Monthly Archives: July 2010

This Time for South Africa

Marcus Gilroy-Ware, who I went to several games with in South Africa, has produced this interesting short video about South African perspectives on the recent World Cup, featuring Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nutall (Visiting Professors at Duke this coming fall) among others.

I also published a set of final reflections on the World Cup, with Achille Mbembe, in French at Mediapart. Achille and I were guests on “The People’s Game” radio show at KPFK as the World Cup was winding down as well.

You can read Edouardo Galeano’s engaging reflections on the 2010 World Cup here.

But perhaps the most significant impact for me of this World Cup is that, on returning home, I downloaded the Shakira World Cup theme song and now am actually listening to it with pleasure in a state of rapturous and insane nostalgia.


Two days after the World Cup final, the whole event seems slightly surreal. I’m returning from South Africa today, having survived on my last day here a gauntlet of baboons and a march up a gorgeous mountain, after arriving on the 26th of June just in time to see Ghana beat the U.S. I’ve had the privilege of watching seven games, including the Cape Town semi-final and the final in Johannesburg. I’ve come to know and love the vuvuzela — and, yes, I’m bringing one home to blow at Duke soccer matches this fall. It was rapture on many levels, and now it’s passed.

Critics of the World Cup and the enthusiasm it inspires often insist on the fact that for all the talk of football creating understanding, toleration, and communication, this global tournament is ultimately a brief moment, even a fantasy, with little broader impact on structures of oppression and domination. They point out the ways in which the tournament actually reproduces those structures in many ways. All of this is right, to a point, and yet misses the point as well. For the World Cup is what it is precisely because it is slightly out of time, and out of place in the world.

As I arrived at the final I saw all around me the same expression I was wearing: a slightly dazed, blissful grin that said simply “I can’t believe I’m here.”

The last game was both frustrating and riveting. I went into it already partial to the Spanish team, whose play had elated me when I saw the Spain-Paraguay game in the stadium and during the Spain-Germany game a few days later, which I watched in a seaside restaurant on the Cape peninsula. But I appreciated Holland too, for the Uruguay-Holland game in the Cape was an amazing game, flowing and performative, fascinating and strangely calming to watch live. My sympathy for the Dutch evaporated rapidly, though, during the final. They had clearly decided – the coach basically admitted as much – that they were not as good as the Spanish, and that they had to play a kind of anti-football, using physical confrontations and fouling as a tool of the trade.

In a sense you can understand this, and yet it was probably the wrong choice. Had they done otherwise, they might have come even less close to winning, but they also could have left a very different mark with their final appearance. To see both teams playing all out in the flowing way they are capable of would have been a massive gift to all of us. Instead, we were pissed off for most of the match. Fans booed the referee, and there was and is widespread complaining about him, but in a sense he was put in a relatively impossible situation by the play itself. As the game slipped through overtime, I couldn’t believe we were about to live what to me was the ultimate nightmare: a final between two great, unique teams, determined by penalty kicks. Then: Iniesta arrived, saint and savior. Along with much of the stadium, I exploded at that goal, hitting the seat, jumping up and down, screaming to heaven. It was an astounding finish.

Here’s a few moments from the final you might have missed, as I’m not sure they showed up on TV. First, when Sepp Blatter came onto the field, he was roundly booed by much of the stadium. It was interesting and little mysterious. There are certainly many reasons to boo FIFA, and yet we were also all there to watch the show he had put on.

It’s true that many of has just spent nearly an hour in lines waiting for food only to find out that it had ran out, thanks to FIFA’s idiotic insistence at having only it’s own franchise sell a tiny menu of bad food, rather than allowing local vendors who would have supplied us (as they did outside the stadium) with delicious grilled meats, rice, and a panoply of other foods. Instead, I got – seriously – a hotdog (hallal lamb, its true) without a bun in a paper bag. Happily, though, everyone was so psyched to be there that our wait in line turned into a jovial exchange about where we were from, the World Cup, South Africa, and the absurdity of our situation. (Conversations in the packed men’s bathrooms were similarly jovial.) Maybe the boos came from hunger? They were repeated at the time of the presentation of the trophy, loudly. The referee was also booed, which I found a little appalling actually. Booing Blatter seemed fine to me, and yet its motivations still puzzle me a little.

