Monthly Archives: June 2010

Domenech becoming international political outcast

World Cup 2010: Raymond Domenech fails to take blame for France fiasco | Football |

This article from the Guardian highlights the extent to which the French football crisis is becoming one of international proportions, now being taken up at the highest levels of the French government.

At first glance, one might think: why should politicians have any role in talking to a football coach?

To begin with, the coach, in the end, amounts to a sort of indirect government appointee. France, like most nations, has a federation of sport that oversees association sports in general. In most cases, heads of football federations are appointed by the federations of sport, whose heads are in turn appointed by ruling political parties.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Domenech crisis is bringing to the forefront the role of football in creating a national image that has repercussions not just politically, but economically and socially. The French are now struggling to cope with a backlash stemming from this “tarnishing of the French image.”

One did not have to look far to see the impacts of the unprecedented discord and ultimate failure of the French team. From Facebook to the printed news to ESPN, the headlines orbited around the idea of the spoiled, whining French who put their egos before the team.

While Domenech may have been a horrifically bad manager (and he was), what got the attention of the world was the attitude of the players, performing (or not) on the biggest stage in the world. The extraoirdinary airing of the French dirty laundry will go a long way to create overwhelmingly negative images of France throughout the world. We don’t need to list all of the bad stereotypes that will be vastly reinforced by this whole incident, but one can imagine the repercussions, whether it be in marketing or even day-to-day identity creation.

In the end, however, Domenech will be only a scapegoat, held responsible for the actions of many, as well as his own. As Laurent Dubois shows in his book, ’98 was an opportunity in which a positive ideal of Frenchhood could be presented, despite its detractors. While it did not last forever, one would be hard-pressed to deny its impact on the national imagination and how it continues to endure. With this latest, disastrous chapter in French football history, one would hope that things are fixed as quickly as possible in order to restore the lustre on a global image that has been more than slightly tarnished.

Facing the Two-Day Football Fast

It’s alarming to even consider, but for the next two days there will be no World Cup matches. After gorging ourselves on football of varying quality for the past weeks, we suddenly have to think of others things to do. Read a book? Take a walk? But to what end and purpose, when all we have known for weeks is the spectacle of the fates of nations unfolding before our eyes?

Last night I feasted on the Brazil-Chile game in the wonderful Ellis stadium, which provides perfect views of the pitch, and a hyper-charged atmosphere in the stands. Not only that, but while Brazil only managed three goals, we managed to send a wave around the stadium four full times, which is really much more impressive since it involved nearly 60,000 people rather than just eleven. Before the match, a group of Argentina fans were holding up a sign announcing: “Diego awaits.” This was amusing to many of us, but not to a Brazilian fan who stormed them and said “What the f–k are you doing here?” Watching Brazil — notably that absolutely perfect-pitch header in the first goal — was a tremendous pleasure, made even better by the nice conversation with the South African accountant to my left and by the presence of a very glum Italian to my right.

Spending this afternoon watching the Japan-Paraguay match, however, was a good way to start the fast, since to put it mildly it was not a very pleasing meal. Indeed, “torture” might not be too strong a word to describe the experience. Ten minutes in I knew for sure it would go to penalty kicks, but tried to convince myself against all evidence that someone might actually score a goal. By the end I was begging, cheering any run by any side, just wanting a goal so we could all go home in time to watch the Spain-Portugal game. But it was not to be.

The penalty kicks were quite dramatic, of course, with Japan team kneeling for the final kick, and both sides taking some pretty cheeky psych-out kicks. And nothing makes me happier than seeing happy Paraguayans. Plus I got to chat with a seven-year-old South African girl who impressed me with her knowledge of all the different players on various teams but then admitted that she mostly “liked how they looked.” The fans really outplayed the players today in that stadium, where the enthusiasm was completely out of kilter with the reality of the game.

