Category Archives: Culture and the Cup

Cup of Contrast (a World Cup Flashback)

Night: Players from the English and American teams take the field, before singing their national anthems. (Amatruda/TYG)
And day: Bandana-clad fans from the Mtuba Football Academy at the Japan v. Netherlands match in Durban, SA. (Messing)

By Jake Amatruda

SOUTH AFRICA – This is a country full of contrasts, where first world and third world rub together every day. In Soweto, an area called Diepkloof Extension is full of houses that wouldn’t seem out of place in Beverly Hills – but just down the hill are blocks of government-built housing that have no running water, and where the only electricity comes from car batteries. Many of the domestic workers, lawn mowers and other laborers who maintain Diepkloof’s pristine appearance live in this poor area, and trudge through the grass each morning to start work.

~~~

Life in South Africa is not monolithic, and the same can be said about the tournament it recently hosted. I discovered this summer that you can go to two World Cup games and have completely different experiences. My trek up to Rustenburg to see our boys of team USA take on England was hectic. We woke at daybreak and drove 500 km to Johannesburg, rushing to beat Joburg’s notoriously bad traffic, on the way to the stadium. The game was going to be my first ever professional match, excluding the semi-pro Minnesota Thunder games that I went to as a kid, where tickets cost $1 and I played soccer alongside the field. My ticket was waiting with a friend, who I needed to find en route to Rustenburg, somewhere along the main highway. The plan went as follows: drive over the huge dam, continue past a busy market on the left-hand side of the road, and find the sign for the elephant sanctuary. Wait and pray.

Difficulties connecting with my friend and signs that read “Danger: Hijacking Zone next 6 km,” meant that we eventually decided to meet at the stadium.

When driving to World Cup games, the best option for non-VIPs is the Park & Ride. You leave your car at a lot, far away from the stadium, and take a shuttle up to its entrance. Rustenburg’s version of this was a large grass field with a vague sense of rows and an even more elusive sense of order. Unable to navigate any further through the dense traffic of bodies and buses, our shuttle driver let us off a kilometer away from the stadium. We joined the mass of fans flowing down the dimly lit street.

After all the talk of the damage that thousands of vuvuzelas could wreak on our ears, I wasn’t surprised to see a group of boys hawking earplugs along the road – if they hadn’t undertaken that business venture, I certainly would have tried.

The confusion continued inside the stadium. The ushers, volunteers in bright green FIFA jackets, sent my friends and me back and forth to different levels of the park, refusing to allow us past so we could take our seats. We finally convinced/fought our way through in time to see Tim Howard jog off the field at the end of warm-ups.

The game itself was a messy affair. Team USA’s defense was lax, and the back line let Steven Gerrard through almost immediately to give England a 1-0 lead. Neither side managed to really dictate the style of the game, and Dempsey equalized towards the end of the first half, thanks to a horrible error by the England goalkeeper. The USA supporters jumped up and embraced each other, while Englishmen around us groaned.

It seems that Americans can think of no better cheer than “USA! USA!” repeated over and over – at least they shout it with pride. Our more inventive counterparts from England have a large repertoire of profane chants and songs, but to my disappointment they were drowned out by the vuvuzelas.

Neither the stadium scoreboard nor the clock was working, but it didn’t matter. The final score was England 1, USA 1, and the American players and fans seemed satisfied with that result. One player in particular was enjoying the limelight, grinning and waving back to the crowd while his more seasoned teammates tromped back to the locker room.

As my friends and I regrouped and went back to our car, our post-game high soon evaporated. The park & ride had just one exit, and with cars descending from all angles the going was slow and exasperating. Further ahead, an endless string of red taillights wound through the night. Luckily for me, I dozed through most of the traffic, only rousing myself enough to stumble inside and unroll my sleeping bag when we returned to Johannesburg. It was 4 AM. I lay down, hoping to get some rest before the next morning’s long drive home.

~~~

The match that took place on the following Saturday between the Netherlands and Japan, on the other hand, was well-organized, clean, and beautiful. Moses Mabhida is the most picturesque of the ten World Cup stadiums, with an elegance that Rustenburg lacks. It’s in Durban, where 80º F temperatures belie the fact that Africa is in the dead of winter.

Even chaperoning nine kids from the Mtuba Football Academy, the experience was easier and less stressful than going to the game the previous weekend. We parked, went through security, and found our seats without incident.

