy. And of course, moments of frustration. Human. Messi's smile. Messi's bewilderment. Messi's lamentation.

Barcelona striker Lionel Messi expresses his frustration during Barcelona's 2-1 defeat by Arsenal in the first leg of their Champions League tie, Emirates Stadium, London, 16 February 2011: photo by Eloy Alonso / Reuters

Espeso 8 Messi se resbala ayer en Londres ante Koscielny, el central del Arsenal. JORDI COTRINA

Messi goes to ground before Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny (Emirates Stadium, London, 16 February 2011): photo by Jordi Cotrina / Reuters

Arsenal hunde a poderoso Barcelona en el final del partido

The lamentation of Lio Messi (Emirates Stadium, London, 16 February 2011: photo by Eddie Keogh/ Reuters

The respect Messi has won in defeat is as impressive as that gained in victory.  After the match pictured above, Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal thoughtfully suggested, speaking of Messi's Barcelona side, They are the best side in football's history, in my opinion.

Cesc would shortly be moving back to his native Catalunya, to join the little wizard Messi, acknowledged as the finest player in the world, in building a temporary dynasty at Camp Nou. Moments of joy, moments of sadness. Today Lio gets another chance to delight us. The odds on anything good happening in any situation, an expert once suggested, are 6-5 against.  Could one small person, far away on a southern continent, alter those odds, for even the few seconds a moment of magic would take?

I expect a German victory. I am not totally insane. I don't believe in miracles. But I do remember that day seven years ago when an angel fell on Lio Messi... and he kissed her.

This is the meaning of world football.


TC said...

Keep in mind -- that's a long fall from the heavens, and she's a pretty big angel. Totally uninjured. Hops right up for the embrace. Lio!

And I ask you -- could Jesus have managed that?

Julia said...

Great post, TC!
I know nothing about football but since the Argentina / Netherlands match last Wednesday and the wonderful reactions from our team, I can confess I'm very in to the game. I even wrote a post about Mascherano and all his "great deeds".
In fact it doesn't really matters to me if "we" win, I'm already happy with our team and what they transformed in our society, right now.

Mose23 said...

It's good to see there's still space for flare and imagination in the game.

Kanouté reminds us of a time before
it all got lousy with money.

Fifa has a lot to answer for, I think.

Robb said...

Loved this, Tom. Thanks you.

Be the BQE said...

Thanks for a great post. I guess many sports show us humans defying what seem to be the limits of the human machinery, whether Van Persie's header against Spain, Mascherano's great play in goal, the way Messi lines up a shot or the angel falling from heaven unscathed. It is the beautiful game with many not so beautiful shadows--the obscene amounts of money, the racism. Getting ready to turn on the match. No way to know at the moment whether Messi will run to the crowd with fingers pointed to heaven or just walk away.

Be the BQE said...

Romero's goalkeeping, that is, and Mascherano's defense. Won't comment on Krull as ogre in the net.

TC said...

Thanks to all... and what can have happened to that angel... caught in the air traffic outside the stadium?

Qué lástima!

TC said...

All right, Lio had an unhappy day. But was it really necessary for all those tv cameras to iterate his unhappiness over and over, while everyone sat around waiting for Joe the Bloater to deliver the FIFA hardware?

Muchas lágrimas, pero...

Paloma San Basilio: No llores por mí, Argentina

manik sharma said...


In the end it was asking too much of messi.The question shall remain,of whether he can be counted alongside Pele and Maradona.He hasn't particularly shined in the knock-out stages.What is fact is that for the second World Cup in a row Shweinsteiger got the better of messi.Shweinsteiger I believe deserved a lot a more credit than he usually gets(because he plays a holding role).

Germany had to come of age.But what remains as the glaring,most astounding picture of this edition is the self-destruction of Brazil,a team of players crying at half-time,resigned to their fate,to their inability to make sense of the massacre in heads only hours ago, covered in the FORCA NEYMAR caps..I have never seen anything like it.

aditya said...

Kanoute, the Algerian national team remind me of Anelka's "quenelle"--

Yet this governing body has been remarkably quiet about apartheid Israel’s inclusion in the European under-21 championship and hosting of the finals last year in Tel Aviv.