The other moment that I don’t think was broadcast was a nearly-successful attempt by a streaker to actually get to the World Cup as it sat on display before the game. He came bursting onto the field, trailed by several guards, and as he approached the Cup he pulled something out of his pocket. I thought at the time it was a bag, as if he was planning to stick the trophy in a little bag… and go where, exactly? But someone later gave me a better explanation for the prank: he had a little red velvet hat that he wanted to put on the Cup so that, just for a moment, it could be wearing what a little Spanish hat: he wanted, effectively, to claim the Cup for Spain proactively.  He almost did it too except that one of the officials in a suit stepped in front of the Cup and gave a nice block which sent him sprawling on the ground. Later, when the Spanish ran around the field with the trophy, another man also tried to get to the Cup. My recommendation to both would have been to do what I and many other tourists did: buy a nice replica of the cup, made out of beads and wires by South African artisans, for a reasonable 200 Rand.

Watching the scenes of elation on the field after the game was spell-binding. I knew that this was a massive moment for Spain, for its history of regional conflict, for its construction as a nation. There’s a book to be written about that – perhaps our contributor Joaquin Bueno will be the one who writes it – and about the theatre on the field, during which Puyol and Xavi paraded with a Catalan flag in the midst of the celebration of Spanish victory. There was also something gut-wrenching about watching the Spanish receive the trophy while the Dutch team sprawled and wandered in desperation at hearing the words no football team ever wants to hear: “runner-up.” Van Brockhorst, whose amazing semi-final goal against Uruguay was along with Tshabala’s first goal probably the best of the tournament, looked particularly dejected.

Then we all hobbled home, through the Johannesburg night, and woke up in a totally different world.

In South Africa, the last few days have seen an outpouring of discussion of precisely what the legacy of all of this is. For at least four years, even more, the country has prepared to host an event that lasted a month. Now that event is over, and the question is what, precisely, it actually was, and what it did. It was, by all accounts, a huge success, indeed a vindication. The many fears recycled especially in the European media for years evaporated. Instead visitors had an incredible experience overall. Even the fans behaved: indeed, last night on the news a British official even boasted that not a single English fan had been arrested for bad behavior – a miracle of sorts!

To make that happen took a massive effort, of course, and also some juridical innovations. South Africa set up special “World Cup” courts with rapid sentencing for any who committed crimes during the tournament, a unique “state of exception” that apparently the Brazilians are already interested in learning about from the South Africans in preparation for 2014. But there was also a massive campaign whose message to South African citizens was that they were essentially all responsible for making the Cup a success. Throughout the tournament, as crime rates remained low, people joked constantly that the criminals turned out to be patriots too, politely putting off their activities while the eyes of the world were on South Africa.

Today, however, one of the major stories in South Africa surrounds rumors that, now that the World Cup is over, there will be attacks against immigrants from outside Africa in the country, as there were in 2008. Many are already fleeing the country, while the police force is mobilizing to respond to such attacks. A few acts of looting of foreign-owned stores have already taken place. But it’s not clear precisely whether the rumors reflect reality or, as is so often the case, are in the process of creating it. On the news last night, some township residents lamented the departure of foreigners, who own many convenience stores that are now shuttered, making it more difficult and expensive for residents to get food. This crisis will be a major test: if communities, and the nation as a whole, can protect foreign residents and prevent violence, it will suggest that something has indeed changed.

The structures built for the World Cup meanwhile, most importantly public transportation systems that were long-needed but never completed, will present another test. If they can be maintained as safe and efficient transportation, that will be one immediate, and daily, legacy from the World Cup in South Africa.

What, meanwhile, do all those who watched games, near and far, take from this. That is the toughest question to answer. We disperse, individually carrying this massive collective experience. We’ve glimpsed an alternative space, one composed of people from all over sharing a common story, full of absurdities and twists and turns, random and even futile but yet perfect because it is common. We’ve come like pilgrims looking for something, but perhaps return not precisely sure what we’ve found.

