One striking feature of World Cup 2010 so far: bad teams are producing almost all the excitement.
By “bad,” I do not refer to the hilarious Paris Commune-repeats-itself-as-farce calamity of France; England’s wan, irritable performance; Italy’s stutters; Germany’s wobble; Spain’s lackluster opener. No, those cases show actually good teams (or solid football traditions, or decent-on-paper squads, anyway) succumbing to various combinations of age, luck, early tournament nerves, ferocious opposition, or, in one case, a national tendency to stop working at key moments and issue manifestos.
No, I’m talking about the teams that made this World Cup as multiculti cannon fodder, but which have instead produced the tournament’s most surprising and stirring moments. I’m talking about New Zealand, a team featuring part-time players, standing unbeaten so far and truly unlucky not to claim a win over defending champion Italy. Slovenia, the smallest nation in the field, leads both England and the USA, and has invented a divertingly odd post-goal group celebration. Tough-as-nails Algeria looked, at times, like they were going to run England off the pitch the other day. Even the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea managed to produce one genuinely thrilling moment when they scored against mighty Brazil.
And that was before today’s amazing 10-0 victory over Portugal, achieved through the Juche Idea of Socialist Self-Reliance and on-the-spot guidance from Kim Jong Il beamed via a secret communications system.
If you stretch this definition of team badness, you could even include Switzerland’s midnight smash-and-grab against fashionable Spain, or even Team America Fighting’s defiant draw with England. In this World Cup, you can’t go into any match assuming that the fancy team will win. And that points out one of the sport’s signal features—one that makes it initially frustrating to many, no doubt. The sport lends itself to asymmetrical warfare.
This World Cup hasn’t really generated a sweeping pronouncement about the state of the game—far too early for that sort of thing, unless you work for the British press—but it has shown what a bunch of nobodies who know how to run a tight, well-structured defense can do. They can draw Italy, is what. In soccer, stubbornness, hard graft, organization and guile are the great equalizers—they won’t win the league, but for 90 minutes, they can thwart the Great Powers.
When you hear that Algeria actually warmed up for the England match by watching Pontecorvo’s classic guerrilla warfare flick The Battle of Algiers, the metaphor becomes almost too watertight. A solid back four and a couple skilled holding midfielders are the football equivalent of a closed-mouthed mountain village or a cellular organization of gonzo teenagers who don’t know they’re mortal. The last 25 meters of the pitch can become the Northwest Frontier, where the Empire bogs down. A goalkeeper on a blinder can be the shadowy would-be generalissimo who leads from deep behind the lines.
Are these the pretty things that sell soccer and suntan oil? No. They are precisely the factors that drive fans and non-fans alike semi-mental. But we need to respect these dark and unlovely arts, because they make football something more than skills exhibition put on by male models. They make football possible. They are the weapons of the weak.