Behind the Lines: Achieving its goal

What is incredible is how a competition in which only a few select nations are serious contenders has become totally universal.

The sending off of French Captain Zinedine Zidane in the 110th minute of Sunday night's World Cup final with Italy might have caused the tournament to end on a sour note, but at least it provided work for professionals previously not associated with sports: lip-readers. On Monday morning, all the major European newspapers employed Italian experts to try to decipher just what Italian defender Marco Materazzi said that caused Zidane to head-butt him and receive the red card. The fact that none of them could agree - offering alternatives ranging from jibes against Zidane's female relatives, accusations of being a terrorist and curses unprintable in this paper - merely proves that even lip-reading isn't an exact science. What Marco said to ZZ will remain one of the great historic mysteries of soccer, like the reason for Ronaldo's sleepwalking in the 1998 World Cup final. The fact that the defining moment of this year's final was not a breathtaking long-distance goal or a miraculous save had nothing to do with the game's lack of any real surprises. Pundits and purists alike have been complaining for at least four tournaments that once the player-millionaires don their national team uniforms, they display only a fraction of the ability they regularly flash for their own clubs during the regular league season. This is nothing new. Nor is the fact that only the same eight countries have qualified for the semifinals over the last three decades. What is incredible is how a competition in which only a few select nations are serious contenders has become totally universal. Indeed, despite the mediocre soccer-playing - and the fact that all four semi-finalists are from Western Europe - all signs point to an increasing interest in the World Cup. The FIFA claim that five billion people worldwide watched the finals on TV is clearly an exaggeration. But there's no question that in hundreds of millions of homes (even those lacking running water, regular electricity and proper sanitation), people were glued to the screens following players from two countries they'll never visit in their lives. Most of the viewers weren't even citizens of the 32 countries whose teams made it to Germany, but that didn't stop them from putting their lives on hold for an entire month. More knowledgeable writers on the subject than I have tried to explain the game's wide appeal. It probably has much more to do with marketing than with the artistic athletics of the game itself. However, the fact remains that it is one which enables so many people to feel like citizens of a truly global community. Of course, this feeling is in many ways illusory. From the point of view of economics, this year's World Cup was as exclusive as a WASPy golf club. All four semi-finalists were countries with the powerful Euro as their currency. And it wasn't the wealthy countries that dominated the scene, but rather the rich private soccer clubs. The largest number of goals was scored by players from teams in the English Premiership Division and Spain's La Liga - 26 and 25 respectively - in spite of England's and Spain's having crashed out in the quarter-finals. It might seem artificial, but poor people around the globe seem to identify deeply with players who are paid in 90 minutes what they can't imagine earning in a lifetime. ANOTHER POSSIBLE explanation for the World Cup's increasing popularity is its giving individual nations an opportunity to assess their relationship with the world at large. Much has been written about the new-found confidence of the German hosts who, after so many decades of suppressed nationalism, allowed themselves to take pride in their flag again - and in their ability to organize such a complex event. Far be it from me to grant the Germans absolution for their unatonable sins, but it was striking that players and hundreds of thousands of fans from other countries flocked enthusiastically to Germany without hesitation. Whether this was due to their having a short historical memory or their acceptance of a genuinely new Germany is unclear, but it seems to be the latter. The event held significance for other countries as well, such as England, which had its unrealistic hopes dashed once again, but whose fans exhibited a kind of return to their senses - rejoicing in the fact that after years of being considered a bunch of hooligans, they've finally learned how to behave, even when drunk. On another level, that four different teams represented Great Britain in the qualifying stages, none of them extremely successfully, brought to the surface the issue of English-versus-British identity - an issue that will play a central role in British politics in the near future. For the United States, the World Cup served as a reminder that though it is the richest and most powerful country, it still doesn't measure up in a realm that matters most to others. Some explain the recent interest in soccer among Americans - mainly left-wing intellectuals - as a desire to witness one arena in which their country isn't the obvious victor. This is not to say that the American players didn't give their best effort, but as long as soccer remains the "privilege" of the "intelligentsia," the basketball, hockey, football and baseball franchises have nothing to worry about. For Iran, the games also were significant. Originally there had been fears that the Iranian regime would exploit the occasion to gain legitimacy on the world scene, and that even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was planning to impose his unwelcome presence. Groups of Jews and neo-Nazis faced off in demonstrations outside the stadium, but in the end, the most prominent and interesting attendees were thousands of Iranian exiles exhibiting patriotism for their country and defiance against its current leaders. For Italy, the World Cup was significant for reasons other than the country's victory. There is a major scandal going on right now over suspicions of corruption in the most respected Italian soccer clubs, to the extent that the results of this year's matches have been annulled, and the federal prosecutor has called for the champion team, Juventus, to be relegated by two leagues. In spite of this, Italy not only went on to win the World Cup, but its doing so in the midst of allegations of match-fixing didn't seem to bother anyone. Now all eyes are on a country that didn't even make it to Germany 2006, but has an automatic pass to the next tournament. South Africa is supposed to host the 2010 World Cup, which has aroused strenuously-denied rumors that FIFA is planning to change the venue at the last minute. For South Africa, holding a successful World Cup is not only an organizational challenge (that much greater now that Germany's successful production set the standards so high). It will also be the country's one big chance to prove that two decades after the end of apartheid, it is capable of overcoming enormous political and economic obstacles, and finally uniting as a nation. Failure at hosting the World Cup could serve for some as a metaphor for South Africa's being a failed nation.