Around us, the stands began to fill with swathes of orange and blue as more spectators arrived, decked out in their country’s colors. It was easy to tell which team the marching band, sporting neon orange tuxedos, and the guys in full-body orange spandex, were supporting – the Oranje (a common nickname for the Dutch team) enjoyed the majority of the support that afternoon. Japanese fans wearing strange get-ups resembling large bowling pins milled around excitedly. As for the man in a gaudy oranje kimono, I’m still not sure exactly where his loyalties lie.

The teams played a calm, mid-afternoon game, in which the Dutch passed the ball around with ease and established a fairly laconic pace for the match.

~~~

Despite their differences, these games shared a sense of companionship that characterized the entire World Cup. In both matches, I was struck by the lack of animosity on the pitch and in the stands. Referees gave only a few yellow cards, since hard tackles and other displays of poor sportsmanship were rare. The England fans sitting next to me were good-natured, even managing to laugh off ‘keeper Robert Green’s mistake. And after the Netherlands v. Japan match ended, I joined a seaside soccer game on one of Durban’s beaches. Each side had a motley mix of players, ranging from graying Japanese doctors to small boys who had flown in from Spain. The sun set on a scene that would have been unlikely at any other time, but was becoming commonplace during the World Cup. All the hype about soccer bringing people together? It’s not just wishful thinking. It’s real.

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 7: Madrid

Spanish fans watch the World Cup Final at the Plaza de Cibeles, where three giant screens were set up to show the game. (Bruner/TYG)

By Raisa Bruner

MADRID – Never underestimate La Furia Roja.

I can’t make any comments about the style, skill, or success of the Spanish national soccer team on the field in the World Cup final Sunday night against the Netherlands – I am neither an expert in soccer nor someone who was able to watch the game in full. I can’t tell you if Spain deserved to win, or if it was a fitting end to the month-long tournament, or even if the Netherlands played an honorable game. No, I’m not qualified to discuss any of that – because instead of watching the game and the athletes on the screen, I was gazing mesmerized at the crowd of crazed fans at Plaza de Cibeles in downtown Madrid.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to excite.

Sangria funneled down plastic vuvuzuelas into the open mouths of strangers? Sí. An army of red-and-yellow jerseyed fans, Spanish and Australian and American and any other nationality? Sí. Every face, arm, chest, and scalp striped with the red and yellow of the Spanish flag? Sí. Fist-pumping? Absolutamente. At Yale, we get into the spirit of The Game (Yale-Harvard football) and throw on a jersey for our favorite team’s turn in a championship. But in comparison to this experience, whatever sports fanaticism we have back home looks like little league. This much enthusiasm – however drunken – isn’t found every day. Spain’s supporters breathe, sweat, and bleed La Furia Roja.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to focus.

The crowd – which spread in a riotous, rowdy mass for miles throughout the center of Madrid – roared, chanted, vuvuzuela-ed, cheered, booed, sang, yelled, became borracho in unison. And that’s a big deal. To have the cultural power to take all of that energy and send it directly towards one event happening at the other end of the world is a pretty splendid feat. But soccer can do that for Spain. Soccer can take the Catalonians (a million of whom attended a separatist rally on Saturday, the day before the final) and the Basque (who also rallied in support of the Catalonians on Saturday) and the Andalusians and the Galicians and the countless other nationalities, ethnicities, and visitors living in and loving this land and bring them together in one very boisterous, very united movement towards victory. Impressive.

Definitely don’t underestimate the power of winning.

What recession? What unemployment? What sobriety? As we were swept up along with the partying crowd from Plaza de Cibeles toward Puerta del Sol, everything was in a jubilant uproar. Communist protests and workers’ strikes often stride the same route that we paraded down, yet instead of fighting against the concept of Spain, we were marching for it. At Sol, people clambered on top of statues, scaffolding, fountains, even the metro station’s glass roofing in hopes of surveying the scene. Swarming with people in all states of consciousness, the crowd only began to clear at around 5:00am when a man fell off the top of a monument and the police and ambulances arrived to deal with the consequences.

That morning I walked home, blowing my vuvuzuela the whole way. Each car that passed us cheered, even when the birds began to chirp. And now, a full workweek later? Spain isn’t going to sleep anytime soon. The players have arrived home in a wave of glory, the sun is out, the moon is bright, and the sangria is still cheap and flowing.

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The Summer of the Vuvuzela

Fans showing their World Cup spirit with the ubiquitous vuvuzelas.