Univision, Latino (Dis)Unity, and the World Cup

The Bouncing Babes of Univision

The Bouncing Babes of Univision

In this past month of World Cup football, I have seen my facebook stream lit up by “friends” claiming that they are loving to watch coverage in Spanish. In many cases, these friends speak Spanish as a second language; I even have friends who don’t speak Spanish well at all, yet watch the Spanish coverage because they claim it is more dramatic.

It always strikes me that American football/soccer fans always seem to be drawn in by the aura of American Spanish-language channel coverage of the sport.

The perspective of this type of fan looks down upon the English-speaking coverage one finds in the USA. Typically, the formula goes as follows: a dry, serious, and knowledgeable British announcer, plus one American with some (often tenuous) connection to the world of soccer.

The formula has varied slightly over the years, though in 2010, ESPN has stuck faithfully to it, adding in color commentary in the postgame, pregame, and halftime slots. This year, the coverage has been particularly good, featuring analysis from such legends of football as Steve McManaman and Jürgen Klinsman, and some current figures such as Wigan coach Roberto Martínez.

While I am occasionally annoyed by the (virtually inevitable) stream of stereotyping, clichés, and general lack of knowledge of the commentators (Alexi Lalas is often guilty of this, in my opinion), I am overall pleased with how far football coverage has come in the US since I was younger.

When I was little (we are talking up to the mid-90’s), it was literally impossible to watch many tournaments such as the Copa América, the European Nations’ Cup, or the Champions’ League. By the time I was a teenager, we were luck to live near a bar in Arlington, Virginia named Summer’s that had a ridiculously expensive satellite system (one of only two in the nation, they claimed). There we were able to watch Euro ’96 and many other contests, surrounded by a packed restaurant full of fanatics in their team colors.

With the steady growth of Spanish-language television in the USA, soccer became more and more present. At the beginning, the Spanish-language commentary seemed infused with a true sense of passion enhanced by the novelty of it. Not that the sport was new to the audience, but rather that the means of communicating it was new (a Spanish-language channel in an English-speaking country) and the audience was increasingly new.

These early commentators were best represented by the legendary (and aptly-named) Andrés Cantor (we could call him Singing Andrew), whose extraordinarily long “GoooooooooooooooOOOOOOOOOooooool” cry became legend, especially in contrast to the dry “gringo” commentating on the ’94 World Cup. Cantor became symbolic of the “Latin passion” for football, though by 1998 he appeared to me as a caricature of himself, the kind that might sing an opera for the most meaningless goals and appear clownishly disconnected from the drama of the game.

This World Cup, I have been watching much of Univisión, mostly because I get the best digital cable signal from their channel to record matches. Regrettably, I find the commentary to be much like this clownified version of the original Cantor: theatrically-inclined blathering that often does more to distract than it does to enhance the match.

What’s more, this year’s coverage features the illustrious José Luis Chilavert, no stranger to violence and controversy in his day. The instigator of many an on-field brawl, his commentating has been along similar lines.

Among other things, he has slandered not only referees, but the nations they come from–his verbal assault against Guatemalan Carlos Batres was an insult to the entire national of Guatemala, as he dismissed their referee as a disgrace to the game, claiming he does not even come from a place that knows a thing about soccer.

In another rant, the Paraguayan went on a stunning (and unexpected) tirade justifying one of his other famous incidents, in which he doused Brazilian fullback Roberto Carlos with a generous spray of his phlegm. “Chila” claimed that Roberto Carlos had called him an indio (an Indian, ie. indigenous American) after the win, “as if he were a blond-haired, blue-eyed German.” The surprising explanation from the Paraguayan seems to reveal a certain disdain for Roberto Carlos’s own racial “composition,” insinuating that the fact that the Brazilian is of a “lower” race would make it more contemptible to insult his own race.

