World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception

(Disclaimer:  In this post I may be writing soccer and football synonymously because I’m from the US but live with a South American and we use both terms interchangeably.  Deal with it 😉  )

Pre-game Postulation:  Things to Look Out for During the Match

Despite having seen what must be almost 100 hours of World Cup soccer/football coverage over the last 3 weeks, there are many moments when I still am very undecided about whether I love it or hate it.  I have on many, many occasions stormed from the room saying how much I hate this sport – whether it’s because of a crazy call by a referee, a horrible bloody injury, a stupid theatrical dive, an embarrassingly boring game where nothing at all is happening, or the sight of miserably sad fans and tortured players who know they are doomed and about to jeered off the world stage as losers.  So what keeps pulling me back game after game, cup after cup?

It can’t be denied that the World Cup is a pretty remarkable event in sheer magnitude alone, and increasingly so in our ever more connected and globalized world.  According to a report produced for FIFA, about 3.2 billion people around the world (roughly 46% of the global population) watched at least some of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa on TV in their homes.  The world cup was playing in almost half the homes on the planet… whoa…

As beautiful as it is to imagine that when you turn on a game, that there might be a billion other people out there watching it as well,  it also feels sad that the only thing we are able to agree on collectively and come together for is something as frivolous as sports.

So what is the World Cup?  A beautiful common language or the opiate of the masses, distracting us from all the important shit we should be collectively coming together for instead?  I go back and forth and back and forth on this, sometimes changing my mind several times in the course of a week or a day or even a game.  So I think it’s time to have it out – to have a proper matchup between sides.  Is the World Cup “The Beautiful Game” or “The Ugly Deception?”

Let the games begin.


The teams are marching onto the field.  There’s a strong lineup on both sides.  This game really could go either way.

The excitement is palpable here in the stadium.  The World Cup is Finally here!  After four long years of waiting, time to sit back for an entire beautiful month or soccer. Many of the details from 2010 are hazy in my memory, but fill me with a cozy nostalgia.  I’ve filled out my brackets and I’m feeling quite clever about my picks, personally invested now in the outcome of each game.

The National Anthems play. 

Perhaps the ball has not yet been put into play but the competition in my mind has already started.  National Anthems?  Hate them or love them?  Tough call. I love the camera panning across the players faces as they stare solemnly off into the distance.  I love seeing people singing with passion.  I love seeing people feel pride in their culture and history.

However… nationalism itself can get pretty ugly.    The rise of the nation state is one of the things that has made something like the World Cup possible – and yet trying to make a one-size-fits-all policy for cultural identity has caused the erasure of a lot of culture and the forced adoption of the dominant culture’s manner of self-identifying. For example until relatively recently France was not at ALL a country in the sense that we think of it today, and there was no common culture – but rather a roughly gathered collection of regions, each with its own language (or languages) and history.  Nations and borders and flags have made what was once grey into black and white – and often done a pretty shoddy job of it.  In the process it makes it easier than ever to have an us versus them mentality, making borders the frontier for “otherness.”

National Anthems started to become ubiquitous in the late 19th century – and it shows.  Most of them, whether they are Latin American or African or European, have the stodginess of 19th century European marching band music rather than sounding anything like the culture, country and history they are supposed to represent.  While expounding patriotic independence they also manage to reiterate a history utterly couched within colonial dominance.

And Croatia and Brazil have gotten the ball moving.  The Beautiful Game is dominating possession in the early stage as the fans are practically levitating out of their seats with joy and excitement, decked out in team colors and fantastic costumes.

Yes as the game begins I wonder, what’s not to love about soccer?  Look how happy everyone is!  People are in feathers and face paint and animal suits!  Here we are a whole big happy world, gathered together for proper sportsmanlike competition! Yay!

Penalty shot for Brazil!  Just minutes into the game the referee realizes Brazil needs to get into the next round but that they don’t seem to be capable of getting there on their own.  The referee himself enters play, kicking the ball across the field to Neymar who neatly kicks it across the line.  GOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!! GOAL FOR THE UGLIES!

 Well that foray on the Beautiful side of the field was short-lived. Just as I was getting comfortable thinking this game was a no-brainer the referee stepped in making a bunch of pretty unfair calls seriously debilitating Croatia and more or less handing the match to Brazil.  What an embarrassing way to start the game.

