PARIS — Ghana recently knocked the USA out of the soccer World Cup. You’re already forgiven for not noticing. Even diehard American sports fans can probably more readily name five supermodels from the latest Sports Illustrated calendar than they could five Team USA soccer players (hint: David Beckham isn’t one of them).
When Ghana won, a fan wrote on the FIFA website that the U.S. used to rule the world but now will learn that it’s changing. Eighteen years without a dictator running your country is a good start, but let’s not confuse life with a game. When this can be achieved, then you’ll know you’ve really matured. (Incidentally, as a woman I use the same criteria to select boyfriends.) Note, for example, how Germany can beat England at the World Cup without causing anyone to experience atrocious flashbacks to the 1940s.
Interesting, isn’t it, how the various teams in this tournament are cultural microcosms of their representative countries? In the case of Team USA, getting angry in the wake of a World Cup defeat is a bit like flipping out a 5-year old who beats you in a potato sack race: He still has no real power in life.
Any USA supporters can dismount this bandwagon with a shrug in the same way that one would disembark the coaster at Coney Island. The excitement doesn’t bleed into the next day, or week, or month. If any homecoming parade were to ensue, most people would just be annoyed by the resulting traffic jam.
I can’t help but notice how many teams from countries still struggling with simple issues such as hygiene and running water are just so happy to be participating. Like they can’t believe they’re invited and getting so much attention in the absence of a television advertising campaign, a group song, or Bono. The only other place these countries receive so much disproportionate attention is at the United Nations General Assembly.
North Korea’s team did what you’d expect them to do (before ultimately losing): defect, almost as soon as their feet touched foreign soil, in an attempt to start a better life in one of the world’s biggest crime capitals (Johannesburg). But just like back home, they were found and brought back into the fold by a manager who claims to chat on a cell with Kim Jong-Il during matches—lest anyone think the dictator is blasé about something as significant as grown men hitting balls with their feet.
Speaking of which—the French team still hasn’t recovered from the relentless ball-kicking administered by their countrymen since the team’s first-round defeat. Only one team can win the World Cup, and that team apparently had to be France. And since it wasn’t, there will be a parliamentary inquiry into the ordeal. French children are disappointed—more embarrassed on the world stage by Team France than they ever were by the presidencies of Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand.
Sports fans at my gym in Paris were more aghast at the early loss than they are by the fact that the gym’s air conditioning has been broken for at least a month in up to 95F summer heat.
Mysterious drama between players and staff of the French team was beamed into homes and dissected for days on end, negating the need to take in a French film at the local cinema. The French players went on strike for dubious reasons—just like much of France did last week, bunging up subway and airport traffic.
France Soir newspaper’s headline pleaded with the team to “respect” those who care about them—much like a French wife who just discovered the man whose dirty underwear she lovingly washes has let her down. “We Want Goals!” screamed the same newspaper’s headline a few days earlier, as though the players were mooching public funds. Class envy carved out a place in the debate: “They’re spoiled millionaires!” Last I checked, none of them inherited their millions. At some point, market forces compensated their talents. The market will also determine their downfall, with or without any intensely directed jealousy. Either way, your life won’t personally improve.
“But they are disgracing the uniform!” I was told. Oh, right. Like that hasn’t happened since the Napoleonic Wars. Now suddenly it’s a national emergency? Mediocrity doesn’t entrench itself this reliably overnight. What the French are now witnessing is the culmination of directed efforts in this regard over centuries, and accelerated over the past few decades. Excellence has been culturally bred out, with the Equipe de France being the coup de grace.
So sit back and enjoy the remaining 10 years left in this World Cup. It can’t hurt any.