Taking Sides and Switching Allegiances at the World Cup

For a soccer fan, nothing beats the World Cup. Sure, I might joke about the more tedious-sounding fixtures, like, say Nigeria-Iran or Ecuador-Honduras, but as soon as the tournament gets underway, they all become part of that long, hard, beautiful battle for gold in which giants falter and little mice roar. Usually I look with disbelief bordering on disdain on people who call themselves “soccer fans”. To me, being deeply invested in the game is so inextricably linked with particular players and teams that high-minded paeans to “the beautiful game” itself are mostly meaningless. Soccer takes its meaning and its energy from sympathies and antipathies, hopes for glory and the soothing cynicism of schadenfreude, something the impartial pleasure-seeker is cut off from experiencing. And yet, I delivered a variation on that very “beautiful game” flourish just a few sentences ago. So what it is about the World Cup that, at least in my case, suspends the usual laws of soccer fandom?

First, it helps that as a Norwegian, I don’t have a national team to root for in most international championships. Not only is the current iteration of the Norwegian national team nowhere near good enough to qualify. I’ve never been much a soccer nationalist in the first place, but because of my pragmatism and penchant for the heroically beautifully over the clinical and effective, even if Norway was to qualify, my initial reaction would probably be that our main role in the tournament was to take up a spot that could have gone to a better, more watchable team. My usual inclination to taking sides already weakened by watching the Norwegian national team more from a position of ironic remove that full-fledged patriotism, from the outset I come to international soccer without a geographic and culturally specific affiliation. While I don’t like to think of it in that way, there’s a difference in degree of commitment that over the years I’ve had to Denmark or the Netherlands, and the one I would’ve had for Norway, if our national team had not broken that bond by being so soul-crushingly dull and inept in the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.

My point is that my detached relationship with the Norwegian team in itself invites a kind of pragmatism, in which I’m more free to pursue the care-free purity of attacking flair over a more results-oriented approach. And who doesn’t admire a heroic loser? In this World Cup, both Chile and Mexico were on par, or arguably better, than their opponents, Brazil and the Netherlands, respectively, but they both lost. This too, the capacity for randomness and inherent small-t “tragedy”, is part of the beauty of world stage soccer and why pragmatism pays. I am not arguing that you shouldn’t pick a side and root for it with all your heart, only that where I usually consider picking a side at random based on how they are performing at that very moment to be a sign of opportunism, in this case I encourage it. It’s soccer as ideology – in my case, what’s beautiful and creative in any given fixture over what might be more well thought-out, organized and ultimately more effective. In practice, this means that I’ve had a number of favorites already during this World Cup, from Chile and Costa Rica to Germany and Colombia.

Germany is a useful example of how my approach to international soccer has evolved. When I grew up, I hated the German national team. Absolutely detested it. Their style of play – disciplined, well-organized, economical, with a priority onrigorous defending – was stultifyingly dull, and my reaction to them was colored by that. As a nine year-old, I cheered when Bulgaria eliminated them from the 1994 World Cup, as well I cried (literally) when they out-organized the more exciting Brits in Euro 1996. And never did my antipathy for them grow more freely than during the 2002 World Cup, when an utterly uninspiring German side made their way through the knock-out stages through a series of dreary 1-0 victories. But then, four years later, when they hosted the tournament, something had changed. I came in to the opening match against Costa Rica routinely hoping for a German defeat, but after a German 5-2 rout I quickly became a convert. Everything had changed; they now emphasized the attack over defense, directness over ponderous possession, artistic flair over bland efficiency. The eventually succumbed to Italy in the semi-final, but my view of the never-changing good vs. evil nature of soccer had been profoundly.