Watching tonight’s Spain-Portugal game was good consolation, especially because John Barnes, commenting on South African television, explained perfectly why Ronaldo always stinks in the World Cup: he’s playing with a team that doesn’t get him the ball very often, and so when he gets it he “always thinks he has to do something special,” which he mostly doesn’t. Once again, Barnes hits it on the head. Had fun tonight noticing that, even as he flies to the ground, Ronaldo is already tilting his head towards the referee with a plaintive look: “See how oppressed I am?” That big statue in the Nike ad is not to be, I guess. Thank god.

Still, I’ll probably wake up hungry tomorrow, and by Friday night I’ll be starving, totally ready for the Ghana-Uruguay match, for which South Africa is gearing up especially intensely. Since it is totally acceptable here to just randomly blow vuvuzelas in the streets at any time, I’ll be able to practice my ever-improving skills in preparation for the big day. I’m already having fun imagining bringing one to various sports events in the U.S. and being chased by angry mobs. But why even think of a future beyond the World Cup final, when so much remains to be written on the pitch?

Maradona Makes Me Happy

I’m here in South Africa, and last night went to the see the Argentina-Mexico game at Soccer City. I’ll warn you that a portion of this post will sound a bit like FIFA propaganda, so if you can’t stand that please stop reading now. But the feeling here in electric and ebullient, and I really can’t imagine any other event that could produce the same thing. I felt happily overwhelmed at the scene last night.

I was welcomed by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nutall, who are hosting a kind of wandering seminar on the World Cup at there home these weeks — yesterday I watched the England-Germany game with Joseph-Antoine Bell, legendary Cameroonian goal-keeper (more on that later!). You can see Achille’s mean vuvuzela skills (and his excellent hat) below.

Achille Mbembe blowing the Vuvuzela before the Mexico-Argentina Game.

On the double-decker bus in from the Park and Ride to the stadium we met a seven-year-old South African boy and his father. They were heading to their sixth game, and the kid looked determined and cool as he headed into a long night. The father was yawning. The next day, they were headed to Durban. As a simple answer to all the questions and cost-benefit analyses of whether the World Cup is good or bad for South Africa, there was this. He would clearly remember these weeks forever. He would in all likelihood never been able to see this – the tens of thousands of people and tongues, Messi on the field – if the Cup had not come to South Africa.

I also discovered happily (and this sounds less like FIFA propaganda) that local merchants had managed to push back successfully, and in some ways outwit, FIFA. There was much talk before the tournament about the fact that FIFA would not allow any kind of merchandizing, that they had trademarked pretty much anything you could sell – the words “South African 2010,” the word “World Cup.” What they weren’t able to do was trademark nations or their flags, or the all important vuvuzelas. The merchants also kindly offered earplugs for sale. Along the several kilometer walk from the bus stop to the stadium, there were hundreds of merchants selling all of these, doing brisk business as people transformed themselves into Argentina or Mexico fans for the night, and stocked up on those vuvuzelas. They were, to all appearances, doing much better than the super-overpriced official stores set up within the stadium complex.

Before I left the U.S. someone told me the NCAA – seeming fearing an influx of them in the hands of World Cup visitors from the U.S. – has already taken care to announce that these instruments would not be allowed in collegiate games next year. But, at the risk of generating more ire than I could by making fun of Lionel Messi, I’m going to admit it: I like the vuvuzela. On the walk in, they were a constant call and response within the crowd, part of the march. And in the stadium they are wonderful, modulating with what is going on the field, creating intricate games of sound between different parts of the stadium. This doesn’t communicate on television, of course, but I immediately got the attraction. And watching an eclectic mix of fans from throughout the world blowing into their just-bought vuvuzelas – with mixed success, for they are hard to blow, as I discovered when my first several tries created a pathetic little creak – is excellent.


And so, of course, were Argentina. When I got to my seat a friendly Irishman draped in his flag asked if I would swap seats with his buddy a few rows down so they could sit together. I accepted, figuring it was a sort of penance for being a fan of Thierry Henry and the French team who had made it so they could support theirs at the World Cup. As a result I got to watch the match next to a hilarious chain-smoking sixty-year-old Argentinian from Rosario, who let out of string of absolutely harsh and totally unprintable insults at his team for basically the entire ninety minutes. (On my right, meanwhile, was a totally silent, long-haired Japanese man wearing a hood and glasses, who erupted into nods and cheers with each goal).

