There are many beautiful things about being an American fan of men's World Cup soccer—foremost among them is ignorance. The community in which you were raised did not gather around the television set every four years for a solid, breathless month. Your country has never won. You can pick whatever team you like best and root for it without shame or fear of reprisal. You have not been indoctrinated into unwanted-yet-inescapable tribal allegiances by your soccer-crazed countrymen. You are an amateur, in the purest sense of the word. So with the World Cup taking place this month in Germany—and the World Cup is the only truly international sporting event on the planet (no, the Olympics, with their overwhelming clutter of boutique athletics, do not matter in the same way)—you can expect to spend the month in paradise.
That's what I do. The world of the World Cup is the one I want to live in. I cannot resist its United Nations–like pageantry and high-mindedness, the apolitical display of national characteristics, the revelation of deep human flaws and unexpected greatnesses, the fact that entire nations walk off the job or wake up at 3 a.m. to watch men kick a ball. There are countries that have truly multiracial squads—France, England, and the United States—while other teams are entirely blond or Asian or Latin American. A Slovakian tire salesman, an Italian cop, or a German concert pianist—having passed the official fitness tests—will moonlight as referee. There are irritating fans: "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" (Blessedly few.) There are children who hold hands with each player as he walks onto the field. National anthems play. Men paint themselves their national colors and cry openly at defeat. An announcer shouts "GOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLL! GOL, GOL, GOL!" on the Spanish-language channel you're watching. (It's often the only way you can see the game live.) There are two back-to-back 45-minute segments without commercials. To quote the book every traveling athlete finds in his hotel room: "Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven." Or, as my copy of "Soccer and Its Rules" says: "Are you ready? Ready to cheer the players to victory, marvel at their fitness, speed, and skills, urging them to win every tackle for the ball, ready to explode at a powerful shot? Ready for the excitement of flying wingers, overlapping backs, curling corners, slick one-two passing and goals scored with panache? Ready for another moment in a fantasy world?"
I am ready.
Soccer's worldwide popularity isn't surprising when you look at what has always motivated humanity: money and God. There's lots of money in soccer, of course. Club soccer (like capitalism) is basically the childlike desire to make dreams come true, no matter what the cost, realized by men with enough money to combine such commodities as the best Brazilian attacker, Dutch midfielder, British defender, and German goalie and turn them loose on whatever the other billionaires can put together—an unfair situation that describes much of the world these days. But the divine's there, too. What is soccer if not everything that religion should be? Universal yet particular, the source of an infinitely renewable supply of hope, occasionally miraculous, and governed by simple, uncontradictory rules ("laws," officially) that everyone can follow. Soccer's laws are laws of equality and nonviolence and restraint, and free to be reinterpreted at the discretion of a reasonable arbiter. What the ref says goes, no matter how flagrantly in violation of dogma his decisions may be. My official rule book, after presenting a detailed enumeration of soccer's 17 laws, concludes that the ref can throw out any of them in order to apply what it rather mystically calls "the spirit of fair play."
The religious undercurrent in soccer runs especially deep in World Cup years. Teams from across the globe converge on the host nation in something of an unarmed, athletic crusade. As in the Crusades, the host nation tends to repel them. There's a weird power in home-team advantage. Hosts find a level of success disproportionate to their talents on paper, triumphing over stronger teams, as if exerting a gravitational pull on the game, causing it to be played the way they want to play it, as if, to carry this metaphor to its inevitable conclusion, God were on their side.
It's well-known that soccer, like religion, can provoke violence—hooliganism and tramplings at overcrowded, Mecca-mid-hajj-like stadiums are what many Americans assume about the game. But soccer has also proved unique in its ability to bridge differences and overturn national prejudices. The fact that the World Cup could even take place in South Korea and in Japan, as it did in 2002, was a victory for tolerance and understanding. In less than half a century South Korea had gone from not allowing the Japanese national team to cross its borders for a World Cup qualifier, to co-hosting the tournament with the former occupier. Give the world another 50 years and we might see the Cup co-hosted by Israel and Palestine.
And why not? Soccer's universality is its simplicity—the fact that the game can be played anywhere with anything. Urban children kick the can on concrete and rural kids kick a rag wrapped around a rag wrapped around a rag, barefoot, on dirt. Soccer is something to believe in now, perhaps empty at its core, but not a stand-in for anything else.
The beautiful game—let's call it business and religion combined—will be at its most unfair, frustrating, and magnificent this month in unified Germany's first World Cup. And what makes the World Cup most beautiful is the world, all of us together. The joy of being one of the billion or more people watching 32 countries abide by 17 rules fills me with the conviction, perhaps ignorant, but like many ignorant convictions, fiercely held, that soccer can unite us all.
Read Sean Wilsey's entire essay "World Cup 2002: Recap, Results and Statistics." He is the author of the memoir Oh the Glory of It All and the editor-at-large at McSweeney's Quarterly, a literary journal.
