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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

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Saturday, 17 June 2006
Sports: Harmless Theory
Topic: Oddities

Sports: Harmless Theory

Let's go to the odd sources. Saturday, June 17, 2006, the National Post up in Canada reprints an item from The New Republic the previous day, which in turn was adapted from an item in the anthology The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup. This is Franklin Foer asking the question that has probably occurred to more than a few people after seventeen World Cup football (soccer) extravaganzas, one every four years - what kind of governments produce winning soccer teams? Freedom and football victory? Juntas produced winners? Let's see.

The Czechs this time just embarrassed the United States in the opening round, and then they managed to lose 0-2 to Angola, a major upset. The heartened Americans then went out to face the Italian team - maybe it wasn't all over - and managed a 1-1 tie, with two players ejected and what would have been the winning goal disallowed. What does this mean about the governments? Who knows?

From Kafka through "The Good Solider Svejk" to the deeply ironic Havel Václav Havel (good friends with Frank Zappa) to the recent vote for the "greatest Czech of All Time" - the whole fictitious and absurd Jára Cimrman - the Czechs have looked upon the whole idea of government itself with some skepticism. It's not football. It's sillier. Who knows how things are run in Angola, other than badly? And how many governments has Italy had since WWII, with the most recent being that of the clownish Silvio Berlusconi?

Still, Franklin Foer wants to make a connection, as he explains here -
There have been revolutions to create socialism, democracy, and authoritarian dictatorship. But humankind has yet to fight a revolution to guarantee one of the most vital elements - if not the most vital element - of the good life. That is, a winning soccer team. If we were to take up arms for this reason, what kind of government would we want to install?

Political theory, for all its talk about equality and virtue, has strangely evaded this question.
Probably for good reason.

But here's the rundown, and it starts with communism -
Communism, despite its gulags and show trials, produced great players and rock-solid teams. The Hungarian squad of the early '50s has gone down in history as one of the best to never win a championship. A few decades later, in 1982, the Poles finished third in the tournament, drawing with Paolo Rossi's Italy and beating Michel Platini's France en route. These triumphs are reflected in the overall record. In World Cup matches against non-communist countries, the red hordes bested their capitalist foes more often than not - by my count, 46 wins, 32 draws, 40 losses.

But the fact remains that a communist country has never won the World Cup. After watching the communists perform efficiently in preliminary rounds of the tournament, you could usually count on them to collapse in the quarterfinals.
Yep, just like the whole system itself - sounds good, and doesn't work.

Foer implies the problem really was embedded in the political nature of the communist system - they weren't like us, the risk talking entrepreneurial loose and happy risk-takers of American capitalism, or something like that -
Valeri Lobanovsky, the great Soviet and Ukrainian coach of the 1970s and '80s, believed that science could provide underlying truths about the game. He would send technicians to games to evaluate players based on the number of "actions" - tackles, passes, shots - that they performed. These evaluations perversely favored frenetic tackling over the creative construction of an attack. Lobanovsky's method captures the pernicious way in which the rigidity of Marxism permeated the mentality of the Eastern bloc. Such rigidity might produce a great runner or gymnast, but it doesn't produce champions in a sport that requires regular flashes of individuality and risk-taking.
Yeah, right. The interesting thing is these guys lost the big ones because they trusted "science." One thinks of George Bush.

And what of fascism? There's evidence their teams are crap too -
Fascist governments can masterfully manufacture a sense of national purpose and, more than that, national superiority. This ethos, while not so appealing from the perspective of those who worry about individual rights, cultivates the perfect climate for a World Cup. Not only can it produce a healthy confidence, but it can also generate a powerful fear of losing. Who wants to disappoint a nation swept up in this kind of fervor? Or, more to the point, who wants to disappoint a leader who might break your legs and imprison your grandmother? What's more, fascist governments subscribe to a cult of fitness and hygiene that leads them to siphon considerable national resources into sports programs.

The fascist record speaks for itself. During the '30s, Il Duce's Italy claimed two trophies; Germany took third in 1934, as did Brazil in 1938. Overall, fascism compiled a record of 14-3-3 in that decade.
Okay, and since then Francisco Franco's Spain and Juan Peron's Argentina got nowhere. And Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's Portugal appeared in only one tournament in the thrity-six years he ruled there. Jingoism and personal fear only go so far, or not very far at all. Someone tell Karl Rove. Bad for soccer, bad for the country. It's a losing strategy. Hyper-patriotism mixed with telling everyone they should be very, very afraid is only good for winning elections. What happens after you win matters too.

And then there is this odd "fact" -
No country has ever won a World Cup while committing genocide or gearing up to commit genocide. Germany and Yugoslavia both faltered on the eve of their mass murders. In 1938, Germany didn't win a single game. The greatest Yugoslavian team of all time lost in the quarterfinals of the 1990 tournament. Apparently, lusting after the blood of Jews and Muslims distracts vital energy from the more pressing task of scoring.
Yeah that can be distraction, or it's a coincidence here.

But old-fashioned military juntas do win -
The Brazilian and Argentine juntas presided over the most glorious victories in the tournament's history in the '70s and early '80s. It makes sense that juntas would excel at this. They are collective efforts, where even the strongmen are part of a broader apparatus. A good soccer team is, in a sense, a junta.
It is? But then they've won three of the seventeen times.

But the good conservative Foer says nothing beats good old cut-throat western competative capitalism for turning out real winners, where everyone talks about teamwork but no one believes in it -
... even the worst social democratic teams - Belgium, Finland - win more consistently than their authoritarian peers. To understand this success, one must understand the essence of the social democratic economy. Social democracies take root in heavily industrialized societies, and this is a great blessing.

No country has won the World Cup without having a substantial industrial base. This base supplies a vast urban proletariat, which in turn supplies players for a team. Industrial economies also produce great wealth, which funds competitive domestic leagues that improve social democratic players by subjecting them to day-to-day competition of the highest quality. And, while the junta mindset nicely transposes itself to the pitch, the social democratic ethos is a far neater match. Social democracy celebrates individualism, while relentlessly patting itself on the back for its sense of solidarity - a coherent team with room for stars.
So that's six of the World Cups for the world of individualism and cull-out-the-losers competition - over cooperation, forced or not, and over or the "science" of the sport.

Foer contends "the outcome of each match in the World Cup can be forecast by analyzing the political and economic conditions of the countries represented on the pitch." Just what we need, another sort of neoconservative theory of how the world really works.

You'd think, after Iraq, they'd learn. But maybe there is a correlation, and maybe the Iraq war was a fine idea. At least this theory is harmless.

Posted by Alan at 17:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 17 June 2006 17:59 PDT home

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