Monday, July 17, 2006

The sudden violence at the heart of beauty

Well, the World Cup is over, something H is no doubt happy about as all this watching soccer matches with my daughter E has been interfering with my ability to get the housewife work done. We started during the first round watching the few matches actually televised over the air on the weekends, the players little blobs of color moving the ball around our fuzzy rabbit-ears powered TV screen, but soon became hooked on trips down to the Bosnian cafe downtown, which projected all the games in high-definition digital cable quality onto a wall.

It was a good move for the cafe, for both children (we dragged E's younger brother S down with us for a few midweek games, while H was at work) have become enchanted with their selection of sweets — especially the Leaning Tower of Pisa cake, with layers of hazelnut, chocolate and cream — and I will likely return for the free internet, the burek (a spiral-shaped, meat-filled pastry which we had for lunch just before the final match) and the air of Europeanness about the place. The Europeanness appeals to me not so much for its "sophistication" (the cafe in question is probably significantly less sophisticated than many other places in downtown Burlington) or for any political reasons (I don't have a lot of illusions about Europeans being vastly more politically enlightened than Americans), but its sense of tolerance-of-ambiguity.

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Over the last few weeks, the handful of political listserves that I am on have been infected with various political readings of the World Cup. On the more newsy list, composed pieces like "A Socialist's Guide to the World Cup" and Dave Zirin's "Edge of Sports" commentaries; on the more local discussion-oriented list, commentaries on the game and commentaries on the commentaries and — finally — a bitter argument about what to make politically of Zidane's head-butt in the final match.

All the writers and commentators were men, and the bitter argument about Zidane was between the men who were militantly anti-racist (and therefore rooting for France — whose team is not only the most multiracial national team in Europe but also has taken public stands against racism — and understanding about Zidane — who is of Algerian descent — losing it when the Italian player allegedly called him a "dirty terrorist") and the men who were militantly anti-violence ("there is no excuse," "more like Mike Tyson than Michael Jordan,"

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Throughout the tournament, I tended to root for teams based not so much on politics but on the beauty of their play.

In the U.S.-Ghana game, I found myself captivated by the speed of the Ghana team's play, despite their lack of precision. I had actually been mostly watching the Italy-Czech Republic game being shown to the left, figuring it would be better soccer, but the U.S.-Ghana was the game that 95% of the folks in the cafe were watching, it was projected larger and its commentary was being played louder, and the sheer energy and physical grace of Ghana's players drew my attention away from the more technically sophisticated European match.

I was happy to see England eliminated, I thought they were playing coarse, sloppy, get-it-done soccer. Against Ecuador in the round of 16, they just kind of pushed their way around the field until a free kick just outside of Ecuador's penalty box allowed them to bring in the specialized artillery — the famous Beckham and his ability to bend — for a 1-0 victory. It was too bad the Portugese weren't able to take them out with more style — if Portugal had played the way they did against France in the semis or Germany in the consolation match, they wouldn't have needed to go to the penalty kicks — but the penalty kicks did give Portugal's goal-keeper a chance to remind the world that defending against penalty kicks isn't just luck.

The France versus Brazil game was the highlight of the cup. The Brazilian players — and ok, I was probably rooting for them because of their amazing social movements as well as their amazingly beautiful play — have an astounding capacity to control the ball, to just pluck a careening ball out of the air with a tap of the foot or an angling of the chest and have it drop, perfectly docile, right at their feet. And then to find the next player, calculate the angles to the minutest of tolerances, and propel the ball through the opening as soon as it appears and moments before it closes. And in this game, the French played the same game, but even better — with Zidane, as the commentator put it, "pulling the strings" from the midfield.

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In the final match, E was rooting for Italy, and made a little Italian flag to take to the cafe. On the walk down, I explained that I was sort of rooting for France -- because they had played such an awesome game against Brazil — but that the thing I liked about the Italian team was that they play such a strong team game, with no real stars (altogether ten different Italian players scored goals during the cup), and that there is beauty not just in individual grace, but also in organization.