Premier League Players call on UEFA to remove Israel as Euro U-21 hosts

The broadcaster here did not even telecast the horror show of German fans, cheering their team on, against Ghana. Or did I miss that!

Indeed, yr entirely human treatments of the game, in this post, and several others, teach one the meaning(s) of world football, in all the "utopian" waves of rise & eventual, poignant falls.

And even more so, in times when the expansions of FIFA's "grass-root" programs in Third World Countries (the expansions of imperialism in the global world?) strengthen the convenient tirades against the game.

What do they know of Football who only Football know?

The latest Pepsi ad (latest, here in India, where one usually lags behind the Western trends) showcases footballing icons showing off the "tricks", while a street singer collects pennies playing the David Bowie tune "We can be Heroes . . for just one day"

One is reminded of Brecht's lines,

Andrea: Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.
Galileo: No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.

Thanks for this great post, along with yr insightful assemblage of the heart wrenching Israel-Gaza conflict.

TC said...


Indeed it was impossible not to feel for Messi. At one point an unwelcome thought crossed the mind: "He's 31 now, after all..." But to write off his career and future on grounds of the Germany match would be a mistake. The ball is still his companion.

I thought it disgraceful to attempt to compensate his legend by awarding him the hollow trophy for player of the tournament. I thought that rightfully belonged to James Rodriguez of Colombia, a baby-faced assassin who did countless wonderful things and never put a foot wrong. I was sorry to see Colombia and Mexico go out on dubious calls, as I was sorry about the departures of Chile and Costa Rica. These sides were a delight, but when the grinding-down was done, they were gone.

I thought too much was made out of the turpitude of the greatest player in the world, who was playing for the least populous nation -- until he did that incorrect thing.

Anyone familiar with the game would know that Chiellini is hardly a choir boy in boots -- just as it was widely understood, by the players themselves, two Cups back, about Materazzi, when Zidane did to that particular thug what many thought needed to be done.

Yes, terrible about Brazil, a simulacrum of a folding chair masquerading as a national XI.

A mere dozen years ago, in the Far East, Brazil brought a squad for the ages -- Ronaldo (the real one), the young Ronaldinho, the great Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, et al.

It seems to have been assumed that Big Phil, who tended that bunch, could make sparkling wine out of tepid water with this group. Right.

Spain's poor showing was for me a greater disappointment, but Spain had brought great artistry to the game through two great tournaments over six years... whereas this Brazil crew had brought nothing, ever. Their most potent threat was the empty power of history.


Brecht had it down. Still, as we both know, it's the heroes who move the units. Tickets, celebrity kit, the whole immense marketing phantasmagoria.

The hypocrisy of FIFA is of course enormous. Freddy Kanouté speaks truth to power. What an annoyance that is, to many. The double standard by which Nic Anelka is condemned while the under-21s prepare to show their stuff in Tel Aviv is merely another symptom of the inability of the grand technological superpowers of the West to perceive the increasing similarity of the methods of the territorial-expansionist racist genocide repeatedly wrought by Israel against Islam to those of the terror state from which these methods were learnt.

As for the German "fan" displays at the Ghana match (as seen here), they were seen by few, and of course not shown to "the world" in the licensed broadcast (tv) media... but you know how it is. Those pesky, ubiquitous cameras in the hands of the citizenry.

I found the only listenable commentary was the frantic, passionate, rapidfire, totally involved and involving Spanish language audiocast from the wondrous Andres Cantor's Radio Primera network. The dodgy video streams would lag and fail, but Andres never missed a beat. The spirit of the event was lifted by that -- in my tiny walkman earbuds, that is.

TC said...

(As to the media, and its stars, it must be admitted that in the BBC studio talk bits, Rio Ferdinand showed that he is definitely a man who is loved by a shirt -- even if he is headed for, where was it, QPR? Or was it Palace?

Second prize for fashion and first prize for studio cool, however, I would reserve for the infinitely suave Titi Henry. A cardigan! -- in a high tech glass-windowed studio in BRAZIL! The World Cup is taxing on a crumbling mind... for half a moment I thought I was watching a delayed broadcast of Masterpiece Theatre. Stylewise, the man has never yet put a foot wrong.)