The Way to Win: Juju on the Field
By Paul Laity
The party began at ten to six. Ivory Coast had just qualified for the World Cup—for the first time ever. In an instant, the city of Abidjan was full of people and noise. Fans in tangerine and white and green poured onto the streets, drivers hooted their horns; loud zouglou music was playing, and pots and pans were joyously banged. The partygoers danced a new dance, the "Drogbacité," named in honor of the team's star striker, Didier Drogba: They mimed his feints, turns, and the unleashing of unstoppable shots. Others tried out the fouka-fouka, Drogba's trademark celebratory hip-swivel—a little piece of Ivoirian culture known to soccer fans everywhere. The maquis—open-air cafés, bars, and mini-nightclubs—stayed open all night serving "Drogbas," bottles of local beer, so called because of their size and potency. A number of the drinkers had "Les Éléphants" painted on their chests, the nickname of the national team: Elephants represent power and are said to be lucky, too—protected by a spell. The team had suffered its share of disappointments; finally, the name seemed appropriate. Excited fans announced that soccer could do more than any politician to put an end to the civil war.
Over the past six years, the Ivory Coast's southern-based regime has fomented hatred of immigrants and Muslims, yet many of the country's best soccer players are from Muslim and immigrant families, so the national team has become an irresistible symbol of unity. At the end of the Abidjan victory parade, the head of the Ivory Coast Football Federation addressed a plea to President Laurent Gbagbo: "The players have asked me to tell you that what they most want now is for our divided country to become one again. They want this victory to act as a catalyst for peace in Ivory Coast, to put an end to the conflict and to reunite its people. This success must bring us together." The party on the streets lasted another whole day.
President Gbagbo did his best to be identified with the conquering team. He talked of a rejuvenated nation and gave each of the players the equivalent of a knighthood and a swanky villa. But Henri Michel, the French coach of the Ivoirian soccer team, was notably absent from the celebration at President Gbagbo's residence. He was, presumably, an awkward reminder of the colonial legacy. The governmental sponsors of anti-French thinking in today's Ivory Coast face a difficulty when it comes to soccer, however. Of the first-choice players on the national team, many play on French teams during the regular season, and a number have lived in France most of their lives: Drogba left the Ivory Coast at the age of five to stay with an uncle and tells of a childhood watching European soccer on TV.
Gbagbo will choose to ignore the importance of France to Ivoirian soccer as long as Ivory Coast keeps winning, and he has loudly publicized the extent to which his government has financed the national team. But he is likely to distance himself from another form of assistance. In 1992, the only time apart from this year that Ivory Coast played in the final of the African Nations Cup, the sports minister enlisted a battalion of fétisheurs—juju men—to give the Ivoirian team a supernatural advantage against Ghana. The story goes that when the minister reneged on promises to pay the fétisheurs, they put a hex on the team, which suffered a ten-year run of disappointing results. In April 2002, defense minister Moise Lida Kouassi approached the witch doctors to make amends, offering them bottles of gin and large sums of money. The hex was lifted, and presto: World Cup qualification.
Witch doctors scatter charms on the field or smear the goalposts with magic ointments to keep the ball out. In 1984 no fewer than 150 fétisheurs stayed with the Ivoirian national team at their hotel before a crunch game in the African Nations Cup: Each player took a bath in water treated with various potions, before being invited to make a wish in the ear of a pigeon. Another soccer club was taken to court in 1998 when, following a decisive league match in Bouake, its players admitted to drinking a concoction prepared by a juju man (the case was dismissed).
Soccer's governing body in Africa is aware of the PR damage done by juju stories and has now banned "team advisers" from being part of a squad's official entourage. But superstition, of one kind or another, has always played a large part in sport, and fetishism is sure to continue in Ivoirian soccer. Before last September's crucial World Cup qualifier against Cameroon, the gutters of Abidjan ran red with chicken blood. For better or worse this is V. S. Naipaul's Africa: a place of magic that is also on display at the many roadblocks in the north and west of the country, where soldiers are convinced that the amulets they wear around their necks will ward off bullets. War, too, encourages superstition.
Everybody—on both sides of the war—is willing the team to do well in Germany. But the mix of soccer and politics can get ugly. When the Ivoirians lost for the second time to Cameroon in the qualifiers, and it was believed their chance had gone, Drogba—who had played brilliantly in the match and scored two goals—received threats and menacing messages from fans, and was worried enough to consider not playing for the national team. In 2000 Gen. Robert Guei, who had just engineered the country's first military coup, held the national team in detention for two days as punishment for being knocked out of the African Nations Cup in the first round. He stripped the players of their passports and cell phones, publicly denounced them, and suggested they should learn some barracks discipline. "You should have spared us the shame," he said.
With qualification for the World Cup secured, there is, for the time being, no shame. By itself, soccer will never bring about national reconciliation. But the summer of 2006 promises to remind Ivoirians, however fleetingly, of a national life beyond politics.
Paul Laity is an editor at the London Review of Books who plays left back in pickup soccer games.
