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The World Cup Wrap-Up: Why this World Cup will hurt the chances of soccer in America, best goals & national anthem and the underbelly of the competition

July 15, 2010 1 comment

Part 1: An underwhelming World Cup with a worthy champion.

Farewell until Rio...

The curtains have officially closed on the 2010 World Cup and I am surprisingly unfazed. I thought that I would feel anxious and saddened by the fact I would have to wait another four years for my World Cup fix; that simply has not been the case. It may have something to do with the fact that this year’s edition of the world’s greatest sports competition was an oddity. There were few roller-coaster matches, no classic encounters, a visible lack of big stars and a cynical, nervy, often negative final match that was mired by a multitude of fouls and a hesitant referee.

The first act of the competition saw 2006’s finalists – France and Italy – exit ignominiously, while the finale saw two European powers – who had never won the Cup before last Sunday – vying for what was once believed unattainable. For the final matchup alone, this World Cup was intriguing. Spain ended up winning the Cup, deservedly so, for the first time in their history due to their display of a style that celebrated slick possession and movement over direct play and goals. Spain had to work hard for their goals in large part due to the opposition putting their players behind the ball and hoping for a counter-attack. The fact that they won the Cup is a testimony to the failure of this strategy and the superior class of the Spanish side. Bravo. Here’s a bit more insight…

The zeitgeist of this tournament proved to be defense and the counter-attack; a style of play perfected by Jose Mourinho, the current boss of Real Madrid. His Inter Milan squad of 2009-2010 succeeded in defeating the all-powerful FC Barcelona in this year’s Champions League Final using the logic of having the opposition hold onto the ball for the majority of the game while keeping defensive shape and quickly taking advantage on the counter. The World Cup Final pitted Spain, a team largely composed of Barcelona players and founded on possession, against the Netherlands, a team who slowly shed the colorful and flamboyant “Dutch” play for a style most in-line with Mourinho’s Inter Milan. According to the de-facto Dutch national philosopher on soccer matters, legend Johan Cruyff, the Oranje renounced their traditional style and played “anti-football” on the pitch. The embodiment of this unfortunate transformation of the Dutch team was Marc Van Bommel. The ultimate enforcer, he was like your friend in grade school who quietly stirred-up a lot of trouble but was never punished for it. Fact: Van Bommel did not receive a SINGLE yellow card for his malicious and incessant fouling until the final against Spain. It was unfortunate to see a team traditionally respected for its creative use of space and fluidity around the pitch resorting to fouling the Spaniards as their only way to slow them and gain a semblance of control in the game. In the end, the “beautiful”game prevailed but I was left underwhelmed. The interminable histrionics and continual fouling led me to walk away from the final happy for Spain but unhappy with how it all went down.

In contrast, the Germany vs. Uruguay 3rd place match gave us a teasing display of the kind of back and forth game that we wanted to see throughout the tournament; the teams were unafraid to make forays into the opposition’s half and they were willing to give up goals as a result. It was a thoroughly entertaining game.

Bold prediction: this World Cup did not help the case for those in America striving to prove to the traditionalists (American football, baseball and basketball fans) that soccer is an entertaining and enjoyable sport to watch. It’s surely not the fact that the games were low-scoring; the beautiful game has always been low-scoring. Rather, it was the way the game was played and the lack of flair and audacity — the stuff that make people’s jaws drop, bar tabs rise, and spirits lift. It all makes a sad truth for American soccer fans.

Part two: Goals of the tournament, best celebration and best national anthem.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst

Siphiwe Tshabalala

Diego Forlan – World class from the Golden Ball winner

Surprise of the Tournament: Uruguay

Reaching their first semifinals since 1970, the Uruguayans proved to be an industrious, well-organized, and an ultimately creative side to watch. The 3rd place match against Germany was the best tie of the tournament.

Disappointment of the tournament: The “marquee” stars

Rooney, Ronaldo and, to a lesser extent, Messi are just a few of the names on the list of the game’s superstars who failed to perform on the highest stage. What can explain this? I would wager fatigue from long domestic campaigns and, of course, pressure to succeed for their home country and not just for a multinational club.

Best Goal Celebration:

The Black Stars’ celebration after scoring against Australia takes the cake.

