Looking Back on Four Weeks of World Cup Mania

Africa got screwed. Team USA tore my allegiances. Europeans blamed immigrants for losing (shocker). The refs blew it. And better Spain than the Netherlands.

By Dom Apollon Jul 10, 2010

Well, the World Cup is almost over, with the last two games taking place this weekend. today features the largely meaningless third-place match between Uruguay and Germany, while Sunday brings us the relatively disappointing match-up of two European sides pitted against each other to declare the world champion. (It’s the first time in World Cup history this has ever happened outside of the continent itself).

The fact that neither Spain nor the Netherlands has ever won the World Cup brings a measure of excitement I suppose, but anyone with personal knowledge of two virgins meeting for a "big night" occasion knows all too well that nerves and inexperience can conspire to deflate high expectations. So, don’t expect a classic match.

Nevertheless, the tournament is such an international phenomenon that it’s worth reflecting on the past four weeks of the tournament and issues of race, and what to look for this weekend.

Wherever you fall along the spectrum of World Cup observers–from couldn’t be more excited by the quadrennial distraction to couldn’t be more bothered by all the unwarranted attention this global orgy of corporate sport garners–there’s something here for everyone. And as one last enticement, should you fall in the latter category, something that bothers Glenn Beck and other right-wingers this much has got to be good for something, no?

FIFA botched it for the hosts. Unsurprisingly, FIFA, the international body that organizes and oversees the World Cup tournament, "commandeered the willing South African government" to make the country more friendly to the event’s corporate sponsors, as described on Democracy Now. That included the creation of "exclusion zones" where informal traders have been barred from selling their merchandise, and an "intellectual property"-crazed climate in which FIFA warns a restaurant owner he "faces jail or a £900 fine" for writing "2010" on a soccer ball in his window. Confined to "temporary townships", the South African poor report feeling intimidated by police against entering host cities and towns.

FIFA botched it for the whole continent. First came the insult of FIFA selecting a Colombian pop-singer–as talented as Shakira may be–to sing the official tournament song. Not exactly representative of "the first World Cup held on the African continent," to use FIFA officials’ most often used self-congratulatory phrase in the build up, was it? Never mind that many argue persuasively that the song was plagiarized from a Cameroonian outfit. Next came the absence of the basic knowledge or understanding that most fans of the African nations that qualified for the tournament–Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria–don’t have regular internet access, rendering the almost exclusively online system for purchasing tickets useless to them.

On-pitch disappointment for Africa. Irrespective of FIFA’s incompetence and corporate-skewed priorities, the African teams as a whole didn’t perform up to expectations. Whereas the Ivory Coast was negatively affected by injury and had the pre-tournament misfortune of being placed in the toughest first round group, they didn’t help themselves by falling for the same "must hire a European coach" hype that so many other African nations fell for so close to opening day. Cameroon was amongst the first sides to be eliminated, and Nigeria left me disgusted this time around after being so enthralling in the 1994 (USA) and 1998 (France) tournaments. Ghana was the only African team to do the continent proud. But its gut-wrenching quarterfinal loss to opportunistic Uruguay, in a penalty shoot-out that never should have been, will leave fans shaking their heads for decades.

Divided loyalties stateside. Part of Ghana’s strong performance included defeating team USA in a tense overtime match in the Round of 16. I’m a longtime player who has supported the underdog American team–especially this year, with another Haitian-American forward like myself leading the charge, just like in 1950 when the team defeated mighty England. So I didn’t relish rooting against the only remaining African team in the tournament. A socially conscious, civil rights historian ex-girlfriend of mine confided to Facebook that the USA team had almost won her over enough with its gutsy first-round performances, but she decided to back Ghana, considering she’d lived quite happily for a year in the West African nation.

Many immigrant families in the states found themselves torn across generations, with parents supporting homelands principally and the younger generations supporting the U.S. A deeper run by the American squad, which included talented players of Nigerian, Mexican and working-class white Texan descent, might have sparked some interesting pub talk around immigration in a summer that has brought terrible news from Arizona and other quarters. But it wasn’t to be this go-round.

Immigrant players redefining national identity? In what was supposed to be a re-building year, the young German team powered through to the semifinals with "the most diverse" team in the tournament. Eleven of 23 players were eligible through birth or parentage to play for another nation, with the most exciting being Mesut Ozil, a winger of Turkish descent who reportedly recites the Koran for inspiration instead of the national anthem ahead of matches. And as well as he played, I doubt that many German fans will complain.

But Ozil should take note of the experience of other immigrant footballers on the European continent.

The diverse French team, pour example, were lauded in 1998 by their countrymen as worthy champions on the pitch and as ambassadors for the "new face" of France. A few years later, Sarkozy-the-minister was labeling youth in Paris outskirts as "scum", and this year’s woefully under-performing side have been criticized for having too many immigrants with coded racist terms (nevermind that many of them–Djibril Cisse, Abou Diaby and Sidney Govou–are actually French born).

Italy didn’t even bring any immigrant players to the tournament this year (besides a naturalized Argentinean who has been with the team for years). Yet, a minister is blaming "luxury immigrant footballers" for Italy’s ignominious exit from perhaps the easiest group in the cup.

The short lesson in Europe: Winning brown faces? Good. Losing brown faces? Bad. Losing white faces? Racist scapegoating!

Referee controversies and injustices. It wouldn’t be a World Cup without significant refereeing controversies and injustices, would it? At least that’s the way FIFA officials seem to want it. But this year, a series of high-profile errors–including a perfectly legitimate goal for England against Germany that wasn’t given, but certainly would have been if the team of referees had been allowed to use video replays–is forcing FIFA’s hand. Sort of. They’ve agreed to meet after the tournament to reconsider using technology for a small subset of the game, likely putting a microchip in the ball, but not for video replays of blatantly incorrect offsides decisions, as befell Mexico against Argentina.

Meanwhile, check out the From a Left Wing blog, where Jennifer Doyle has some great commentary on how sports culture is the only American "discursive space in which we can declare that we were robbed … [and not] come off as bitter or resentful." As opposed to places such as education, employment, and health care, where "one is expected to stomach much more bitter disappointment without complaint."

Labor disputes and South African voices. Policy analyst and social activist Liepollo Lebohang Pheko has shed light on the ongoing labor and housing struggles of everyday South Africans. As she argues, the "primary beneficiaries of local investment in infrastructure and stadiums has been the construction industry bosses", not the construction workers and stewards on temporary contracts. The total cost of the tournament does remain to be seen, as does the continued attention span of the world on other internal voices.

Whom to root for in the final match. It’s hard to know whom to root for in this all-European final. From simply a sport perspective, Spain is arguably the most creative national side in the world, but both teams are capable of dynamic offense. What tips me is that Spain’s domestic league competes annually with Italy amongst the European elite for the distinction of having the most overtly racist fans. And the league has done little to combat this. So I’m rooting for orange-clad Holland on Sunday.

See you in Brazil in four years.

Photo: Getty Images/Christof Koepsel