By Jake Amatruda

It is the summer of the vuvuzela, and people are marching through the streets blowing those obnoxious plastic horns that seem to be a staple of South African fan craze. The vuvuzela has been around for the past decade, usually at matches between local soccer clubs like Orlando Pirates or Kaizer Chiefs, whose players and fans are mostly black. Historically, soccer was the “black” sport, while rugby and cricket were the domain of whites with Afrikaner or British ancestry. Soccer now seems to be gaining widespread popularity, in part because South Africa is hosting the World Cup, and people who a few years ago might not even have known if the national soccer team had a match are now donning Bafana’s bright yellow colors and piling into stadiums, bars and fan parks to cheer on their team. (Bafana Bafana means “the boys” in Zulu, and refers to the South African soccer team.)

The World Cup has disrupted the traditional racial hierarchy of sports in SA, at least temporarily bringing different populations of the country together. The finals of the Super 14 rugby tournament were displaced from the home side’s usual stadium, in use for World Cup matches between Spain and Chile (among others), to Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Formally known as the South West Township, Soweto is a black township (in)famous for Apartheid-era protests and violence.

Most of the white South Africans that I’ve met have never been inside Soweto because they are afraid of crime or they “have no reason to go there, really.” A lot of South Africans, irrespective of race, were surprised to hear that I had stayed there – even though I’m part Japanese, I am still seen as umlungu (the Zulu word for “white man”), a rare sight even today for the predominantly black Sowetan residents. I soon became used to the stares, greetings and cheers that I got on my morning runs. I was staying in Orlando West, a nice neighborhood that was ten minutes’ easy jog from the stadium where rugby came to play.

On the night of the Super 14 final, triumphant Blue Bulls supporters of all races trumpeted their vuvuzelas and embraced each other in the streets. I was surprised to see such a widespread racial mix of friends joining each other for drinks in the popular, but technically illegal, drinking houses called shebeens. The night passed without the muggings or other incidents that some had feared. By moving the rugby to Soweto and bringing a country together behind Bafana Bafana, the World Cup has achieved some Invictus-style reconciliation through sport. Sights during my time here remind me of scenes from the movie, which documents Nelson Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a fragile new nation in the wake of Apartheid.

Not everyone likes the vuvuzela – it disrupts communication amongst the players and coaches, drowns out the chants and songs that give a special atmosphere to European soccer matches, and will probably lead to hearing loss like the kind that our parents are starting to experience as a result of a few too many rock concerts in their youths. Still, it adds a distinctive character to the 19th iteration of the World Cup. The vuvuzela is unique to South Africa, and it seems unfair to begrudge the hosts bringing a bit of South African style to the tournament. I figured that I’d like join in the fun as well, so I got a vuvuzela of my own, and I can blast away with the rest of the chorus.

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 6: Madrid

The Spanish public celebrates Wednesday's game. (Bruner/TYG)

MADRID — This city is in the center of Spain. Puerta del Sol, a wide open plaza featuring not one but two fountains, is in the center of Madrid. And on the biggest billboard around Sol, overlooking the throngs of flip-flopped tourists licking ice cream cones, a massive message of fútbol and nationalism is displayed on a Nike ad featuring members of the Spanish team: ES NUESTRO AÑO. SERÁ NUESTRA ERA. (It is our year. It will be our era.)

So, one could easily say that football and hope are at the heart of Spain. Some victory and pride in the 2010 World Cup would work well as a nice sangria to ease the economic wounds and broken egos of the year. And after last night’s hard-fought win over Germany, that prophecy could come true.

Spain’s first match against Switzerland, was a disappointing defeat that left the city stunned. But Spain rallied, going on to win the next three games against Paraguay, Portugal, and Chile. Next up, the match everyone had been waiting for: Spain vs. Germany, two fútbol giants who had played in the finals of the EuroCup in 2008 – where Spain had won. Germany wanted revenge. Spain wanted to win. We wanted to watch a good game.

The best place to go for a true fan experience in Madrid is Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, where thousands of young adults flock — buckets of sangria and cigarettes in hand, adorned with Spanish flags, David Villa jerseys, and an impressive number of tattoos and piercings. In the midst of all that red and yellow and pride, the feeling was electric.
No matter that it was impossible to see the large screens set up outside; no matter that within minutes we were sweating profusely in the densely packed crowd and 95 degree weather. What did matter was Puyol’s epic goal far in to the second half, which set off a solid ten minutes of celebration so intense that no one was watching the rest of the game. When stop time finally ran out at 93 minutes, there was a second explosion and we joined the crowds parading down Paseo de la Castellana in a euphoric mass. We spent the rest of the night waving flags, blowing vuvuzuela, breaking out into Spanish chants, and yelling every time we saw fellow fans in a flash of red and yellow. The walk back to our apartment took about half an hour, and still the city was in an uproar for victory and for España with people running the streets, cars honking horns, and flags flying.