Best National Anthem:

One part opera, the other part pop song. I’ll be playing this at a party. Maybe not, but it’s still a cool song.

Part 3: The underbelly of the World Cup.

While the tournament was a bit underwhelming, we can at least say that the social, economic and political gains from having the World Cup in South Africa were significant, right? Well, yes and no. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point to scholarly research which shows that the anticipated “economic bonanza” a World Cup is purported to bring (jobs, boost in tourism, investment ,etc.) is, in fact, a misleading notion. Countries compete to host the World Cup because it makes them feel as if they are in the world’s elite and fosters a sense of national solidarity amongst the various classes and groups of society. Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, presides over a country with the largest gap between rich and poor in the world and where a third of the population lives off of less than $2 a day. Before the World Cup, he had to grapple with riots in the shantytowns as well as trying to find new schemes to lower his country’s high unemployment rate. There were many critics who voiced their concern over South Africa hosting the World Cup due to the amount of money that would be spent on infrastructure and stadiums. Improved roads and trains are politically and socially viable goods that can be used after the competition, while the state-of-the-art stadiums will be much harder to fill. (The majority of Japan’s glittering stadiums used in the 2002 World Cup are largely unused to this day; almost lurking in the background to be used as chips for future World Cup bids).

Tom Humphries of the Irish Times recently wrote a decidedly scathing op-ed entitled, “Bye South Africa, thanks for being had by us” in which he sheds light on the underbelly of the World Cup. FIFA, or as Humphries likes to call them – “the pin-striped mafia” – were sitting on €2.6 billion in TV and marketing rights before the competition even began and will walk away with the lion’s share of profits. Underestimating the cost of building the stadiums caused the final price-tag to be 2 billion rand more than initially planned. Host cities were thus obligated to pick up the excess. Upwards of 355,000 unsold tickets forced the South African government to buy up tickets and sell them to their own people at subsidized rates. Meanwhile, 450,000 pre-booked rooms were put back onto the market by Market AG after overestimating the number of visitors. The ubiquitous markers of global capitalism superseded the local culture as colorful street vendors in front of stadiums were replaced by proper sponsors’ tents. What should we make of all of this? Is FIFA essentially offering the glitz and glamour of the world’s most popular sporting even while effectively stripping it of the selected host’s local culture and flavor for the benefit of global capitalism? Was the only truly South African contribution to the World Cup the vuvuzela?

There are all questions that should to be seriously pondered as we head into World Cup 2014 in still-developing Brazil…

The Birthers Just Don’t Quit

July 13, 2010 7 comments

As we’ve already discussed at the Fodder, America seems to be a on a path of divergence so drastic that the gap between left and right is becoming too cavernous to bridge. This article is about the issue that perfectly epitomizes this divide…

The 2008 election brought out the worst in average Americans with polarizing ideologies; threats, hate crimes, slurs, etc. One of the more volatile and ludicrous theories, and flabbergastingly the one with the most staying power, to emerge from Election 2008 was the notion that President Obama was not born in the United States. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason, or reasons, for the traction that this rumor gained during the campaign. Most likely though, it was one part internet sensationalism, one part fear and one part Lou Dobbs; a good recipe for any absurdity to permeate a citizenry. Whatever the reason was, the Birther movement was born.

It's where it's supposed to be, in Honolulu.

Bizarrely, going on two years into the President’s term, the Birther movement may be getting stronger. Yesterday, the petulant Senator David Vitter, of scandalous infamy, was caught on video disgustingly backing progressing conservative lawsuits (just one example) challenging the legality of the President’s citizenship. We’re way past the stage of mincing words on this subject. When the Birther movement was in its nascent state, it was not taken seriously by the Obama campaign. As the story gained legs, the campaign released (acrimoniously?) a digitally scanned copy of the then candidate’s birth certificate. That should have been that. The Hawaiian State Department of Health confirmed, twice (TWICE!!), that the certificate was authentic. What more do people need? Are we to conclude the whole federal government and state government of Hawaii are involved in a massive conspiracy covering up the true birthplace of PRESIDENT Barack Hussein Obama II? That is over two million federal employees alone. That must have been one well-written memo getting everyone onboard the conspiracy train. Really, how is the Administration even supposed to prove to people, who believe so ardently in an illogical idea, that President Obama was born in the United Sates? Make photocopies of the birth certificate and send it to everyone who identifies as a Birther? I can hear it now, “THIS is a government fake! They made it up. He was born in Kenya! He was born in Indonesia! He was born in Russia!” As we like to say at the Fodder, “Just get better.”