This is not to justify Roberto Carlos’s provocation, but considering that indio is a word tossed around pickup games like a water bottle where I play (mostly with Mexican and Central American immigrant players), the response of Chilavert is telling regarding the idea that the Spanish-speaking world is somehow magically united. Ironically, the same commentator, talking about the possibility of a Spain-Holland final, voiced his attitude towards Spain: “I was in Spain for a few years as a player, and all I can say is that the Spanish treat Latin American players badly… they are all racist.” Moments before, his co-commentators had said they were going for Spain, being the last Spanish-speaking country in the tournament.

We could immediately pounce on the sublime ignorance of his statement–not that there is no racism in Spain; we could certainly find examples of racism anywhere in the world. There is the obvious mistake of turning racism around and perpetuating it: to that tune, many of the Univisión forums feature posts from Latin Americans who are defending the Spanish based on their experiences there.

Even more, we could speak about how, in voicing his support for Holland, Chilavert is utterly unaware of their own very “rich” history of colonialism. Even in football terms, Holland have always had great black players, yet even in the national team racial division has been fingered as a principal reason for their failures–in the past, such great players as the mythical Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids have spoken about tensions divided along “color” lines. Let’s not even get into Holland’s own sociopolitical issues with racism. And that’s not to mention that word Apartheid, a direct result of Dutch colonialism and institutionalized racism that so disgracefully defined 20th century South Africa. Perhaps Chilavert would do to lift his head from out of his book of rage.

More importantly, the presence of such a quasi-populist character as Chilavert truly is can be traced to the network’s idea of finding some idyllic “Latino” medium to appeal to its supposedly unified audience. Take the character of Chilavert, long outspoken figure of footballing counter-culture, self-proclaimed defender of the oppressed football nations, and herald him as a symbol of “nuestro fútbol.” Step one in upholstering an already loosely-defined identity.

The next step in the formula which has most gotten my attention has been the peddling of sexual ideals via the Univisión World Cup coverage.  Some of it is “universal”, ie, the constant shots of ostensibly attractive women in the crowd, which we could counter with the obvious: endless shots of ostensibly attractive “alpha males” (how many close-ups of every Cristiano Ronaldo expressions are there in comparison to the trademark grimaces of Carles Puyol). These kinds of things are, of course, a part of global marketing culture, not unique to the network.

Of more interest (or concern?) is the exclusive coverage that Univisión provides a myriad of scantily clad (usually in short shorts and cutoff team shirts), skinny, large-busted women, whose only job appears to be bouncing up and down and wiggling while screaming meaningless cheers without ever trying to say anything intelligible. Without fail, this comes before, after, and during every game.

For a channel that purports to be a voice for all Spanish-speakers (all of their award shows use the word Nuestro/a in some way, implying that this is our, the viewers’ award), I am quickly alienated by this “coverage” of the sport that I love. It is not to say that the women are unattractive, or repulsive, or even necessarily degrading themselves by bouncing during the World Cup on Univisión.

It is more a sense of alienation of message. Am I supposed to be, in some way, turned on by these women? Should I revel in their self-expression, their liberation from loose-fitting clothing (not to mention the incessant jumping)? Should I, as a Spanish speaker, or Hispanic, or Latino, be jumping up and down with them, joining in their fake fútbol-joy Or am I too uptight to enjoy “quality entertainment?”

In the end, I can only conclude that such coverage of soccer, coming from such a channel, can only be for those who may less the true fans, and more those who are looking for an identity represented by Chilavert, by the pantomime blathering of the announcers, by the bouncing women, by the feeling that this is ours and not theirs (they, I supposed, are the non Spanish-speaking other). I realize I am not one of them, and find myself regretting that I do not have a more comprehensive cable package; my inner self begs me as I watch the World Cup: ¡en inglés, por favor, por Dios!

World Cup Waterloos

I’ve just returned from several days in Cape Town, where I saw the Uruguay-Netherlands game and once again learned the limited power of football to offer up moral clarity. After the Ghana match, I was sure I’d be able to take out all my rage and spleen at the Uruguayans in the next game, savoring their defeat by the Dutch. Then I had a conversation with a ten-year-old stalwart Uruguayan fan on the plane to the Cape, and out went my certainty. Friends lamented that it was once again only going to be European teams at the end, so Uruguay became the last hope of the rest of the world. I didn’t particularly lament the Uruguayan defeat, but enjoyed the game mainly because it was quite riveting to watch, smooth, fascinating. And the mood in the town was excellent, if a bit over-orange at times. The fan below, along with several other Dutch fans, had produced a funny kind of hybrid get-up, aiming to combine African and Dutch elements.