They say that Spain is in rough economic shape, and there was just a metro strike last week following a civil servants’ strike last month. But last night everyone proudly sang my personal favorite cheer: Yo soy Español, Español, Español. (I am Spanish, Spanish, Spanish.)

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 5: Buenos Aires

Looming over it all. (Gonzalez/TYG)

By Ramon Gonzalez

BUENOS AIRES — After going back to the tape, a few reactions to a day so troubled by the lack of instant replay. Undoubtedly the demand for limited video replay (on goals, major penalties, etc.) grew even more after Sunday’s abysmal day for World Cup referees – England’s second goal that wasn’t and Tevez’s glaring offside on Argentina’s first goal. In both cases, the disparity of the final score is unlikely to soften national grievances. England’s second goal would have tied a frantic game after England found itself early in a two goal deficit.  Mexico, which even some Argentines believed outplayed their South American opponent, lost much of its composure after the first goal and surrendered a second goal later on a egregious mental error that at the least seems less probable absent the first score.

FIFA is a slow-moving body and the purists that largely control it have long been resistant to replay technology. Yet after a series of such high-profile mistakes and the likelihood that one or two more are still in store, I would place money that by 2014 in Brazil we’ll have some video replay.  At the very least, it seems clear which way English and Mexican support will fall.  Who knows, by the end of the tournament a coalition of the sorrowful losers might have many members in its ranks.

The Mexican gaffe was instructive for other reasons, as the stadium monitor replay highlight of the goal ignited Mexican frustration on the pitch and in the stands (Argentine announcers claimed that before Mexican players saw the replay they were not loudly protesting the goal but I don’t have clear evidence of this.) It’s standard FIFA procedure not to reshow footage of controversial plays revealing referee error for precisely this reason, so the Mexicans and the crowd were treated to the sad farce of having to accept a goal that the large video screens in the stadium clearly showed should not have stood (FIFA has since announced that it is reviewing its in-stadium video procedure to avoid precisely this incident). There are extended arguments for and against replay…I feel it does not much detract from the pace of the game, or at least not more than the theatrical whimpering of some fallen players who perform like stricken farm animals. Furthermore, postgame video replay would mete out punishment for truly egregious flopping and might even speed up play and improve its quality.

I'll wave my flag if you promise to stop playing that song. (Gonzalez/TYG)

I watched the Argentina-Mexico game in the Plaza San Martin along with a couple thousand of my rowdiest Buenos Aires friends. Though I can’t claim that many Argentines were too troubled by Mexico’s poor fortune, the announcers on the Argentine feed did ruminate a little on the incident, and somewhat pedantically told us, in the context of Argentina’s tendency to view FIFA as prejudiced towards Brazil, that the referee’s error in the match goes to show that mistakes are not always the product of conspiracy but sometimes just of chance or competence.  Should Argentina face Brazil, though, it remains to be seen how long the lesson lasts. As it was, the words did not seem to make much impression on the crowd.

Before I ratchet up Argentine-Brazilian tensions to too high a pitch, I do want to corroborate Jonathan’s account of support for Brazil in the (unlikely) case Argentina does not win the Cup. A few days ago after Brazil won I forget what game, the sports channel had some poor female reporter interviewing drunken and delirious Brazilians who, when presented with the reverse scenario, extended support for Argentina out of South American solidarity. Then again, the whole interview was a chaotic mess of fans hungering for a few seconds on screen and fellowship is easy to give and imagine after victory and a few drinks. What is grace if one does not really believe one will have to give it?

At the office on Monday, the mood was buoyant, though Germany’s dynamic play against England won respect and occassioned a few worries for Saturday’s showdown. The victory caused a little extra work as a co-worker’s plans for a conference next week had to be rearranged as it would fall on the date of Argentina’s potential semifinal appearance. I like to imagine that it is poor form to even advertise an event to take place during Argentina’s potential future games and shoulder the risk of having to reschedule it, as if the fortunes of the national team depend on our vigilant commitment to keep those times free, to project to each other, our players, and the world our confidence that we will have more important worries than work on those days.

