I tried to keep away, believe me... Last night, right after the movers departed with our possessions, I donned my Stephen Appiah shirt and headed to the WGBH studios to make an appearance on Radio Open Source to dispense some toli on the World Cup and sports as a leading indicator. You can download the podcast to listen if you care. It was my last Bostonian hurrah with Christopher Lydon, Chelsea Merz and crew, a show packed with both erudition and down home punditry. On the phone were Robert Lipsyte, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Patrick Belton and John Ralston Saul - cosmpolitans and sports lovers all.
Chris's pitch for the show was simple
What is this comprehensive "globalization" of sports stars, money, victory all about?These were some notes I sent him over the weekend, my talking points, if you like, about possible directions for the topic: sports as leading indicator and sports as globalization off the top of my head.
What is the story unfolding in this World Cup summer of empires falling and rising — empires of money and fashion as well as of national pride and prestige?
On Sports as a Leading Indicator
You'd have to talk about the French team and its composition.
Zidane as the street gladiator. 17 of the 23 players are minorities. Cosmopolitans?
You'd also have to talk about how they are looked at by their countrymen... With love by most, but ambivalence or outright hostility by some (e.g. Jean Marie Le Pen).
You'd have to talk about the changing nature of the game and how everyone plays in Europe. The Brazilians have made almost one billion dollars selling their players to European teams. The Africans too, and these days many of the African teams were playing a very European game with only flashes of their previous freer flowing style.
What about identity and allegiances? I've pondered it recently.
Brazil, Argentina and Old Europe as the Great Powers; South Korea's showing in the last World Cup. Australia doing better than the US this time.
Rupert Murdoch built his empire on sports: Sky satellites... Fox Sports World and elsewhere as the expression of his parochial interests. The problem with the coverage: all highlights, all sensational, all superficial, all triumph over adversity, missing the subtext. Compare
to Fox News.
Connect to the entirely ridiculous coverage by ESPN/ABC. Less said on that. I watched it all on Univision. This bit by Jeff Klein of the New York Times covers it all: The Sins of American Sportscasting.
Dana Blankenhorn too wrote about The Greatest Game Ever Played
Americans still have no clue about the World Cup, or of soccer in general.Tony Karon, whose coverage was excellent, had piped in earlier with How to Watch the World Cup.
The U.S. announcers are horrible. They talk about everything but the game in front of them. They repeat the back-story endlessly. They assume the ending and look two games ahead. They talk about other shows to be on the next day or the next week.
I have a pretty good idea where Osama bin Laden will be on June 14 -- and June 19, and again on June 23. Not his exact location, but it's a safe bet he'll be in front of a TV tuned in to Saudi Arabia's World Cup soccer matches with, respectively, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Spain.
You'd have to talk about America's place in sports. Great Power? Things Fall Apart? Decline and Fall? I don't know but small things add up. You need some joie de vivre and the sports headlines should be providing comfort.
It was not a good 4th of July... No McEnroe, no Connors, no Agassi, no Sampras or Roddick, no Venus, no Serena, no Lindsay Davenport winning at Wimbledon. Instead a Swiss guy and a Spaniard are providing the excitement. And what about that tall Chinese woman who made the quarter finals and gave Clujsters the fits, Li Na? What about feet binding? The Chinese are coming...
Nathan's hot dog eating competition was won by Kobayashi again, a small Japanese guy out-ate red-blooded Americans. Hot dogs for God's sake.
If you watched the world cup on Independence Day you would have seen Italy against Germany (weren't they part of the original Axis of Evil back in the World War?).
The US team had been knocked out by Ghana, and it was the "Nigerian" player who bumped the guy and gave away the crucial penalty. Where is Ghana on the map again? And Ghana beat the Czechs, the number 2 team?
If you read the news, the front page of the New York Times showed a baby faced soldier in chains accused of rape and murder of a 15 year old girl and her family in Iraq, echoes of Abu Ghraib, erustication. He was wearing a black Johnny Cash shirt and looked vaguely gothic and troubled.
