World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer

NOTE: This is a continuation of a previous post on the World Cup in which the tournament is itself one large game played between two sides:  The Beautiful Game and the Ugly Deception. If you’d like to read the first section please click here:  World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception


I hated sports as a child.  I couldn’t imagine playing them for fun, let alone watching them on TV.  I think that this in part sprang from the fact that my father, an avid player and viewer of sports, desperately wished to have with whom child he could share this passion.  I kind of rebelled and refused to take part, thinking it meant that he had probably wanted a son rather than two daughters – and two non-sporty daughters at that.  I became as much a non-sporty person as possible so that I wouldn’t have to deal with being too-much-in-the-middle. In childhood I tended to recoil from the things that weren’t immediately easy for me, and didn’t just come naturally and effortlessly, because I did not want to show I was bad at something (I think I can kinda thank dad for that too!  Thanks Dad, also known as “He Who Shall Admit No Weakness!”).  I also didn’t want to admit “weakness.”  So I stuck with things I was labeled as “precocious” and “talented” in and veered violently away from stuff that made me look silly or inept.  Instead of trying them enough to get better at them I developed elaborate schemes to avoid them altogether.  This included repeatedly spraining my own ankles – sometimes ON PURPOSE –  all in order to avoid PE class. I was a very determined child.

As a teenager I no longer had such a strong aversion to physical activity – I started exercising and taking dance classes, slowly re-learning how to enjoy being in my own body – something that had been easy as a very young child but I lost touch with as I ventured into adolescence.  However it still took me a long time to embrace sports because somehow as a literary/artsy/academic type of person, sports were not supposed to be something people like me were in to.  They were for the opposite of people like me and I associated them with superficiality. I saw them as frivolous and mind-numbingly boring.

But every supposition one holds about oneself has to regularly be re-examined.  I’m not really sure when – but at some point I started to realize that sports were a lot more than brute acts of physicality. I guess I started to get hints of this on trips with my dad where we’d sit down in some restaurant or bar (I’d have to sit 3 feet from the actual bar because I was only 12 years old) and watch a basketball game together.  I started to understand that sports were partially about spending time with someone caring about something together.  Rooting for something and being invested in it as the game unfolds.

And then awhile later I started to see that sports were stories.  Each game or tournament or race has an entire narrative with its plot points, its primary, secondary and tertiary characters, its ups and downs, emotions, themes, and symbolism.  Each game, like each story that is ever told, can show us something about humanity.  Seriously.

Mind you – just like novels – some games aren’t very well-written.  Some games are boring.  Some games have 2-dimensional characters that never seem to have the time to be fleshed out.  But the wide variety of quality is part of what makes it fun and surprising – just like when you crack open a book for the first time, you never know quite what kind of story you are going to get nor can you know for sure how the writing or plot will sit with you.  But you always hope it’s going to be good!

Those who criticise sports for being pointless and a waste of time and money, all just for a GAME miss the point.  Human beings not only need competition – but we need to actively participate in storytelling – both in the listening and in the retelling.  Because sports are also for community building – just like storytelling has always been. After any game you’ll see that anyone who watches is more likely than not going to want to talk about it – go over the plot structure, the pivotal moments, the villains and heros, the tragedies and victories. Just as we narrate our own lives and the lives of our people.


If you speak Spanish you’ll see what I mean in this video where 3 minutes out of one single soccer game are made into a metaphor for an entire country.  And it’s a beautiful thing: But we should get back to the game.


  The water break is over and the ball is back in play.  Brazil give the ball away in midfield again. Mexico picks it up and makes easy work of scurrying past Alves on the right, but his cross has no venom and is easily headed clear by Silva. Brazil rush forwards and you just know they’re going to give it away. And the two teams do this and do this some more and tie 0-0.

In the US people make fun of how low scoring soccer is.  What’s the point, they wonder, in watching a game it’s highly possible not a single goal will be scored?

I understand their point.  Football is one of those things that is not immediately accessible.  When I first started watching the game all I really understood was who had the ball – and all I could really get excited about was when it seemed to be getting closer to one goal or the other.