GOOOOOOAAAALLLLLLLLL!!! (Gonzalez/TYG)

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 4: Paris

algerian flag

One of France's spirited supporters of the Algerian team is interviewed after France loses to South Africa on June 22. (Parker/TYG)

By Charlotte Parker

PARIS — “Defeated by chaos,” “Disaster,” “Journey to hell and back.”

The headlines would be funny if their meaning didn’t carry real implications for France. They reference, of course, the country’s humiliating first-round elimination from the World Cup, an outcome caused by a Molotov cocktail of big egos, large salaries, and lack of national pride on the part of the players. World Cup fever still reigns in France, but alas it’s not the delirium of dreams. Instead, it’s a frenzy built of disillusionment and vituperative bitterness. Newspapers are just the beginning; even President Sarkozy called a special meeting to discuss the situation.

The flop potential of Les Bleus was first hinted at in their third preparatory match before the actual Cup began, when they lost to China. My host father turned off the match in disgust and said something along the lines of, “this doesn’t bode well.” Indeed, France went on to tie Uruguay, and then lost to Mexico.

I watched that match on a giant screen at the “FIFA FanFest” area set up under the Eiffel Tower (nice view). The place was absolutely packed, but among the rowdy crowd there almost seemed to be more Mexican that French supporters. Even more surprising was the number of Algerian flags, knotted around young men’s necks like capes. Here they were, in Paris, presumably born in France, watching France — and yet they didn’t root for France.

By the time les Bleus faced off against South Africa on the 22nd, most people had already lost interest and pride. I don’t totally blame them — the team had imploded, refusing to practice as protest against the expulsion, by Coach Raymond Domenech, of one of its players (I won’t go into much detail here, as the story is all over the media). The captain refused to sing the national anthem.

Nonetheless, I found it rather upsetting that the public at the FanFest arena booed when the camera panned to Domenech. When South Africa won, most of our fellow match-watchers erupted in joy.

What happened? In 1998, the team was fondly referred to as “Black-blanc-beur,” or “black-white-arab,” a nod to its diverse makeup. When they won the Cup, it seemed a victory for the new, ethnically varied French identity. A friend’s host mother said she couldn’t go out into the streets for weeks without being hugged by her joyful countrymen. Now, the comportment of the players — 13 out of 22 of whom are from immigrant backgrounds — brings into question how strong that national identity actually is. I suppose it remains to be seen if the lack of patriotism belonged simply to one group of bratty football players, or if it is an indicator of the situation of immigration and society in France in general.

Since the Cup started, I’ve been fascinated by the “Algeria Factor.” As I’ve mentioned, Algeria fans (until Algeria’s elimination — thanks to a last-minute defeat by the US!) were by far the most visible fans of any team, arriving at the FanFest arena hours before matches, faces painted and flag capes waving. Of the 5 or 6 Algerian men I talked to, all barmen at various cafes where I watched a few matches, every one — whether born in France or Algeria — supported Algeria. My friend’s host brother, born in France of a French mother and Tunisian father, and calling himself French, was also supporting Algeria. I’m sorry Algeria is out of the running because I would have loved to see how an Algerian victory was greeted by people here; it would have made an interesting contrast, I think, to the utter failure of France.

One lesson learned from the approximately 14 hours of soccer I have watched over the past week: “football” really does have the power to both divide and to unite, to humiliate as well as to burnish national pride. I’m sad for France, and concerned by the cracks in what has seemed to me (from my Metro observations of cultural co-existence, at least) a society that welcomes immigrants, and in which those immigrants are happy to belong.

But I have also been made proud of my own country, which is not a feeling I have often experienced. The spark with which the US played these first two rounds of the Cup brought us a little closer to the rest of the football-obsessed world, I think. I will always remember the feeling of quiet satisfaction that passed over me when one of the Algerian men with whom we were watching the US-Algeria match began to root for the US towards the end of the game, when the determination to win on their part was just so gloriously evident.

If we can get them to root for us in soccer, maybe there’s hope…

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 3: The Andes

By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

FIMBALÁ, Argentina — Hard as it may be to believe, when I found myself watching Argentina’s World Cup squad battle Nigeria’s on a flickery TV screen 200 km away from the closest permanent human settlement, 4,000 meters/13,000 feet above sea level, and ensconced between towering snow-capped Andean volcanoes that rank as the highest in the world, it was part of my summer research. Seriously! Admittedly, to fully explain the latter will take a while, so for now I will focus on the former — Argentina, the World Cup, and association football.