Yes, my Argentinian friend smiled a little when they scored one after another. But, he complained, they really weren’t playing well on defense, as he kept pointing out helpfully to them each time they flubbed their positions against the Mexican team. He wasn’t allowed to smoke in the stadium, I knew as he bathed me in second-hand smoke, but it was clear the guy needed his cigarettes. An Australian in front of us told him he couldn’t smoke, but the man with impeccable logic pointed to sky, telling him “We’re outside, what’s the big deal?” Eventually he was repressed by the local authorities, who wanted to actually take his cigarette away but were satisfied when he smashed it on the ground. He proceed to eat pungent cough-drops for the rest of the match. Still, he seemed pleased – a little — when I told him I thought his team would probably win the Cup. “We’ll beat Germany,” he said, “and I’m not worried about Brazil. It’s Spain I’m worried about.”

Is it wrong, somehow, that I could be filled with delight by Argentina while this man, clearly an intense lifelong fan, lived the whole night as a stressful experience? To each fan their form of obsession, I suppose.

The Mexican fans were beautifully decked out and spirited last night, but of course rapidly turned gloomy. The South African security guards had the unenviable job of dealing with various tussles between a tightly packed group of intertwined Mexico and Argentina fans, both after Argentina’s third goal and at the end of the match. A bit of beer was thrown at one unfortunate policeman, who was impeccably controlled about the whole thing. Then – here comes the FIFA propaganda, or else one of those World Cup commercials – some Mexico fans waded into the Argentinian side of the stand-off and began waving flags and jumping up and down, patting the enemy fans on the back, and the action seemed to calm everything down.

The common response to Maradona, of course, (at least in the Anglophone world) seems to be a bit of embarrassment at his “antics.” You can pick your reason why he’s a bit unseemly: the “hand of God”; the cocaine addiction and alcoholism, insulting journalists, FIFA, Pelé (telling the legend to “go back to the museum”!), Platini; that he has not just a Che Guevara tattoo (nothing special there) but a Fidel Castro one too; and so on. But Maradona makes me happy. When he jumps around in his hilariously dignified grey suit on the sidelines as he team scores one goal after another, he makes me happy. He makes me happy when he insults FIFA, who since they control the world at this point need at least some token opposition, and he’s the perfect one to issue it since for many in the world he literally incarnates the joy and madness of football they seek to trademark for themselves.

I like him because the one glimmer of interest my seven-year-old son showed in the World Cup came when I pointed to Maradona and told him that he had declared that if he won the competition he would run naked through the streets of Buenos Aires. Many Argentinians, I assured my son, would join him. That, it seemed, was finally a good reason to root for one team over another.

But most of all, Maradona makes me happy because he has coached a team whose philosophy is to score more goals than the other team, rather than to prevent the other team from scoring. Last night they may have not been so good defensively, as my chain-smoking friend told me. But they scored the goals on the other end, lots of them, cheeky and stunning.

Maradona makes me happy because given how crazy this whole thing – the World Cup, and the world for which it is the cup – really is, he seems to me to make the most sense within it. The World Cup, above all, is a test of mental control, and soul, for any team. It seems to me that having Maradona on the sidelines lights up his team, gives them the mad confidence, the headlong rush, that they need. Many teams in this World Cup have had incredible rosters but seemed strangely fragile on the pitch. (I’m politely avoiding any direct mention of that earlier game yesterday, since the sight of various English fans last night, some literally walking around alone muttering to themselves with red eyes, was too much to bear, but that’s of course exhibit A.) The Argentina team doesn’t. They seem like they know they should be there, they know what to do, and they are going to do it. Or so it seems now.

Tonight, Brazil-Chile. I’m looking forward to the vuvuzela-samba mix.

Watching Ghana Beat the U.S.A., in Johannesburg

Well, being on a different continent certainly changes things.