South Africa seems like a bit like a jocular battlefield in the wake of a war between many nations in which almost all are doomed to defeat. Everywhere you go you see bleary-eyed fans of various denuded nations. I couldn’t bear to look in the eye of English fans for a few days, and then the same thing happened with Brazil fans and Argentine fans. Now it’s the Germans who look red-faced and shattered. The street-side merchants are down to two national flags now. I’m still wearing my twisted Ghana scarf, and you can see tattered flags of all thirty-two nations here and there. But now we have to choose: red or orange?

Obviously the whole thing is structured this way to guarantee the maximum number of people the maximum amount of pain. It’s even worse than if we all just supported one national team, since we all keep adopting teams, which then lose in turn. That was the story told to us by some kids at a winery outside the Cape yesterday: they supported Bafana Bafana, then Ghana, with some supporting Brazil too, then Argentina. Germany would win, one told us confidently. “Naw, they’re trash, it’ll be Spain.”

Still, this World Cup has delivered a particularly stunning set of turn-arounds. Argentina seemed on its way far into the tournament — they certainly had me convinced — until they ran into the brilliant Germans, who seemed unstoppable, playing a pleasing football and offering up a different image of Germany to the world and to itself, until they were stopped in turn by a Spanish team we suddenly remembered were predicted to win this Cup. It was a riveting game, perhaps the best of the tournament, with the Spanish seeming to have totally figured out how the German team worked. Holding the ball for several minutes at the beginning was a classic playground trick — you can’t get it from me! — that worked wonders. And Puyol must now receive some kind of statue, like the one in the Nike commercial that Ronaldo clearly doesn’t deserve.

But it was also particularly hard for those who were excited, as I was too, by the style of the German team, by what it’s victory might portend within the country itself. With their elimination, some noted wryly, the only African player left in the tournament — Boateng — is now gone.

Already the end is near. You can feel it here, where a few World Cup themed advertisements on the highway have been replaced with the more perennially useful advertisements for funeral services. One more massive show to end what has been a remarkable few weeks. A time without stressful and exhilirating football looms, beckoning as both relief and silence.

Black Star Tragedy

Football, we learned last night during the Ghana-Uruguay game, is the most effective tool for mass torture every devised by the human race. A vast majority of the over eighty thousands fans in the stadium, and millions of viewers throughout the world, were left speechless and unwound by what we saw unfold. For me, it was a little bit like reliving the final of the World Cup in 2006, with an early euphoria followed by an equalizer, then a game dragging on and on into penalties, with Gyan’s missed shot at the last minute playing the role of Zidane’s head-butt as the dramatic and decisive instant of the night. The sorrow, the indignity, the sense of unfairness of it all was too much to even contemplate. For many people throughout the world, the Cup essentially ended yesterday with the elimination of Brazil and Ghana. For all those who hoped, for a brief time, that this would be the year for an African team to go further than any had before, the remaining games seem somehow sapped of meaning.

The night began very differently. The atmosphere in the city was electric yesterday, with everyone in South Africa seemingly behind Ghana, and the flags and emblems of the country everywhere. The symbolism of it all was, of course, great. Fifty years ago Ghana’s independence began the wave of decolonization on the continent. In 1966 Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, led a boycott of the World Cup by African nations unhappy with the fact that only one of he sixteen berths in the competition was reserved for either an African team or an Asian team. The boycott was successful, and set in motion a long process through which African countries have gained more power within FIFA. The South African World Cup was in some sense the culmination of that long process. To see Ghana advance to the semi-finals, which no African country ever has in the World Cup, would have been a fitting and inspiring confirmation that things have changed, and that they can change, in the world of football.

