On football, nationalism and cantaloupes

There are probably other things going on in the world besides football/soccer. Wars, Zarqawi’s death, violence in Palestine again. But around us here every day is football, which provides its own lessons in international relations.

A bit of texture first: All of Berlin, at least, is dedicated to watching as many minutes of the thrice-daily games as possible. Virtually all cafes and bars have screens. With Keena and Grigo in town, we have watched in tree-shaded beer gardens with hundreds of fans, in tiny cafes with just a few, and yesterday under the draining afternoon sun in a 10,000 seat replica of the Olympic stadium recreated in front of the Reichstag. All the newspapers cover it intensively, with even the intellectual sheets printing cheesecake shots of superstar Brazilian Ronaldinho emerging from the sea in shall we say tight shorts.

I’ve been a USA supporter, which isn’t a popular position here. I argued briefly (and somewhat drunkenly) with a German friend the other day about what role the US should play. She was genuinely fearful that the Americans would be good. What if they won, she asked. They invaded Iraq. They dominate everything. Not football too.

(Anders, a British activist and playwright, reassured her that Americans winning was about as likely as a cantaloupe growing a nose, so it wasn’t worth getting upset about. Which, as yesterday’s game showed, was probably generous.)

I argued that the US needs a way to be integrated into the world community, and that football could help provide this. Our sports, and most of our popular culture, are deeply insular. Our football takes no account of other countries. Basketball barely so. Baseball is excellent at inspiring players to come from Latin America and Japan, but who watched the World Baseball Classic? The rest of our pop culture sometimes allows movies or music in from England, occasionally from Japan or elsewhere, but they are marginal at best.

I still think it would be valuable for the US to become a persistent and contributing member of the international football world. But watching Ghana and Italy yesterday, I felt what a tragedy it would be if the USA did win. Talking to Anders this morning, I understood how deeply insulted the rest of the world, which literally lives, breathes, and drinks heavily to this sport, would be.

Of course if the U.S. team deserved it, they should win. Sports are sports, and must be treated first and foremost on that level. But football is deeply intertwined with both nationalism and internationalism in a way that I think Americans don’t fully understand. Victory in the World Cup entails a kind of responsibility to the rest of the world, an acknowledgment of reciprocal ties renewed every four years. Because the U.S. doesn’t feel those ties, victory would be too widely percieved at home only as victory, shallow and one-dimensional.

The World Cup is about the only thing these days that brings everybody together, except for war, Anders said this morning. It is a sad thing that the U.S. has such a paltry place in that first community, and is defined to the rest of the world by the other.