I'll admit I didn't envision two back-to-back World Cup posts. Had it not been for a family trip to Yosemite last week, there might have been a buffer post--about what, I don't know. You would have seen a late Thursday post about...I dunno, Cthulhu or something. He might have been eating a video game or playing Norse-themed heavy metal. Like the four chords that comprise all of rock music, this blog is about making art out of a few simple components. But the South African events of the past week have been too awesome to pass over. The extent to which nations' collective personalities are played out in their national soccer teams is remarkable.
France: Vive la revolution!
French forward (they are called "strikers" in soccer to pad the sport's record number of awkward synonyms) Nicolas Anelka was kicked off France's national team after mouthing off to coaches behind closed doors. This is weird enough--in America even "beloved" athletes like Magic Johnson routinely get their coaches fired and nobody cries foul--but then the entire team responded by boycotting practice (awkward soccer synonym [ASS]: "training"). Now the squad is in total crisis, with the President of France holding his Sports Minister in South Africa to broker a peace. I have a couple thoughts here:
**What the hell is a Sports Minister? Apparently in France this is a real job supported by tax dollars (ASS: "Euros"). In America, a Sports Minister is one of those guys who delivers the opening prayer at the start of a NASCAR race. "Dear God, please protect these mighty athletes as they turn left over and over. Let their ankles not cramp up while pushing the gas pedal. And most of all, God, we ask You to hide our Caribbean romps with sexy boys, lest everyone discover what awful hypocrites we are, Amen."
**This whole situation could really be shot by Dave Chappelle for "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong." In this case, Anelka could have kept his mouth shut and taken his share of blame for a disappointing French squad. He kept it real. His coach could have written the explosion off as an in-the-moment emotional outburst; but he kept it real and sent the mecontent back home. His teammates could have swallowed the whole unpleasant episode and re-purposed their anger towards--I don't know, maybe the big international soccer tournament they came to play in? But no; they, too, kept it real. This may be a shitty soccer team, but damned if they aren't the most Real motherfuckers in the tournament. Their first-round exit will be just as real.
Bottom line: the French are just too good, as a people, at keeping things real. They are so eager to let the perfect be the enemy of the good that they've never kept a government for more than 80 years without cutting somebody's head off. There are strikes and boycotts (ASS: "stand-ups" and "disbuyings") on a daily basis. The team is just reflecting the culture from which it derives. It so happens that the culture is full of confrontational douchebags. But the origin of the word "douche" tells you everything you need to know about that.
England: Oh my God, we're all doomed
England hasn't won a World Cup since 1960. The preceding sentence is the single most important thing to remember about the English soccer team, the English people and the entire English nation until the Cup is over. It's all they think about; not even the Cup itself, but the fact that they haven't won in fifty years. English soccer fans are so traumatized that, like Boston fans of decades past and Cleveland fans of decades present and future, they destroy their own chances. Whenever anything goes amiss for England, the fans get a look: Oh God, we're doomed. The players get the same look, because they grew up as fans. They know the history. They know they're doomed too. And because of that, they tighten up and fail and under-achieve. They are so convinced they'll let themselves down that they can't help but deliver on that one promise, if nothing else. Contrast this to the USA team, who only seems to get fired up by giving up early goals. Having grown up on insipid American sports movies, which promote the scrappy never-say-die underdog and actually conflates giving up an early lead with moral rectitude. If you were winning at the start, you'd be the evil black-clad Norway team and Coach Bombay is NOT HAVING THAT. Our guys don't take leads very well, but at least they don't utterly collapse when shit goes wrong.
So the team is in trouble, facing elimination if they don't win against Slovenia (national motto: "All our women are either REALLY hot or REALLY ugly"). They know it; everyone knows it. And characteristic of the English people, they are busy working themselves into a giant neurotic knot because of it. The knot can't be un-worked because...why? Oh right, because (characteristic of the English) they can't even bring themselves to talk about it. Team leaders called a closed meeting after the disastrous 0-0 tie with Algeria, but their overbearing Italian coach wouldn't even let the players speak. That is how conflicts are resolved. If an Englishman loses a thumb in an accident, I assume he waits until he has a headache so he can go into the hospital and ask for some Aspirin. Don't want to bother the doctors about all that blood. And I don't want to read too much into this, but why in hell is an Italian coaching the English national team? Do you think that at the Empire's height an Englishman would have let an Italian tell him how to do anything? This is a civilization in decay.
Sadly, England is all about under-achievement. And I can't blame them. This is a people who were told in 1940, with their empire in collapse and their homeland under attack by a massive and intractable foe they'd allowed to thrive, that should their civilization endure another thousand years "this was their finest hour." Way to set the bar low, Winston. It's like when Nick regales us with stories of his athletic prowess in the 8th grade. Is that really how you want to frame the narrative?
North Korea: Wait, we have to go back?
I always thought it was funny that both North and South Korea managed to qualify for the World Cup. Doesn't it reflect kinda poorly on the South Koreans? Those guys don't even have food, and they do just as well as you. Maybe a little less StarCraft, a little more jogging? Hmm? I kid, I kid; North Korean soccer players probably have access to both food and shoes while the World Cup season is going on. The real question is, where do these players come from? I don't know if the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (out of four words in the country's name, three are lies. I assume North Korea is truthfully located in Korea) has its own pro league, though I can't imagine the games are very competitive. I picture two squads; the Pyongyang Chosen of the Dear Leader and the DMZ Capitalist Pigdogs. They have something of a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals dynamic, reinforced by the fact that all members of the Pigdogs except for the goalie are executed before every game.
The North Korean squad hasn't acquitted itself very well in international competition. Players have expressed shock and astonishment at the other players, "who stand nearly as tall off the ground as the Dear Leader himself," and the rowdy fans "who are allowed to stand and make all kinds of distracting noise." The prevalence of night games has also contributed to the players' discomfort, as most have never played under electric lights and get freaked out by multiple shadows they cast on the field (ASS: "pitch"). Frankly, they may just be suffering from a lack of moral support; North Korean soccer fans are notorious for traveling poorly.
It's hard to gauge the mood inside the DPRK camp, what with all the razor wire. But the players seem determined to soldier on. "It is crucial that we make the elimination round," stated defender (ASS: "backer") Park Kae-Soon. "I think we are allowed to stay here as long as there are games to play. We want to play more games." The mood has to be somber after today's 7-0 thrashing at the hands (that turn of phrase really doesn't work for soccer) of Portugal. Even athletes from the tiniest nations have a lot of pride, but there can't be a good vibe when you know everyone's going to be executed. The good news: maybe the Head Coach/Chief Political Officer can argue that losing at a game of capitalist oppression is winning at class struggle. I just hope he can sell the Dear Leader on it.
I'll leave you with an animated GIF that captures how most Americans feel about the tournament's physicality. This is courtesy of my friend Adrian, who cares more about soccer than any fat American has a right to. Some of these flopping motherfuckers are starting to make baseball players look tough.