But one’s vision changes as you watch this game.  Once all I really saw was stopping or kicking the ball, but now I see the whole team – I see all 11 players moving in different directions.  I see the players in the periphery trying to make an opening.  I see the context.  I see all the drama that’s unfolding all over the whole field.

This new vision kind of reminds me of those 3D paintings that used to be so popular – where you put your eyes out of focus until suddenly they locked into place and you could see new images that were previously invisible – a whole new landscape of information.  Football has sprung from two into three dimensions for me.

It is like learning any language – you have to spend time listening/watching and then you not only understand more but also can begin to speak the language.  You understand context not just stray vocabulary.

The world cup has deepened my football fluency to a new level – it’s been like immersion learning techniques.  Almost all I’ve done all month is soccer and I can feel my brain has grown and stretched around it revealing why it is called a beautiful game.

And Italy has the ball but they are moving like slugs across the field, passing like they are playing in a rest home…

You think you know a team.  But never be sure.  Teams are moody, teams are unpredictable.  Teams, just like people have bad days, emotional days, angry days, uncoordinated days.  Italy looked strong, solid, strategic in their first game, and in the 2nd game they looked old and tired, unable to keep up with the spritely, energetic Costa Rican attack.  Italy tripped and plodded whereas the game before they had leapt and galloped.  What happened?

The amazing matrix that is a team spirit on any given day fascinates me.  How all the moods and feelings of the individuals mix and mingle and affect one another – a team is more than the sum of its parts, it has it’s own character and emotion and personality. And then that personality is effected in different ways by the personality of the competition – a solid team against one foe may become suddenly strangely toothless against another.

It’s so complex, and many-layered, and ever-changing and  and that’s what makes it beautiful. If you are interested in the endless complexity of human nature, then the idea of “team nature” and “team mood” and “team personality” is equally intriguing.

The Italians lose the ball to Costa Rica who have been solid at the back, dynamic all over and incisive going forward.  A superb Diaz cross from the left is rewarded with a well-directed header in off the crossbar from Ruiz… GOOOOOOOOL!! GOAL BY COSTA RICA FOR THE BEAUTIFUL!

ALL HAIL THE UNDERDOGS!  All hail the team that no one took seriously and SURPRISES THEM ALL!  This little country and this little team just beat two World Champions and made it look easy!

In so many other sports statistics mean something. In soccer sometimes they don’t.  There are ALWAYS surprises in the World Cup.

Football is unpredictable. The underdogs always have a chance.

I think this is why it has become the sport of the world.  Yes, usually to become a World Champion you need money and training and talent.  And money.


All the world over, every dusty alley can become a football field.  Round found objects can become soccer balls – and the game can be played.  Soccer in it’s most fundamental form is a very egalitarian sport. It doesn’t require money or private school.  It can be played anywhere and by anybody.

And so people connect to it, cherish it, all over the world regardless of the continent.

And unlike so many professional sports, there are always beautiful surprises. Always teams that vastly exceed expectations and teams that never meet them.  Costa Rica, a team everyone trivialized, surprised the world.  I love a team where every team does have SOME sort of fighting chance. Costa Rica also showed important good leadership can be.  Every country has raw talent – but it takes a special sort of coach to train players to work together so beautifully and effectively.  In soccer the smallest of nations can compete with the largest.

Meanwhile in the stands, the French fans are showing unusual exuberance, as they sing the Marseillaise like the war chant it really kinda is.  They sound ready to spill the blood of their enemies onto the earth just as their national anthem demands.

There is nothing quite like being surrounded by a group of fans when their team is playing.  The anxious energy when they are just barely losing, the sinking dejectedness when they are badly behind and running out of time, and the raucous confident joy when they get a goal that puts them in the lead.

My very first experience of what makes the World Cup special was in 1998.  I was on a summer trip to Europe with my best friend and a group of other students.  We were in London the night the English were eliminated from the Cup and it was truly remarkable to watch the mood of an entire city change from excitement and anticipation, to nervousness, to utter, undeniable depression and dejection.  I had never really seen an entire city doing something together like that before.