If you went to the movies you would have to make sure you didn't see An Inconvenient Truth, The Road to Guantanamo Bay or Army of Shadows as you got your Superman Returns tickets.
Things like that put a damper on the fireworks...
On the other hand, it is silly season, just a few bad apples. In other news, the Israelis are using American tanks to blow up Palestinian bridges and power stations...
You'd have to talk about Italy winning with deadly efficiency. You'd also have to mention the corruption back home in their football league.
Sports is big business, the global brand.
You'd have to talk about Fifa and the International Olympic Commision, bureaucracies created by
English and Frenchmen but now totally their own thing. Who was that Spaniard at the IOC with his corrupt ways?
You could talk about how tribal identities are forged when you watch sports.
Sports bind the US more even than religion since there is that Church/State separation business.
The Germans started buying flags once again since their team did so well this time.
Gamesmanship: Portugal's diving cynicism and the head butts in the Netherlands match.
Togo and Cote d'Ivoire have been on the brink of a civil war but were queiscent for the past few months since their teams made it to the cup. What will the future bring?
In Ghana there is considerable nationalism now based on the way the team played. We came to win and did well. The nation fully expected that the cup would come back with the boys. Ghana flags are flying everywhere these days. Will this feeling be capitalized on in the economic sphere?
Yannick Noah, the great French tennis player, was French when he won but was characteristically "of Cameroonian descent" when he lost. Similarly, the coverage of Zidane, and the urge to "understand" his actions, focuses on his Algerian immigrant upbringing. Wayne Rooney, who similarly lost his cool and shoved Ronaldo to be sent off must comes from the same immigrant school of hard knocks I suppose, as does Luis Figo whose head butt was unprovoked. Right?
Silvio Berlusconi's political career was supercharged by his ownership of a football club. How he would have loved to bask in the triumph of the Azzurris, the colour and slogan of his political party if he were still Prime Minister. Instead he was indicted for fraud days before the final.
I don't quite buy the argument that Americans only care about "their" sports (NFL, baseball, Nascar etc.) and will always remain indifferent to football and the World Cup. If there is one thing that America understands, it is attention and the impact of large numbers. Branding is the signal contribution America has made to the world. That is why there is a "World Series" in baseball even though much of the world doesn't play that game. Hence the excitement of a truly global game like football, one that literally is the lingua franca of the entire world, will permeate consciousness and attract participation. Soccer children will become the next generation's soccer moms and dads and will want to see their heroes make it on the global stage. Join the queue.
Wolves and Emperors
During the show, I tried to handwave a little about this notion of sports as a leading indicator, mixing my metaphors as is my custom, and I should explain what I was getting at. Poetically I started with the focus on small things like the current poor performance of the US in sports. Someone had brought up the Duke of Wellington in the conversation, but I rather harkened to The Boy Who Cried Wolf in that folktale as a leading indicator of perils that faced his community... To relate that to another folktale, the message in these leading indicators is often that The Emperor has no clothes. And I'd hazard that we are currently living in an imperial moment. The difference between the reception of the boy who cried wolf and the devastating impact of the boy who pointed out the emperor's hubris was that the words were said at a parade. Thus it is at social events or gatherings that we reflect on the zeitgeist and see things in their true light. Sporting events like our ceremonies and our public holidays are the grand events when communities come together. Politicians can't control the zeitgeist, nor can big businesses really control the human drama of sporting events. Still they can try, and I can recall Mr Bush delivering turkeys to the troops one recent Thanksgiving. I'm not so sure that there has been much comfort in this silly season of our discontent however. But perhaps one shouldn't make too much of these things.
In any case, head nods are due to my fellow panelists and to the Open Source crew who conjure up news feverishly every day, Chelsea, David, Brendan, Robin and the rest. The conversation continues apace.
File under: sports, football, world cup, soccer, Ghana, USA, media, radio, Open Source, globalization, commerce, tribes, empire, decline, Small Things, punditry, toli