Friday, July 2, 2010

Not So Much English

I suppose we are all susceptible to cultural and historical biases. Here’s one of mine: I have always found it difficult to root for Germany in international competition. I’m fine with their individual athletes. Boris Becker? Terrific. Detlef Schrempf? Dirk Nowitzki? No problem. It's when they assemble as team that I begin to feel uncomfortable.  This is especially true in soccer. Tall and blonde, steely blue eyes, the imperial black eagle on the crest of the pristine white uniform, the full throated singing of the national anthem (Für das deutsche Vaterland!) And once the game begins, there’s that organized defense and tireless discipline, the joyless Teutonic efficiency with which they dismantle their opponents. How do you root for that?

That all changed this past weekend. I was absolutely delighted to watch Germany’s 4-1 thrashing of England in the World Cup Round of 16. Clearly I have some biases against England too.  These stem in large part from the arrogance that one encounters in English commentators and fans who seem to think that inventing the game over a century ago entitles their nation to privileged status today. After England was eliminated from the World Cup in 1958, England’s great passer Johnny Haynes observed, “Everyone in England thinks we have a God-given right to win the World Cup.” It’s an attitude that still resonates in the English-speaking world.

As someone who follows English football, I’m also struck by the less admirable qualities of some of the leading lights of the English team. Wayne Rooney, for all of his talent and effort, is a shameless diver. Captain horndog, John Terry, is, to put it mildly, not the most trustworthy of teammates. The names of Steven Gerard and Ashley Cole have graced the headlines for the usual nightclub shenanigans.  It's one thing to accept that athletes are not role models. It's quite another to have your nation represented on the world's biggest stage by a squad whose peccadillos would rival the Florida State Seminoles or Cincinnati Bengals.

For all of my earlier criticisms of Soccernomics I must give credit where credit is due. The diagnosis of England’s predicament was spot on. In the chapter entitled “Why England Loses and Others Win,” the authors detail an 8 phase pattern that repeats itself every four years:

1. Pretournament - Certainty that England Will Win the World Cup. Check.

2. During the Tournament England Meets a Former Wartime Enemy. Check.  

3. The English Conclude That the Game Turned on One Freakish Piece of Bad Luck That Could Happen Only to Them. Check.

4. Moreover, Everyone Else Cheated. Check.

5. England is Knocked Out Without Getting Anywhere Near Lifting the Cup. Check.

6. The Day After Elimination, Normal Life Resumes. Check.

7. A Scapegoat is Found. Check. Check and Check.

8. England Enters the Next World Cup Thinking it Will Win it. Well...stay tuned.

Rooting for Germany was easy for another reason. They played a positive, team-oriented brand of soccer that was fun to watch. England didn’t. “Germany” and “fun” are two words that don’t usually go together but they did last Sunday. The Germans also seemed to avoid the mistake made by other nations by choosing a young and energetic squad (among the regulars, only Miroslav Klose and Arne Friedrich are over 30). Other European nations, England, France, Italy, and Denmark among them, were more committed to big-name players regardless of their age, current form, or ability to mesh as a team.

And so the English team, like the U.S., will watch the remainder of the tournament from home. Commentators have observed what a great tournament this has been for South America (4 of the final 8 teams) and how this marks the 3rd time that an African nation (Ghana) has reached the Quarterfinals. Of the final eight nations remaining, four are Spanish-speaking. There is only one nation remaining whose official language is English. That nation is Ghana.


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