We then went to Paris and happened to be in town the day France won the World Cup.  I had never and may never again see celebration on that scale.  I was totally enthralled – this heretofore basically unknown sport (don’t be harsh – I’m from the US – knowing about soccer and understanding how deeply important it is, is much much less common than even learning how to drive stick shift) had the power to rock an entire nation into 3 days worth of deafening, jubilant, almost violent celebration.  A sport could do this…

It means something to us as creatures.  I am still trying to figure out why it is able to have such collective power – but that mystery is part of what keeps me coming back again and again, game after game, tournament after tournament.  Why are we so often so much more moved by the made up stories, than the real ones?  Why does play feel so much more moving and important at times than real life?  What is it that playtime allows us to be that real life doesn’t?  And why?

Watching my cats play it is clear that they have more fun playing with toys than trying to catch real prey.  When an animal is real, they suddenly are quite serious, it’s not a game anymore.  And some of the joyfulness leaves them.  It becomes work somehow.  It seems even they have a different relationship to work versus play.

There is something to be learned here…something that could be applied… how do we make ourselves take work as passionately as we take what is ostensibly an unserious thing?  Maybe we need to find ways of making that which is serious work a bit more like play – so we can find a way to let a bit of the joy, the passion and creativity, and recklessness and emotion come creeping into responsible adult life.

A Frenchman and a Swiss both head for the ball and the Swiss man is down.  He’s on the ground, rocking back and forth clutching his face.  This is no flop… this one is for real.  He appears to be bleeding profusely from his eye socket   His led off the field, momentarily blinded… we can only hope his eye will be alright…

When a player is seriously injured a game stops being a game.  When you see gushing blood out there on the field or a concussion or a broken vertebrae it’s hard to find it entertaining anymore and you have to wonder why something verging so constantly close to violence is that which seems to most please us.

It’s hard to keep rooting for France when it is obvious the opposing team is deeply traumatized, unsure if their teammate will recover his vision or not.  The French score one goal after another but I feel queasy.  It is no longer a fair fight.  I wonder how the fans around me can still look so cheery and jubilant when a man might have just lost his eye for their entertainment…

It seems like it only just started, and we haven’t even gotten to half time yet – but teams are already starting to leave the field – there goes England and Japan, Honduras and Cameroon! And now Australia and Spain have the ball but they are just passing it back and forth. They seem to both know it’s over and they can’t make a difference this game.  Although they share the same fate, Spain looks dejected while Australia walks tall and proud as they finally make their way off the field.

One man’s loss is another man’s win.  One teams humiliation is another team’s pride.  Spain left this cup feeling disgraced in front of the world, Champions one Cup and out at the very beginning of the next.  Australia was proud for even being there and for holding their own against a notorious team like Holland. Australian player Cahill said,  “today I’ve enjoyed one of the most beautiful moments of my life,”  after his team held their own against the Dutch and he made a beautiful goal.  ““It was a fantastic goal and without doubt the best of my career. I’ll never forget it,” said the New York Red Bulls star. “It’s a moment of great pride for me and my country. I know that it’s all over for me now, but I’m leaving without any regrets. As well as scoring that goal, we gave as good as we got against one of the best teams in the world and their star players.”

Winning isn’t the thing that actually makes us the most proud… it’s trying our best.

 But Italy and Uruguay are in a scuffle.  They know one of them has to go but they are fighting it out literally tooth and nail as Suarez takes a chomp out of Italian Chiellini’s shoulder…

Just as we have rules of war, we also have rules of sport. We turn a blind eye to players aiming dangerous kicks at each other or tripping or doing other dangerous moves.  But we all kinda agree – biting is not ok.  Not because of the damage done, but because it reminds us of our animal nature.  We strive in sports to maintain the facade of gentlemanly good conduct.

People have been hard on Suarez and with good cause. It is clearly not ok to bite players, just as we shouldn’t claw at them or pull their hair or poke them in the eyes.

However – did the punishment fit the crime?  Why is it that he was so harshly reprimanded when other players who are just as reckless and do far more dangerous things to each other get off relatively lightly?  Why is it when Robben actual ADMITS he cheats he doesn’t get punished at all?

…And the internet is going crazy. Suarez’ teeth are going viral!

And just like that everyone in the world is ready to judge this human being.  Yes he did something crazy – and yes it’s clear it’s a problem and he needs help.  He probably needs a LOT of therapy. But the general gist of internet is that Suarez is a bad person, that Suarez is a jerk, a monster, an asshole.  Do any of us actually know anything more about him besides his unfortunate defensive tactic?

