Friday, June 23, 2006

the world cup: on to round two

The groups phase of the World Cup has ended with the U.S. out, Italy and most of the remaining European powers still in, and relatively few surprises so far. Probably the biggest of the latter is the survival of Ghana, which beat the Czech Republic and the U.S. to advance into the next round and have the honor of playing--Brazil, winner of five World Cups and a team whose second squad could probably beat most people's first. Still, it is a huge accomplishment, and beating the U.S. makes it that much sweeter.

Ghana notwithstanding, the World Cup is a fairly interesting case study in colonialism (post-colonialism) and its ongoing effects. It is obvious to anyone that the Third World teams have enormous talent but (unless one counts Brazil, which is dubious) almost no chance of winning. I ran through the reasons for this in my mind and came up with the following:

1. Colonialism divided the Third World, and especially Africa, into so many different countries that it is virtually impossible for any of them to compete on their own. Thus, while a combined West African squad would probably demolish most Western teams, countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and so forth are simply too small--in resources if not population--to compete on a level playing field. The linguistic, cultural, and other differences left by colonialism also make it extremely difficult for these countries to band together, sometimes even to stay that way.

2. The superior financial resources of the European countries mean that the same players will become much better and more experienced over time than their Third World counterparts. Indeed, many of the most talented Third Worlders or their families become Europeans altogether, so that the French team (for example) is composed largely of players of Arab or African origin. There is some compensation, in that many Third World players acquire experience in the top European leagues, but not enough to make up for the above.

3. The World Cup is being played in Germany, which is not exactly affordable to most people from poor countries, and has a somewhat mixed record of hospitality to foreigners. In fairness, the next one will be in South Africa, which has problems but of a different type.

One unfortunate aspect of the World Cup has been the TV coverage, which--although highly competent in individual matches--badly overhyped the American team and has frequently missed out on the grace and style of the game which are its most attractive characteristics. One interesting side effect is that many people, including those who don't speak any Spanish, have begun watching the Spanish-language broadcasts which (they feel) convey the tone and excitement of the sport rather more effectively. A welcome respite has been provided by the variety of World Cup blogs, notably that of Roger Cohen at the New York Times who has a keen appreciation of Europe, soccer, and everything that most Americans despise. I'd provide a link, but I think that it's only available to Times subscribers. It is, thankfully, in English.


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