Thoughts on the end of 2010 World Cup Soccer

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Watching Korea lose to Uruguay – on Wilshire at Serrano. I was among 10,000 fans, mostly outside this picture to the right. The screen you see was the secondary public screen. I stayed across the street from the largest part of the crowd so I could easily sit and rest my knee.

I confess that I have been really enjoying spending way more time than I should watching World Cup futbol – aka soccer.

I don’t actually watch sports all that much. I don’t have a TV in my home. I generally don’t follow the big U.S. sports, other than very occasionally watching them when I am out or with friends.

I like to think that I play sports more than I watch them – I play pick-up Ultimate Frisbee nearly every Sunday. Or at least did so for the last five years, but haven’t for two months, since a knee injury in May; I’ve been icing and resting and my knee is nearly entirely recovered. I swim and I bike.

And, certainly lately, I do watch soccer.

I work freelance, and lately tend to have more time on my hands than I should. I watched some World Cup in ’92, ’98, ‘ 02, and ’06 and enjoyed the intensity of it. I had actually never heard of it prior to the U.S. hosting it in 1992. I began to think that I should pay attention to the tournament earlier, so I could see how things develop. So, this year, I started watching on day one.

I like the some of the uncertainty/instability of soccer. In most huge U.S. sports (basketball, baseball, and “gridiron football”),  people are using their hands, so they’re very much in control. In soccer, it seems like nobody is quite in control, because one can’t really grab the ball with one’s feet… so it’s more about exerting some influence on the chaotic, than about holding on to the stable.

Another thing I like about my soccer fandom is the sense of being in a minority, while actually being in a massive global majority. Soccer is frequently ridiculed in the U.S. where it remains somewhat marginal. I tend toward the iconoclastic marginal stuff. For example, I bicycle for transportation in Los Angeles. So, when following the World Cup, I am doing something tremendously globally popular but still locally keeping to my iconoclastic roots. Actually those distinctions are not that clearly cut and dried- in L.A., there are certainly visible professional baseball and basketball cultures, but there are probably more soccer fans, at least in the core immigrant neighborhoods, including Koreatown where I live.

Watching a lot of games, I started listening to “The People’s Game” on KPFK. From there, I started to go to some of the more lefty intellectual online sources for futbol commentary… and yes, frequented Zonal MarkingFIFA and ESPN, too.

I chose to root for Spain early on. They were expected to win, and they seemed play with a lot of grace and skill. Their reputation was for passing, and they were a balanced broadly-skilled team, not necessarily known for a single stand-out superstar – unless maybe you count their goalie Iker Casillas – but the goalie doesn’t tend to count as the superstar.

(I played goalie in water polo, many many years ago. I wasn’t a standout. I could really relate with the emotion on tournament’s keeper’s faces. It’s a marginal yet high-stakes position. Most of the time, it’s not the keeper’s fault or even within the keeper’s ability, whether the match is won or lost… and yet, any time that ball goes in one’s goal, it’s perceived as the keeper’s fault. I remember the goalie psychology and stess well.)

During the 2006 cup, which I watched with Central American neighbors, I began to root for Germany, because the Central American immigrants called me “the German.” There’s something to be said for rooting for one’s roots on the world stage.

I enjoyed the arc of the tournament, seeing who was in and out… what it was going to take for teams to stay in – which is sometimes out of their control.

Now that Spain has gone and won the final… I am feeling a bit of withdrawal. I will spend more time on work, writing, art, gardening… which is all good. And I am going to keep an eye out for the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany.

The Reawakening by Primo Levi

Lastly, I want to post one of my favorite passages about soccer. It’s by Primo Levi, one of my very favorite authors. The title of this blog is a nod to him. He was an Italian Jewish chemist who survived the holocaust. He wrote sparsely, beautifully, mostly autobiographically in his spare time, while being employed as a full-time chemist. This passage is from his book La tregua – Italian for The truce –  though published in English as The Reawakening. It’s an account of his very long and indirect post-WWII journey from Auschwitz back to Turin. This is a somewhat inconsequential passage about a soccer game played in a refugee camp in Poland. Enjoy.

In the middle of May a football match took place between the Katowice team and a team of Italians.

It was in fact a return game; a first match had been played without particular solemnity two or three weeks before, and had been won comfortably by the Italians against an anonymous scratch team of Polish miners from the suburbs.

But for the return match the Poles took the field with a first-class team; word got out that some players, including the goalkeeper, had been brought for the occasion from no less a place than Warsaw, while the Italians, alas, were in no condition to do likewise.

The goalkeeper was a nightmare. He was a lamp-post of a man, blond, with an emaciated face, a concave chest and slouching movements like an Apache. He had none of the leap, the emphatic crouch and the nervous twitching of the professional; he stood in the goal with isolent condescension, leaning against one of the posts as if he were only watching the game, with an outraged but also outrageous air. Yet the few times the ball was kicked at the goal by the Italians, he was always in its path, as if by chance, without ever making an abrupt movement; he would stretch out one – only one – long arm, which seemed to emerge from his body like a snail’s horn and to possess the same invertebrate and adhesive quality. The ball stuck there solidly, drained of all its momentum; it slid down his chest, then down his body and leg, to the ground. He never used the other hand; during the whole match he kept it ostentatiously in his pocket.

Primo Levi goes on to say more about the match, some humorous, some profound, but one of thing I really enjoyed in that book is his description of the impenetrable Polish goalie.

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