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As the lousy, boring 2006 World Cup painfully grinds its way to its climax on Sunday, several features stand out - all of them have far more to do with socioeconomics than with sport or entertainment.
The first and most obvious - indeed, undeniable - aspect of this year's World Cup is the degree of European domination. For the first time since 1982, all four semi-finalists were European, which to most people means that the South Americans got squeezed out along the way. But it also means that the Africans, once again, disappointed. Ever since African teams first made it into the World Cup finals in 1974, we have been told to expect them to make their mark and break through to the top levels - but this has yet to happen. A long list of African countries, from both North and West Africa, have tried, but all have failed. Only individual African players, by dint of becoming first or, more often, second generation Europeans, have reached the top in the framework of European teams, primarily that of France.
For the rest, notably Germany, Italy and Portugal, football remains what it has always been - the stomping ground of white superiority. Given what has happened in virtually every other sport (think of Kenya and Morocco in athletics and China in virtually everything), where white dominance has long since faded and in light of the global popularity of football (except, of course, for North America), the ability of the dwindling West European nations to maintain their primacy is remarkable.
One unfortunate, but apparently inevitable, result is that the main features of European society are on display at the World Cup - and go far to explain why it has become so miserable a spectacle. A graying continent, in which experience is always preferred over innovation, which shuns risks and avoids initiative, is bound to produce defensive football whose main goal (pun intended) is to prevent being scored against rather than scoring. The fact that goalkeeping is the area which has seen the highest rise in average standards, to the point that most teams now have excellent goalies, says it all.
But the intense risk-avoidance that has made Italy the most effective team in the competition is a perfectly rational response to a system that offers no incentive to play attacking football and score goals. The lessons of the 1970s and 1980s, when the best and most attractive teams - Holland, Brazil, France, Denmark - consistently failed to win, have been well learnt and thoroughly applied. The outcome is managers such as Erikson (England), Scolari (Portugal) and others, who readily replace attacking players with defensive ones in order to hang on to the tenuous and often fortuitous leads they have established. Winning is the only thing that is consistently and aggressively incentivized, and both experience and common sense suggest that the surest way to win is not to be scored against.
It is, therefore, hardly surprising that in the recent competitions there have been no outstanding teams (with the possible exception of France in 1998), of the sort that everyone found a joy to watch - as there were in almost every previous competition. The epitome of the new era is the Greek team that won Euro 2004, but the trend toward the defensive blanketing of inspiration and virtuosity began long before and is still intensifying.
Why, then, do the public put up with this, indeed lap it up so hungrily? The answer is again quintessentially European: on a base of conservative tradition - this is what we do every two years (either the World Cup or the "Euro" i.e. European Nations Cup) - is added the lethal mix of media hype and marketing juggernauts. The overall result is to create the impression that a) this is our cultural heritage, perhaps even a replacement for the religious ceremonies we no longer observe; b) it's super cool; c) if you don't think it's great, you're weird. The media and marketing campaigns are aimed at the 12-30 age-groups, who largely determine how their elders (and leaders - watch Chancellor Merkel suffering through the German games) should think and behave.
Opting out of this circus is social suicide in Europe - claiming that the circus now offers overpaid and underperforming pseudo-gladiators is heretical. Suggesting that it used to be better and could again become so, is to imply that the public has been ripped off - and that people are deluding themselves into thinking otherwise. Well - it was and it could and they are. That's the story of Western Europe these last 20 years, and maybe it's epitaph too.
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