A couple of years later, it happened again. My new-found infatuation with Germany owed in no small part to the fact that their style of play resembled one traditionally championed by the Netherlands, which I had supported since as long as I could remember. But with the 2010 World Cup, or perhaps a little earlier, my relationship with the Dutch had become seriously strained. They were less fluid and imaginative on the attack, and midfielders like Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, whose main task was to disrupt, if not downright destruct their opponents,  made the experience of watching them much less exhilirating. Add to this that the genuine artists of the team, like the winger Arjen Robben, regularly took time out from the game to make dramatic dives, complain to the referee and commit all possible acts of douchebaggery, and over the course of the tournament I’d actually come to hope for their defeat. It hurt, a little, as it does always when you feel betrayed by an old flame, but it was a necessary breakup.

My final example of the ins and outs of what you might call my “poetics of soccer”, is Italy. If Germany showcased my capacity to forgive and the Netherlands my capacity for negative reevaluation (or a reality-check, if you will), Italy, more than anyone, illustrates how old habits sometimes die so hard they don’t really die at all. Historically, the Italians have a reputation for some of the uninspiring play of the Germans and the theatrics of an Arjen Robben, but in my lifetime they have actually been fairly inspired most of the. They were undeservedly eliminated at the group stage in 1996, Francesco Totti’s magistry alone made them watchable in 2000, and players like Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balottelli lifted their Euro 2010 side. Not that you’d know that from listening to me during those tournaments. Not that you’d know that from listening to me during those tournaments. My golden moments with Italy invariably involve their monumental defeats: Seeing them eliminated from the 2002 World Cup when Totti was given an incorrectly red card and Damiano Tomassi’s crucial goal was wrongly disallowed. Watching how a moment of ecstasy was overtaken by devastating disappointment on Antonio Cassano’s face as he realized that his late winner against Bulgaria in 2004 still would not be enough to put the team past the group stage. The complete humiliation of the once-titanic Fabio Cannavaro as Slovakia ran collectively past him and relegated Italy to last place in World Cup 2010. Rest assured, there are still limits to my pragmatism.

That said, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are all big teams that are relatively easy to have an opinion about. I see most of their players play all of the time at the club level, and they have a long history of shaping every tournament. The real pleasure, apart from reevaluating long-held views, is in figuring out how to approach the ones I didn’t account for, like say, Costa Rica, or Colombia, or Mexico, whose players are less familiar to me and whose potential to surprise and excite may be bigger. I guess my argument is that you shouldn’t give the up on the idea of taking sides, so much as you should allow yourself to switch your allegiance if something better comes along. In the quarter-final between Belgium and Argentina, for example, I was rooting for the Belgians, although by the opening of the Cup I probably would’ve supported Argentina. After Belgium finally came into their own against the USA, however, my esteem for them rose, and while Argentina have improved slightly over the course of their four matches, they still haven’t been exciting enough to earn my support or loyalty. The same goes for Brazil against Colombia. I’ve never had anything againnst Brazil, and a part of me wants them to succeed on their home turf, but as a team, more than the idea of a team, Colombia have been much more exciting to watch. Neymar was consistently brilliant until an injury ended his run, but apart from that, no other players really stepped forward after Oscar faded from view when they opening match against Croatia ended. In that sense, Geoffrey Wheatcroft of The New Republic had a point, writing although this been one of the best World Cups ever, many of the best teams have been largely dependent upon a single star player, whether its Neymar or Lionel Messi or Arjen Robben. Granted, James Rodriguez has been absolutely crucial to Colombia’s success, but so has Juan Cuadrado and others.

All this runs counter to how I usually understand soccer. I like to have a long-term relationship with players and teams, and I like that relationship to to be relatively fixed, be it one of animus or unconditional love. But because my personal emotional investment is lower – no matter how much I want Germany to win, their defeat won’t even come close to the crushing disappointment I felt when Liverpool lost the  Premier League title from a late-season pole position this May – I allow myself to judge each team on a different scale. I become the self-interested pleasure-seeker of neo-liberal economic fantasies, and that’s O.K.

(For more on fantasies and pleasure-seeking in relation to the World Cup, stay tuned for my run-down of the tournament hottest players, due up next week.)

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