Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The World Cup Preserves Something that America is Losing

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

A World Cup Meditation

By Santiago Ramos

After the game is over, it passes into the realm of theater. After the game is over, we run through great sporting events in our heads a second time like a play, and through recollection, relive the tragedy of a loss or the glory of a championship. This is the reason why one is able to make documentaries about football or basketball teams. All of the elements of tragedy and comedy—the tragic flaw, reversal of fortune, recognition of truth—arise as we mentally scan through the last season, the last tournament, the last match. Some teams or seasons or plays are so dramatic that they become canonical: Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup. Some events are insignificant to history but we hold on to them for our own reasons—for me, the Second Round struggle between my native Paraguay and hosts France in the 1998 World Cup.

We experience sport as a game, and remember it as art. What sport has that Shakespeare lacks are freedom and contingency. There are no actors and the drama is not scripted; the players write the script through a million acts of skill, forged in freedom but under a specific environment. So perhaps sport more than art demonstrates for us more convincingly certain truths about life: that discipline leads to virtue; that it is heroic and sometimes necessary to play with pain; that the most beautiful plays sometimes come out of nowhere, unforeseeably, impossibly.

Unfortunately, American professional sporting culture is destroying all of this. The World Cup, on the other hand, preserves it. The perennial American magazine story “Has Soccer Finally Arrived?” is a cliché but it also hides the real truth: that America needs soccer more than soccer needs America.

The drama of sport is being systematically attacked by the bloated American Pro-Sports-Statistical-Media Complex. I can name you three specific ways that this is happening, but there are doubtless more. First, a universal obsession with statistics. A common criticism of American culture is that it is so technological and empirical that you can’t say anything without backing it with numbers. But I have come to the darker conclusion that most sports broadcasters talk about numbers only because they have nothing else to say. I really don’t care, I really think it is meaningless, that the Chiefs have not succeeded in making a two-point conversion during the third quarter of a post-season game in the last five years. The quintessence of this obsession was illustrated this week by Bob Ley of ESPN, in the halftime analysis during the Argentina-Nigeria World Cup match. “The last time Argentina gave up a halftime lead was in the 1930 World Cup,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.” This baffled the Spaniard Roberto Martinez, an ESPN commentator and former professional soccer player, who responded: “That was a different team, Bob.” Sports teach us that the possible is greater than the probable; statistics applied to sports is probability’s revenge on possibility.

The second destructive force is the delusion of the Instant Replay. We appeal to the camera when we become afraid of the human element in sport. We think that the precision and justice that the replay can provide for us will defuse the pain that is intrinsic to any competitive sport. In games we see that the best-trained can’t always play their best, and that those with the best eyes don’t always make the right call; the imprecision and the deficiency are also elements in the drama. The Instant Replay is an attempt to quell the drama, as if sports would be better without it. All it actually does is stir confusion about what a game really is, and every time we interrupt a game to watch a video, we strike a blow at the soul that keeps the game moving.

Interruptions, also, is what television commercials are. The fact that basketball and football is structured in such a way as to accommodate for television commercials is a scandal. Who enjoys watching The Godfather Part II when it is sliced and diced by ads for sitcoms and acne medication? The interruptions wake us up from the dream of the drama; basketball and football lose something in this constant interruption.

All of this may sound bleak, but the answer to it is flickering in a billion television screens worldwide this month. As we watch the World Cup this summer, we should be conscious that we are witnessing a sport that is resisting. It resists, if nothing else, the tyranny of television commercials. No commercials interrupt the 45 minute flow of a half of soccer—there are no “TV time outs.” The narrative builds and is resolved within continuous time, and it demands that we reclaim the patience and the attention spans most of my generation lost sometime in the late 1990s.

Moreover, even though every now and then somebody within FIFA—the World soccer organizing body—complains that Instant Replay should be introduced into the game, most fans accept that the game includes injustices. We suffer through them, and we play again the next day. Geoff Hurst scored a “goal” for England in the 1966 Final which actually did not cross the line. Maradona scored a “goal” with his hand against England in the quarterfinals of 1986 (he attributed it to God; five minutes later, he scored the greatest goal in World Cup history). France would not be in the World Cup this year, and Ireland would be, had Thierry Henry not handled the ball during a qualifying match. What can you do? Better to make a sacrifice than to kill the sport.

As for statistics—American soccer broadcasters, too, are beholden to them. But one could always learn Spanish and switch to Univision.

The World Cup this year has its own set of stories which will congeal into the dramatic. The Brazilian squad has betrayed its principles of jogo bonito (beautiful play) and has adopted a pragmatic approach which yields victories without flair. Ironically, the German side looks more playful and creative in attack than Brazil does. Lionel Messi of Argentina will be trying to live up to his reputation of being the greatest Argentine player since Maradona. And there is a tough Paraguayan side you will not want to miss.

Most importantly, there is a drama that you will not want to miss—one that retains certain human elements which are besieged in our hyperactive media age.

Photo is from The 100 greatest World Cup moments at The Independent (UK).

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.