After the epic flight from the U.S. to South Africa — 16 hours, including the required putzing around on the tarmac in Atlanta — I arrived just in time to catch the U.S.-Ghana game at a restaurant here in Melville, Johannesburg. I watched with Simon Kuper, who is the author of the excellent Soccernomics and reporting for the Financial Times on the World Cup, along with a few other journalists. I was myself very torn about the match, wanting the U.S. to win and wanting Ghana to win too — it turns out that’s a little tough in football. The restaurant, with the except of a few despondent U.S. fans at our table, had no such uncertainty: they were with Ghana, all the way, and delighted at the flash of Gyan’s second goal. It was tough to feel to down about the defeat in the midst of the happy crowd, or walking home through vuvuzela-blowing, Ghanaian flag waving fans on the street. The only team to make it out of the group phase, Ghana has made one more step. Will they beat Uruguay? “No chance,” said a Spaniard at the table with us. “Of course,” said a South African. We shall see.

After the high of watching U.S.-Algeria back home and following the buzz around our referee-induced victimization in not one but two matches, it was funny to hear that the incident with Koman Coulibaly was a pretty minor thing here. We’ve really made it into the footballing club, it seems: we have our own flare-ups and debates about things that no one else is even paying that much attention to, which also means we’re participating fully, in a way, in the swirling global theatre of the World Cup. Maybe that itself marks how important this moment has been, as Jennifer Doyle notes. And as the Nation notes, there’s much to celebrate in Ghana’s victory.

Arriving in South Africa was wonderful. Everything was extremely easy and well-organized: went through customs fast, got my match tickets, got my car, with everyone helping me along. After the World Cup ends, I’d suggest South Africa send a commission to explain to the French how to run an airport — arriving in Johannesburg was precisely the opposite, in pretty much every way, as arriving at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. They could give a few tips to the J.F.K., O’Hare, Atlanta and La Guardia too for that matter.

The South African Sunday Times, meanwhile, effused about Ghana’s victory over the U.S. Here are a few choice bits from their coverage of the game: “For the US, there was none of that Rambo or Delta Force movie heroics, which the Americans have been pulling at this World Cup.” Ricardo Clark, they wrote, who was pulled out by Bradley in the 30th minute, “looked about as lost as an American tourist in the dark backstreets of Alexandra township.” Ouch. While the U.S. attacked with “more vigor” in late in the first half, “their efforts were more like trying to find Osama Bin Laden.” In the second half, with Mick Jagger looking on, they looked like the “overexcited” singer in “his youth.”

Tomorrow, Argentina-Mexico beckons (along with that little match between those two small European countries).

France: The Autopsy Begins

It’s interesting to compare the exits of the two finalists France and Italy from the World Cup. Italy, remarkably, just faded away after some remarkably bad games against much lower-ranked opponents. Italian friends told me everyone knew the team was terrible anyway, so they had no hopes to be dashed. At least the coach went out with a little dignity. The French, meanwhile, exploded off the scene, generating plenty of meaning — as always — for those of us watching. I’m not sure which is worse for a fan, though the academic in me has to prefer the French version.

Trying to grapple with all this, I published an opinion piece this morning at the international website of about France and Les Bleus. I also published a short piece in French about this, as well as about our joyous day watching the U.S.-Algeria game, at Mediapart. The New York Times also has this piece by columnist Roger Cohen.

The autopsy will, undoubtedly, take some time, though. If you see other articles of interest please let us know!

Bliss, and a Belgian Spared

It has been a beautiful day. It was a perfect match, offering up everything that draws us to football. The devastation of the goal-that-was-not, the relief as the team, rather than fumbling into frustration, kept carefully building up excellent plays, defending beautifully, and pushing, pushing, pushing. Raïs M’Bohli, the Paris-born Congolese/Algerian goalkeeper — who, I imagine and hope, will be moving on rapidly from his professional team in Bulgaria after this showing — stopping the goals relentlessly, seemingly on his way to becoming Algeria’s new national hero. In perfect if sadistic form, the team kept us all in suspense until the very end, when in a beautiful, invincible run, scrappy, a little enraged, bringing together Donovan, Altidore and Demsey in a gorgeous one-two-three, and here in Durham and throughout the country and the world there was that explosion of joy that can only come when it has been long-deferred, seemingly unattainable, and perfectly plucked from out of nowhere.

