Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Sip from the World Cup...

Thoughts from Ashley Woodiwiss...

For some the Cup thus far has been a disappointment.

There have been costly mistakes made by usually sure-handed goalkeepers, there have been controversial calls made be referees affecting the outcomes of matches (and the future tournament fate of teams), there has been a general low level of play, there has been the sputtering of traditional soccer greats France, Italy, and England (all of whom face the real possibility of being eliminated in short order). And especially for the French there has been national embarrassment as their team not only fails to perform on the pitch but has matched that with a complete internal meltdown culminating in the players simply leaving their practice field and refusing to train.

For U.S. fans specifically, there continues the usual World Cup emotional roller-coaster of not knowing which U.S. team will show up on the pitch. The Yanks, too, are on the brink of elimination. And of course there is sadness in South Africa (though in truth, not completely unexpected) in the woeful record of the six African nations, with only Ghana in a strong position to go through to the round of sixteen. And then there are the vuvuzelas, those incessantly blowing horns customary in Africa and nettlesome to non-African players, coaches and commentators. With their sound likened to a swarm of angry wasps, though at jet airplane decibel levels, the buzz is omnipresent at every stadium and during ESPN's coverage. There was talk early that FIFA, world soccer's governing board, would ban the instruments, but they didn't and so the wasps swarm on.

But in fact, one's response to the vuvzuelas may be a good Rorschach test for responding to the Cup so far. While for some the vuvuzelas represent all that's been wrong with the Cup, for others they capture the spirit of this Cup and its host continent. It's all part of the narrative. So while the Cup has been a disappointment for some, for others it has been dramatic. There have been several David-Goliath matches in which minor soccer powers (Switzerland! New Zealand! Algeria!) have tied or even defeated their mighty opponents (Spain! Italy! England!). There has been the joy of African goals and especially host South Africa's goal in the opening match that set the vuvuzelas blaring and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to dancing in his VIP box. There have been glimpses of brilliant play from Germany, Argentina, and, on Saturday, from Brazil. And there has been the magic of Argentina's striker Lionel Messi, who turns 23 this Thursday. He has not scored a goal at this Cup, but through his sheer brilliance in ball-control and passing and his threatening presence, Messi is clearly this tournament's most valuable player to date. While some bemoan the fate of the major European powers, there has also been pleasure in watching the rise of tiny Slovenia, perhaps best known to readers of B&C as home to philosopher Slavoj Zizek. This nation, so small that it has been estimated that 248 Slovenias could fit into the U.S., also has a prime minister who promised to clean the boots of the Slovenian team if they qualified for the World Cup. They did, and he did. At the moment they sit atop Group C. To watch the success of Slovenia (and other minor powers like New Zealand, and South America's Paraguay, Chile, and Uruguay) is to imbibe the beauty of the Cup. To dance with them following a goal, a dance described as a slow-footed circling of happy trees in the Slovenian Alps, is to enter into the joy of the Cup.

Has the Cup been a disappointment? Yes, surely it has. Has it also had its moments of joy? To be sure. So sound the vuvuzelas, and let's get ready for more. It's a beautiful day.