Argentina won, 1-0. Argentina also deserved to win. They played better. To those not fully initiated in the ways of the world’s sport (which included me until two years ago) these last two sentences might seem like an odd, redundant thing to say: Of course the team with more goals deserves to win, that’s why you keep track of them in the first place! In football, however, this is not necessarily so.

Football is the most arts-like of sports. Quality of play is adjudicated as much, if not more, by the gut than by the scoreline. After watching a match, deep down, you know which was the better team, regardless of how many goals they scored. How this happens, goodness knows. The “gut” is an incredible organ. But it happens, and at a football match’s conclusion you walk away with closure and an opinion. Uniquely, though, relative to other sports, there is a dearth of statistics to confirm and substantiate what your gut clearly knows to be.

Of course, there are goals — a rather important statistic indeed — but they come sparingly in football. So while goals often correspond to the quality of play and indicate the truly superior team, surprisingly frequently they do not. There are ties. Or a team, utterly dominated for 89 of a match’s 90 minutes, benefits from a singular error and wins 1-0. Usually in other sports to analyze these sorts of phenomena, onlookers would cite a battery of statistics to show just how “lucky” the 1-0 winner was, or to indicate the “better” of two tied teams. But try as the Nate Silvers of the world might, it is exceedingly difficult to condense a football match into a pithy few meaningful numbers. (Not coincidentally, in fantasy sports — statistics-driven online sports competitions — football has all the popularity of spinach.)

The sport’s resistance to statistical simplification stems from its fluid nature. The clock runs continuously, even through injuries, and the ball is in motion for almost all that time. Thus, football cannot be conveniently compartmentalized into possession, as with basketball, or individual plays, as with baseball or American football. So while you can often partly determine the worth of strikers (designated offensive players) by their goal tallies, how can you do so for defensive midfielders or full-backs or even teams as a whole? Empirically — statistically — you cannot.

As such, in the absence of statistics, football aficionados are left to appraise the on-field product as Roger Ebert does movies or Robert Parker does wines. Football journalists, for example, become more critics, albeit mild-mannered ones, than dispassionate reciters of numerical fact. To those accustomed to baseball or basketball recaps — essentially an obligatory litany of statistics rendered readable by an occasional anecdote — the football recaps in The Guardian or the Mirror might seem airy and ungrounded, but it’s difficult to write a grounded 500 words when spectation yields only ineffable “feels” of offensive or defensive energy and changes in momentum.

The lexicon of this journalistic genre is telling. Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández, the supremely talented Spanish national team midfielders, seem to be called “maestros” more often than their legal names. Ingenious passes are “inspired.” Football itself is “the beautiful game.” Though inconspicuous and largely unintentional, the sport’s vocabulary, delicate in its effort to describe the constant stream of on-field creativity that makes football football, betrays the sport’s art-like aspect.

Of course sports fans the world over still like a good old number or two. Enter: player ratings, an epitomizing example of football’s subjectivity, of trying to quantify the unquantifiable. Ebert gives movies up to four stars; Parker gives wines a number between 50 and 100; football journalists give all 22 players a 1-10 rating after their matches for passing creativity, work ethic, and finishing ability. It’s essentially a hybrid between a box score and a critical review.

All told, football inspires an almost unsports-like appreciation of the sport. A loyalty exists to the beauty of the game — of the art of the game — that supersedes club and national identity. Which leads me back to my rather unusual World Cup-viewing location.

I watched Argentina’s World Cup match at Las Grutas, a snowbound Argentinean national police outpost sited on a desolate mountain pass leading to Chile and the Pacific, while acclimatizing for an alpine science expedition. Watching the match with me were Domingo and Juan, the caretakers of Las Grutas’ three weather-worn concrete Quonset huts.

Domingo and Juan are Argentines, of course. So I floated a hypothetical their way. What if Argentina were not to be victorious this World Cup? Who, then, would you prefer to win?

They exchanged a guilty look, understandable considering their answer. Brazil.

Blasphemy! Argentina and Brazil, of course, are like Lex Luthor and Clark Kent or chocolate and vanilla: rivals of the highest order. But nonetheless their answer rings honestly. First, there is South American fraternity; a sort of epiphenomenal pride in having one of the continent’s own claim a world’s prize. But more significantly their admission speaks to a transcending fidelity to football as a sport.

The Brazilian samba superstars of 2010 play brilliantly and beautifully. That even an Argentine can admit this of their greatest foe — of the country, fittingly, that first gave the world the joga bonito style in the ’50s — is proof positive that football is the beautiful game and, partly by consequence, the world’s game.

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