Of course, there was reason to be cautious. Though Ghana was the last of the African teams in the tournament, it is a young team and weakened substantially in its striking power by the absence of Michael Essien. They had played well against the U.S., but had seemed less convincing in the group phase and only advanced thanks to the loss by Serbia to Australia. They might pull it off, we all knew, but it was going to be tough.

For the game, however, most had thrown caution to the wind. You could find a few small Uruguay flags to buy on the way in to Soccer City, but mostly it was every kind of merchandise in the colors of Ghana. Fans from all over the world decked themselves out in Ghana scarves (I picked up a rather handsome one!), Ghana hats, Ghana gloves, Ghana face paint, and waved small and large Ghana flags. There were of course groups of the famous stalwart Black Star fans as well. Everyone knew what the right outcome was, it seemed. And as the game began, it seemed like Ghana was in a position to win. They played beautifully. They were exciting to watch. The charged the goal, seeking openings in the tough Uruguayan defense, and seemed technically superior in many of the encounters. And then came Muntari’s goal.

The rest of the story is I can not quite bear to run through. But that it so happened that Uruguayan striker Suarez, pushing the ball out with his hands, prevented a Ghanaian goal, and that what football can offer in response is a penalty kick. And that it fell to Gyan, a young player who on a team with Essien had come to bear the burden of Ghana’s attack, to take that penalty, and who under the pressure hit the bar. And that the burden of the loss falls on him rather than on the Uruguayan who cheated. And that this, it seemed, simply devastated the team, which was not able to rally effectively during the penalty kicks. And that all of the urging on, the beautiful cacophony and integrated vuvuzelas of the crowd, the millions of prayers, among them mine, repeatedly spoken during the match, that all of that led to what it did is unbearable. To watch Gyan, sobbing uncontrollable, consoled by his teammates on the pitch, was – like the entire match – purely gut-wrenching.

Last night, I went through several possible responses. The first, and certainly the most reasonable, is simply to forever swear off football. This has several advantages. After all, we’re the ones who let it into our lives, who let it torture us like this, and we have the power to politely show it the door and ask it to take its leave. We would save a lot of money and time, and could devote ourselves to nobler causes of all kinds, or to the pleasures of gardening or spending time with family. It’s a good option overall, and one I’m seriously considering following.

One can also, of course, consider that often proposed response, which is to put it in perspective. On the long walk back to the busses from Soccer City, surrounded by a lugubrious atmosphere among the fans, I tried to take consolation remembering all of the World Cup matches that had similarly been determined by the heinous crime against humanity that is the penalty kick shoot out: Germany-France 1982, for instance, when Platini’s generation of French players perhaps came closest to winning the World Cup. Gyan takes his place among many generations of excellent players who have suffered what he did yesterday. And, unlike some of them – like Roberto Baggio in the 1994 final against Brazil – he is still young, and he and his teammates have much ahead of them that will perhaps come to surpass, if never erase, this memory.

You can, of course, go into a World Cup match agnostic, divided, watching out of curiousity what will happen, happy with any outcome. The problem, of course, is that I wouldn’t trade anything for having been fully there last night, part of that crowd, sharing in each gesture of the Ghanaian team. It has been a long time since I have experienced that much stress during a game. During the penalty kicks, like a kid watching a horror movie, I literally sat down on my chair with my head in my hands, unable to watch. But I could count on the sound of eighty thousand people to tell me what was going on. I knew when things looked up, briefly. And I knew we had lost when, in the stadium, after hours of constant and intense noise, there was nothing but the sound of tens of thousands of sighs. The whole experience was both unbearable and irreplaceable. And, in the end, it was probably best to have company, to hug friends afterwards, to commiserate with looks as we walked out, to try and marshall a few enthusiastic chants nonetheless.

Right now, besides writing this out and then thinking of other things, I think the best solution – one that is, after all, the only approach to surviving in life with some sense of balance and joy – is perhaps to hold on tightly to a particular time from last night, that stretch of minutes between Muntari’s goal before half time and Forlan’s goal in the second half, the time when there was the buzz of hope (always tempered by an undercurrent of fear, of course), the time when what is now impossible briefly seemed possible.