Mexico now has the ball and is on the attack.  They get a corner over from the left, it’s flicked on at the near post and Dos Santos directs his header in. But a referee runs in to play 2nd goalie against the Beautiful, deflecting a goal for Mexico for the second time with the use of the offsides flag.  He then goes tearing down the field towards the other goal.  The main referee fails to call the other referee’s questionable use of flags to block well-shot goals. He gets dangerously close to the goal and shoots.   The shot goes wide due to Mexicans managing to win their game against Cameroon anyway, despite the referee playing with Cameroon – but this was a nerve-wracking moment, almost a second goal for Ugly, Corrupt and Horrible.

For the second game in a row calls are made that are clearly incorrect.  The referee is playing by his own rules and there is no one to referee HIM.  This is one of the things I hate beyond hate about soccer.  One of the things that can completely ruin it for me…and SHOULD by all rights nearly ruin it for everyone:  the referee has got complete control over the game for better or for worse – opening every game up to his potential errors, bad judgment, bias, and often corruption – and a referee almost never backs down EVEN when he is not sure about a call he has made.  He stubbornly rides it out, unwilling to allow players to challenge him.  Referees get to be dictators out there.  Why should one guy have that much power?

There is a simple solution to this – instant replay.  Not so much that it would slow the game down at all. The amount of time players and coaches spend arguing with a referee would be neatly replaced with a referee quickly taking out a nice handheld device and being able to immediately see what just happened from another angle.  He would do so only if the coach or players vehemently insist.

Other sports do it – so why not football?  The arguments are as various as they are fatuous – a) it would ruin the flow of the game b) human error is part of what makes it beautiful c) it would undermine the referee’s power (i.e. dictatorship) d) bad decisions bring more chance and debate into the game, and therefore more “entertainment potential” e) instant replay would make soccer robotic.

Blah blah blah.  Whatever.  It hasn’t ruined basketball, and it wouldn’t ruin soccer.

They made exactly the same kinds of arguments about not integrating goal line – saying this technology would impact the human element of the game and remove the enjoyment of debating mistakes.  Sepp Blatter, the slimy and corrupt head of FIFA said, “Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. … We don’t do it and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football.”  They argued it would destroy soccer by changing the weight distribution of the ball, causing the player to have to (gasp) ADAPT, therefore probably ruining “the Beautiful Game.”

Blah blah blah. Seriously WTF

Well guess what – they finally buckled and got microchips in the soccer balls – and… Football DIDN’T DIE.  In fact it’s improved!.  We now know whether or not a ball actually was in the goal rather than just trusting the referee!  Now referees can only steal deserving goals from teams with an offsides flag….

So why don’t they do instant replay?  Simple really.  If they had instant replay it would be WAY way way way WAY harder to set matches.  That’s really all there is to it.  That is why FIFA is against it.  All that money.  The Football mafias of the world would be pretty darn upset.

And that is why the “Ugly, Corrupt, Horrible” team is already in the lead, only 2 days into the world cup, minutes into this match.

I’m starting to wonder if maybe we should throw in the towel, end the game early, give the win to the “Uglies” and the Cup to Brazil…

Holland has the ball and is dribbling it around midfield, passing it back and forth, edging closer and closer to  the Ugly side.  Spain hasn’t even touched the ball, and the Spanish players are like felled men in a battle as the Dutchman trip and block and nudge and elbow them.  However a glorious header by Van Persie brings the ball flying back towards the Beautiful side of the field, and the fans cheer, thinking there may still be some life in the Beautiful Game yet, even after all the ugly Ugly playing.  

Spain vs. Holland just made me sad.  I hate the way the Dutch play – they are driven and dirty and will stop at nothing.  And they get the job done.  They have revenge in mind and as they rammed goal after goal through, they seemed to be battering the spirits of every Spanish soul.

But that Van Persie header WAS a beauty.

After this World Cup match I kind of felt similarly to how I often feel after watching a scene of Game of Thrones. Queasy and surprised and deflated yet impressed. In this instance Holland were clearly bloodthirsty, cannibal Wildlings while Spain were the VERY DEFENSELESS villagers who get slaughtered….

Watching the faces of these Spanish men who I feel like I’ve gotten to know over the years in the previous World and Euro Cups, as well as Real Madrid and Barcelona games, as they basically get stabbed through the gut, was a little bit sickening.    They are a kind team, a team that doesn’t often resort to a lot of the ugly tactics you see elsewhere, and they are champions of the idea of the “the beautiful game.”  To see them mowed down by the viking like tactics of the Dutch hurts.  And to see the world saying, “well you WERE something but now you are nothing” almost gleefully, is also sad.  We cherish you one day and mock you the next.  Human beings are creepy.