The Seal of the most powerful man in the world. It MUST command respect, no matter what party or background one comes from.

In all of my political and international affairs posts, I try to keep a levelheaded, unbiased approach to reporting issues that we believe should be talked about. This, however, is a different subject. I have no use for it. Once upon a time, the Presidential seal demanded respect. When did that change? President Obama is the legally elected President of this great United States of America. That is a fact and the end of the story for me. Love it or hate it, that’s how it should be. It sadly isn’t.

What is clear is that there are right-wing, fringe nut-jobs that will not let the birthplace issue rest. They have a mission and they will go down swinging. Unfortunately, it seems that they will aided and abetted by irresponsible members of Congress. I say irresponsible because it is irresponsible. There is no upside in debating this issue. This is not a way to rigorously debate topics – the economy, unemployment, national debt, social security, two ongoing wars – that are plaguing our country in a time of crisis. It’s democratically damaging. It’s bad for the process and our national psyche. So I say, with all seriousness, shame on Senator Vitter, Rep. Trent Franks, Lou Dobbs, Fox News and all the rest of the media, politicians and demagogues that keep dragging this issue to national attention. This country does not need such nonsense.

Here’s a cute clip from Fox News. Not really putting the issue to rest are you Anne Coulter?

Mugabe’s Diamonds

June 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Western understanding of African conflict, unfortunately generalized, comes through a set of pre-designed hot button words and issues. Corruption. Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Cronyism. Ethnic tension. And of course blood diamonds. Gaining prominence during Sierra Leone’s civil war and solidifying itself in the international psyche with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond, the blood diamond has come to embody the perversion of Africa’s mineral wealth. Once again, they are back in the news. Beginning in January, human rights groups began to raise questions about how Zimbabwean diamonds were being mined. Accusations that the military was using forced labor to extricate the gems began an international campaign to put pressure on Robert Mugabe’s regime to reform their practices. As a microcosm of Mr. Mugabe’s disastrous reign, Zimbabwean’s diamond trade is at a deadlock. As one of the final outlets of wealth in Zimbabwe, does the end of the diamond trade signal a tipping point in the stranglehold of President Mugabe?

Mugabe and diamonds.

As one of Africa’s independence heros, Robert Mugabe assumed the Presidency of Zimbabwe in 1987 and has never looked back. Calamitous land reform acts, ruthless suppression of the opposition and the media and horrendous economic policy have turned Zimbabwe from the African “City on a Hill” to a tragic example of how to ruin unlimited potential. Stuck in a cycle of crippling hyperinflation and with an estimated unemployment rate of 95%, the Zimbabwean economy is in utter shambles without much possibility of improvement. You would think that with such egregious statistics the Mugabe administration would be feeling the pressure to leave office. That has not happened. Other than rampant violence after the 2008 Presidential election, there has been little to shake the confidence of the African big man and his Zanu-PF party.

So what will be the catalyst to drive Mr. Mugabe out of office? It seems counterintuitive that a mechanism of the rich, the diamond, may in fact be a step towards that goal. There may be merit in it though. Mr. Mugabe and his cronies are protected by the military and the elite; those that still have any money at least. Standard neopartimonial theory dictates that “strong man” regimes can only function as long as there is money to keep that strong man’s (Mr. Mugabe in this case.) underlings happy. Reality dictates that Zimbabwe is very close to being completely stripped of the processes in which to accumulate wealth. No wealth, no cronyism. No cronyism, no dictatorship. It is a thought at the very least.

As of today, the Kimberly Process remains at a standstill at what to do about Zimbabwe’s diamonds. Further skewed by the recent arrest of a human rights activist, the trials and tribulations of Zimbabwe’s precious gems and its fallout will have to be followed with keen eye. While this will probably not be the beginning of the end for Mr. Mugabe, it is another step in a road that will eventually lead to his dethronement. Until then, Zimbabwean citizens will have to hope for a better day when they are responsible for their country’s mineral wealth, elections, military, economy and civil society instead of the money hungry, selfish and corrupt Zanu-PF.