Plus — and really this is just as important — the goal meant that the Belgian referee Franck De Bleckeere was spared a treatment that would have been even worse that of Koman Coulibaly last week. Had it not been for that last minute goal, I’m sure that some enterprising web-hounding dudes would already have dug up proof of a dangerous Belgian conspiracy against the U.S.  We might be asking: did that Belgian guy speak English? Do they even play football in Belgium? Well, doubtless there will be some of that, but at least now we’ll hear a little less about it than we otherwise might have.

Belgians may have many flaws, but they mostly love the U.S. Those of my father’s generation, with slight provocation, will effuse about the liberation of their country by the U.S. during World War II. Indeed my dad describes how, as a child seeing this big guys with tanks, oranges and chocolates arrive in Liege after years of Nazi occupation, he said to himself “I don’t know where these guys come from, but I’m going to move there some day.” And he did. Many younger Belgians, meanwhile, have an attraction to the U.S. in part simply because it’s really no fun living a country divided by perhaps the most tedious civil war in the history of the world — Belgians could import their model of ethnic conflict, perhaps, to other regions, for it involves endless vitriolic bureaucratic and no killing.

Which is to say, I really don’t think De Bleeckere, or his linesman, actually had it out for us. Though actually, while Coulibaly’s call was marginal but in the slightest sense technically justifiable, today’s was just crazily wrong. Part of the pleasure of the last few days has been talking to many people who aren’t really following the World Cup and are not particularly into soccer, but are urgently interested in whether the foul called against us last week was, indeed, justified. Today’s call, and what followed, gave U.S. fans the opportunity to feel at aggrieved and triumphant — a heady cocktail — and, more to the point, provided the team to truly show us it’s soul.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

There, deserving fans of a team that brought us to the brink of hell and then saved us through it’s 94 minutes of play, we were precisely — for the briefest of moments — in the right place, glowing in a moment that only this oddest of human inventions can create. We’ll carry that with us for a long, long time.

French Racism and Les Bleus

Yesterday I participated in two discussions about French football. The first, on the English-language TV station France 24, had a perfect line-up: one person defending the classic “football is alienation” thesis, a sports journalist seeing politics as mainly being projected onto sport, and me, the cultural historian imagining everything as politics.

Later in the day I also spoke briefly to BBC news about racism and the reaction to the situation of the French team.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll take up the theme on as part of the discussion on BBC’s World Cup daily, if I manage to wake up at 4 a.m. that is. (They promised to give me a wake up call).

For more thoughts on how many in France seem to have managed, once again, to place the blame for massive institutional rot on convenient scapegoats, see my post from yesterday.

Farewell France & South Africa

Well, that was exhausting. I don’t think I’ve ever been so conflicted. The traditional fan in me was rooting for France, the romantic for South Africa, and I really didn’t want Mexico eliminated either. So much hope for South Africa for a sliver of time, after they had scored the two goals and Uruguay 1. And then Henry and Malouda, the team that should have been playing for France from the very beginning of the tournament, came on. At which point I tweeted “Into the valley of death rides Henry.” But, a few minutes later, Liz Hottel got it right: “ARSENAL SUPERPOWERS ACTIVATE.”

The French left with a tiny shred of dignity, while South Africa can at least celebrate an inspiring victory, as well as perhaps a bit of relief at not having to face Argentina.

The scenes at the end of that game among the players were sad, even moving. They had all participated in some kind of ritual immolation of the hopes of two teams, and two nations. But perhaps the most remarkable thing of all was seeing Domenech literally falling apart. The guy has barely shown any emotion for years as he’s ruined the French team, but today it seemed like it all suddenly came bearing down on him.

But the most exhausting, maddening thing of all, is this: I’m already thinking to myself — hey, in 2014 France might be ok, right? Malouda, Clichy played well today, Blanc can bring Benzema and Nasri back. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to another very complicated morning tomorrow watching the second French team, Algeria, will be facing the U.S.