Saturday, 12 June 2010

Kicking Back

A wonderfully entertaining article in today's Wall Street Journal. Well worth a read. "Kicking Back at Those 13 Colonies" by Gerard Baker, who writes that for England, Saturday's match against the U.S. could be a chance to settle some old scores.

When the England soccer team lost to West Germany, as it then was, in the Mexican heat of a World Cup quarter-final in 1970, a British commentator managed to wax philosophical about the national tragedy.

"We shouldn't be too upset that the Germans had beaten us at our national game", he said. "After all, we beat them at their national game twice".

It was a joke, of course. Honestly, a joke. But like all jokes it had a point. That an entire nation should be moved—even in jest—to seek consolation for a sporting defeat in victory in two world wars tells you much that you need to know about the most watched, most passionately absorbed sporting event on the planet.

All sports, of course, when played out on an international stage, become metaphors for geopolitical competition. The U.S. had its Miracle on Ice, the improbable victory over the Soviets at the Olympics in 1980, that presaged a rather larger Cold War victory a decade later.

But soccer is in a league of its own when it comes to substituting athletics for politics.

When the FIFA World Cup opens Friday in South Africa, it will be much more than a quadrennial competition for sporting supremacy.

In fact if Clausewitz (spiritual head coach of the German national team, 1830-1945) had ever actually suited up in cleats and shin guards, he might have modified his famous dictum and asserted that soccer is a continuation of war by other means.
Perhaps not war, exactly. No brave wounded soldier ever writhed so violently or screamed so loudly as an Italian striker tripped by a stray foot just outside the penalty box. But the world's premier international sporting competition represents the opportunity to replay—with a similar level of intensity—the confrontations, skirmishes and battles that define a nation: a score-settling exercise in which 22 absurdly overcompensated men in uniform get the chance to right the wrongs of misfortune and relive the triumphs of an entire people.

So when England takes the field Saturday against the United States national team in Rustenburg, just outside Johannesburg, more than three points will be at stake.
Officially, it's just one game in the opening round of the contest. It's not even a decisive, win-or-go-home match. It's merely the first game in a protracted phony war, the group stage of the competition, which lasts two weeks. If the form book holds, and whatever happens on the field tomorrow, both England and the U.S. are very likely to progress to the second round.

But to the English, a proud people with a recent history that is somewhat at odds with their historical self-image, it is much more than that.

For one thing, the other teams in Group C are Algeria and Slovenia, and try as he might, the average Englishman can't get terribly worked up (or summon a single relevant historical fact) about either nation.

But this is America, longtime friend, occasional foe, distant relative, superpower usurper.

The official record states that, in their previous meetings England has enjoyed a comfortable advantage—having won seven and lost two of their nine meetings in international games.

But to the English that's an incomplete scorecard. It doesn't take into account the hefty defeat of 1776 (an early showing for the Tea Party crowd); the late winner the U.S. scored in 1781; the thumping victory on away soil the English achieved in 1812; the repeated own goals in 1956—when the U.S. managed to beat England, France and Israel, all together; or that very long game that lasted from the late 19th to the early 20th century and which resulted—after overtime and penalty kicks—in England finally ceding its crown as Political, Economic and Military World Champions to the ill-bred upstarts from across the Atlantic.

Then there are the cultural scores to settle: the defeat represented by all those GIs who stole away British women while the men were off fighting in the Second World War; the terrible trades that saw England provide Jane Austen and Charles Dickens while getting John Grisham and Dan Brown; or the deals whereby the U.S. got Cary Grant and Bob Hope, the other side Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow.

And on it goes. Almost every week now the newspapers are full of new humiliating reminders of England's eclipse at the hands of America. Last month it was the ignominy of British troops in Afghanistan placed for the first time under a U.S. general. In February it was Cadbury, the makers of the only culinary delicacy in which England could muster any pride—delicious, creamy milk chocolate—forced into the barbarian arms of Kraft, a highly successful American purveyor of synthetic cheeses.

To listen to some of the rhetoric coming out of Washington this week concerning British Petroleum, that iconic British company, you could be forgiven for thinking that certain Americans think the Gulf oil spill is English payback for all those defeats.

But the real opportunity for revenge will be Saturday. The beauty of the World Cup, and especially this game, is that it's a marvelous opportunity to demonstrate one small piece of lingering English superiority.

This "showdown" between England—three lions on their shirts recalling the glory days when the sun never set—and the Americans—white teeth a-gleaming—is in fact a made-for-history moment to score one back for the old country.

It's the one darned thing they know they can beat America at.

When the draw for the World Cup groupings was made in South Africa last December, there was unsuppressed giddiness in England at the wonderful hand the country had been dealt in Group C: an unchallenging saunter through the opening phase of the tournament before the rigorous tests of Brazil, Argentina and Spain in the elimination rounds.

The Sun—the pitch-perfect articulator of English jingoism—spelled out on its front page the names of the four rivals in the group, highlighting the first letter of each:
"England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks—EASY"
"Best English Group Since the Beatles," said another headline.

They knew it was a gift because Americans of course don't even play the game. For a start, even calling it "soccer" shows how alien it is. In England, as in the rest of the world, it is called football, reflecting, the locals like to think, the fact that it is a game involving a ball, played predominantly with the foot—rather than with the hand, arm, head, shoulders, and 1,200 pounds of padding, as is the case with the American version of the game of that name.

The Brits have grown tired of hearing how soccer is finally catching on over here:

They send an emissary like David Beckham to promote it, and all they discover is that you're much more interested in his Posh wife.

And yet, the awful, ineffable truth is that, even as they thump their bare chests, don the red and white war paint and get ready to lord it over the Yanks just this once, the worm of doubt is eating at the badly depleted English national self-confidence.

The national superiority complex is actually cruelly misplaced when it comes to soccer. Having lost the colonies, an empire, global leadership and half of the Rolling Stones, the idea that England is a great footballing nation has been a birthright for the Queen's subjects, a heady concept allowed to enter and suffuse the English consciousness.

They do indeed like to consider it their national game. But the fact is that in the last 40 years England has enjoyed as much success in the World Cup as it has in the World Series.

The country did manage, memorably, to win one World Cup—in 1966, almost two generations ago. But it was played on home turf, at Wembley Stadium in London, against—who else?—the Germans. And victory was assisted, even the most die-hard of fans will admit, by a dodgy refereeing decision that deemed a questionable goal valid.

Of the other 14 World Cups, England failed to qualify for three; it reached the semifinal in 1990, and other than that has never advanced beyond the quarter-final.
England's claim to global excellence in football is roughly equal to that of the Kansas City Chiefs—both were World Champions 40 years ago and have never been near a final since.

Also gnawing away at the collective English sporting consciousness this weekend is the terrible memory of that infamous World Cup in 1950, when England actually contrived to lose 1-0 to the U.S. in Brazil.

That defeat was itself taken in the popular English consciousness as the surest sign yet of the nation's inexorable decline.

A similar result Saturday—especially when English hopes are riding high in a sporting contest for once— would quite possibly have a similarly devastating effect.

But, hey! There's still cricket.

Corrections & Amplifications

Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952, and Winston Churchill was Britain's prime minister in the years 1940–45 and 1951–55. This article incorrectly states Elizabeth was queen and Churchill prime minister in 1950.
There are some great lines in there I hope you'll agree.


Anonymous said...

"This is NOT a P&L blog."
do you lose?
gambling addict

Cassini said...

If you read the blog, you will see why.

Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

"world of sports investing"
you are a funny psycho