If you are at all interested in making a bit more of 3-dimensional person out of this albeit baffling sports star, I really really highly recommend this article by Wright Thompson.  It’s a lovely piece of investigative journalism and he takes the time to push past they hype and the hysteria and the stereotypes, to try and dig into why Suarez bites.  H

Again – the beauty of seeking out perspective.  In England they call Suarez an asshole creep monster, in Uruguay he is a friendly talented hero of the country who happens to be a tremendously loyal husband, father and friend.  It is always worth digging for the person behind the meme.

This could have gone either way and got pretty scrappy at the end between these two veteran teams – but Italy finally concedes and slowly limps off the field.

It’s at this point that I freshly question why it is that I like the World Cup…This happens at the end of almost every game when I feel a deep sadness.  I almost always feel more sad than happy, empathizing more with the misery of the team that just lost than I could ever hope to feel joyful for the team that has won.  I see the fans, still in bright cheerful war paint but with the look on their faces of little lost children.  And yes it’s just a game – but that heartbreak, that’s real.

Pirlo and Buffon make a bow to their fans for what is likely to be the last time they are on a World Cup field.

Buffon is one of my favorite football players of all time.  He is just a joy of a person – and an amazing goalie and captain.  He has been the heart of the Italian team for a long time and it is strange and sad and horrible thinking about the next World Cup when the team will seem gutted, lobatomized.

It’s always hard to grok that by the time a player is 35 they are an old-timer on the verge of retirement.  Forlan who was perhaps one of the very best players last world cup has been mostly relegated to the sidelines.  He will return to the field to take over for now banished Suarez, but he is slow and ineffectual. In just 4 years you go from the best to an extra.  It’s a bitter draught to swallow.

Soccer is so bitterly fleeting.  You are a young player working on getting better, getting at the top of your game – but how many years do you really get to BE there at the top of your game before your already in decline?  So few.  When life as a real proper adult is just starting for most of us, a football player is already doddering.

And then what?  Life stretching in front of you and you already had your career.  I wonder how many soccer players spin into depression cycles as they approach retirement, having gotten a taste of old-age and death, having had to stare it in the face and KNOW their body is decaying as the youthful vigor slowly drains away, at a time when most people still feel so young.

It’s Half-Time Everyone and Beautiful is ahead 2-1!  The last few minutes there didn’t have much clarity but was packed with emotion as teams left the game.  It’s two weeks in to the tournament.  At this point in the World Cup I’m a suffering a bit of Futbol Fatigue.  It’s a bit surreal to watch this much soccer in such a short period of time.  I just have to keep reminding myself every time I wake up from a soccer dream, or find myself overusing sports metaphors when I write that it’s only every 4 years, and the first two weeks are the hardest.  Now for a bit of a halftime break and we’ll be back soon for the second half of the the Tournament!


 The game continues here:

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

~ by zoetropic on July 10, 2014.

4 Responses to “World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer”

  1. […] World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer […]

  2. Great stuff Zoe. Really imaginative approach, and written with true passion for the world’s greatest game. And no – I didn’t even take issue with any of the language { The US ‘gave up’ three goals : we would use the word ‘conceded’ – as an example } Very enjoyable blog, and you have put your finger on one of the most irritating aspects of football – the fact that we can all see, in our millions, that the guy dived, but this information is NOT MADE AVAILABLE TO THE REFEREE. And the reason is control. And control is about money, and scalping tickets I’ve decided. I have my own blog at magicmenagerie about the first two weeks of Brasil2014 as my wife and I flew down there to get a taste of the tournament, Intense and very enjoyable, despite England’s poor showing 😉

    • Hi there!! So glad you enjoyed it despite the semantic differences 😉 And we use both gave up and conceded, don’t worry!
      There are SO many of us who feel this way – about the need for the referee to be able to see what we see. It makes absolutely no sense that he is less informed than all of the viewers. But it’s going to take a LOT to change it. It’s frustrating because I know this bothers a lot of fans – but what can we actually do about it? At the end of the day it seems that people generally just prefer to willfully ignore the situation in order to continue to try and enjoy their favorite sport.

  3. […] World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer […]

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