But this is the way of soccer – and life.  You can’t stay on top forever.  This is the end of an era.  One could just wish it weren’t so brutal, so definite.  And I question what the point is in any case – if following victory, even the highest of all victories, if you still end up humiliated for not being able to be immortal and reign supreme forever.

But hey – isn’t that what we all have to face?  Try our best to live a vibrant, exciting successful life – but then no matter what we do, we shrivel up and die anyway, our bodies’ slow disintegration humiliating us to death.

So – I guess that brings soccer back towards the Beautiful for so often being an appropriate metaphor for life.

 Uruguay has the ball and they are speeding down to the Beautiful side of the field.  Lugano is grabbed from behind and dragged to the floor. It’s a clear penalty. Cavani’s body shape oozes confidence as he whips this into the right-hand corner of the goal.  GOOOOOOL!  

Yeah, just as I was losing hope, the tight fitting Puma shirts worn by the Uruguayans saved soccer for me, at least for a day. And then Cavani took his off at half-time and scored one for the side of Beautiful. Not gonna lie – part of the fun of the world cup for me is all the gorgeous men.  Especially Cavani.

England and Italy pass the ball back and forth, moving fluidly across the field.  They work together to make a few beautiful set pieces aimed at the Beautiful, hitting the goalpost twice – nearly scoring a Beautiful goal…

This exquisite, well-paced game between two former World Cup Champions made me love soccer again.  It was a classically European sort of game – lots of strategy and fluidity, but not much scrabbling and chaos and surprise.  Just smooth attacking football. A lot of fearless penetration, a lot of openings and interesting opportunities made, a lot of adventurous choices – but still ringing with tactics.  Exciting young players like Sterling, Sturridge and Balotelli backed up by old reliables like Pirlo, the ever-delightful Gigi Buffon. Good stuff. It was an absolute pleasure of a game.  After a game like this I started thinking that the World Cup could be like THIS – two teams head to head using strategy, taking risks, and being bold and letting their personalities shine through – but always within the context of fair play – it would be a beautiful thing indeed.

The ball is caught by Josy Altidore, for the US, but quickly goes out of play as he falls to the ground with a hamstring injury…

Just as we get our feet on the ball our star striker falls to the ground, reminding us not of either the Ugly or the Beautiful but rather of Lady Luck the Ultimate Football Referee – regularly manipulating the outcome of nearly every game.

But Clint Dempsey is on it.  Beaten, bruised and bloody, this guy just won’t give up.  He charges down the field seemingly unaware that his nose is practically hanging from his face.  The rest of the US team are right there with him, hobbled and limping but giving it everything they’ve got. 

There is something intoxicating about being the underdogs.  So often it would be sort of embarrassing rooting for the US – it would feel like being a Yankees or a Lakers fan – it just seems kind of unfair in a lot of sports where we pump so much more money and resources in the other teams can afford to do.

But soccer is a somewhat more even playing field – which makes for delightful surprises, and allows for the eternal hopefulness of the underdogs.  And the US team doesn’t have the oppressive weight of expectation on their shoulders like other teams – doing their best and playing with that classic US Can-Do spirit will be good enough.  It sounds cheesy to say so – but after watching so much cynical soccer it feels really good to root for the home team who play so cleanly – no diving, no theatrics – just effort.  They want to win fair and square and I love and respect that.  What my team lacks in seasoning and prowess they make up for with heart and determination. It’s lovely watching the team slowly make progress over the years, becoming more and more competitive. Yes it’s brutal to have them put in the Group of Death, and then to lose our main striker 7 minutes in – but something the US does so well is rise to the challenge  when we’re down.


Uh oh – it looks like it’s getting hot out there on the field. The players are parched.  It seems it’s time for a Totally-Not-In-The-Rules-But-Let’s-Do-It-Anyway Water Break.  This will give the two sides some time to hydrate and regroup.  Coming back from behind, Beautiful seems to be dominating this part of the game.  Can they keep it up? Tune in tomorrow as the game continues: more dark underbelly of soccer mixed with beautiful life metaphors coming up!


The World Cup Showdown continues here:  

World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer


World Cup Showdown Part 3: Sporting Subjectivity and the Fun of a Little Hate



~ by zoetropic on July 9, 2014.

2 Responses to “World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception”

  1. […] NOTE: This is a continuation of a previous post on the World Cup. If you’d like to read the first section please click here:  World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception […]

  2. […] World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception […]

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