Faded Glory: Taming the Hooligans
By Nick Hornby
It was all so straightforward back in the '60s, when I started to watch soccer. England had just won the 1966 World Cup and, therefore, unarguably, were the best team in the world: fact, period, end of story. Then everything went wrong, pretty much forever. For a start, I became a grown-up and much more troubled about what it meant to belong to a country; meanwhile England's soccer team was hopeless. (I may not have been so conflicted about the subject of patriotism if they'd been any good.) The team didn't even qualify for the World Cup of 1974 and 1978; the world-class players we'd been blessed with in the '60s had gone, and by the '80s, the whole subject of patriotism and soccer had become much more complicated.
In the mind's eye now, England games during that decade were only just visible through a cloud of tear gas, used by European police to disperse our rioting hooligans. England fans were fast becoming a pretty sinister bunch. If you went to see England play at Wembley, you could observe people around you making the Nazi salute during the national anthem, and abuse of black players—even those playing for the home team—was commonplace. Sometimes it seemed as though the thousand worst scumbag fans from every single league club were gathered at Wembley so they could make monkey noises and sing anti-IRA songs. If you saw someone coming toward you in a T-shirt sporting the Union Jack, you'd have been best advised to cross the street. The T-shirt was a graphic alternative to a slogan that might say something like, "I'm a racist, but I hate you no matter what color you are."
And so some soccer fans started to feel a little conflicted about the national team. In 1990, when England played Cameroon in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, it wasn't hard to find people in England—middle-class, liberal people, admittedly, but people nonetheless—who wanted Cameroon to win. I watched that game with some of them, and when England went 2-1 down (they eventually won 3-2 in extra time), these people cheered. I understood why, but I couldn't cheer with them, much to my surprise. Those drunk, racist thugs draped in the national colors. . . . They were, it turned out, my people, not the nice liberal friends I was watching the game with, and England was my soccer team. I mean, you can't choose stuff like that, right? The 1990 World Cup turned out to be a turning point. The team wasn't embarrassing. The fans weren't embarrassing either. After a horrendous couple of decades, the national team once again basked in the warmth of the nation's affections.
The rebirth lasted about five minutes. There was a disastrous managerial appointment, which resulted in yet another failure to qualify. And by 1998 soccer was a different game. Many of the players in our top division came from outside the British Isles. The globalization of the transfer market was beginning to rob international football of much of its point. In the old days, you'd look at the best players in the club teams and think, What would they be like if they played together? And the answer was they looked like the national team. Now, Chelsea, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan, and Barcelona have replaced the national teams as fantasy soccer teams.
In 1989 England played out a goalless draw against Sweden, helping to ensure qualification for the 1990 World Cup. The enduring image of that game is of the England captain, Terry Butcher, swathed in a bandage, his white England shirt and shorts covered in blood that had pumped steadily out of a head wound throughout the game. "Off the pitch I was always an ordinary, mild-mannered bloke," said Butcher in an interview. "But put me in a football shirt and it was tin hats and fixed bayonets. Death or glory."
That was the old England: the war imagery, the crucial nil-nil draw against modest opposition, the unavoidable replacement of style and talent with blood and graft. Those who loathe David Beckham, the current England captain, would claim that he will wear a tin hat and bandages only when tin hats and bandages become de rigueur in some ludicrously fashionable European nightclub. That's not fair, because despite his looks and his cash, he has worked hard to compensate for things he lacks as a player, notably pace. But there's no doubt he is brilliantly illustrative of a new kind of English sportsman: professional, media-aware, occasionally petulant, and very, very rich.
The England fans who went to the 2005 friendly match against Argentina (resulting in a meaningless but enthralling last-minute win) were still singing their "No surrender to the IRA" song, and there's more than a suspicion that they'd rather be watching Terry Butcher and his fixed bayonets than David Beckham, a man who, after all, has been photographed wearing a sarong. But then, that's England all over at the moment. We'd still rather be bombing the Germans; but after 60 years, there's a slowly dawning suspicion that those days aren't coming back any time soon, and in the meantime we must rely on sarong-wearing, multimillionaire pretty boys to kick the Argies for us. We're not happy about it, but what can we do?
Read Nick Hornby's entire essay. He is the author of Fever Pitch, a memoir of his lifelong support of England's Arsenal soccer club. His latest novel is A Long Way Down.
Ballet With the Ball: A Love Story
By John Lanchester
Why do we fall in love with soccer? What happens? At some deep level the reason soccer snags us is that good soccer is beautiful, and it's difficult, and the two are related. A team kicking the ball to each other, passing into empty space that is suddenly filled by a player who wasn't there two seconds ago and who is running at full pelt and who without looking or breaking stride knocks the ball back to a third player who he surely can't have seen, who, also at full pelt and without breaking stride, then passes the ball, at say 60 miles an hour, to land on the head of a fourth player who has run 75 yards to get there and who, again all in stride, jumps and heads the ball with, once you realize how hard this is, unbelievable power and accuracy toward a corner of the goal just exactly where the goalkeeper, executing some complex physics entirely without conscious thought and through muscle-memory, has expected it to be, so that all this grace and speed and muscle and athleticism and attention to detail and power and precision will never appear on a score sheet and will be forgotten by everybody a day later—this is the strange fragility, the evanescence of soccer. It's hard to describe and it is even harder to do, but it does have a deep beauty, a beauty hard to talk about and that everyone watching a game discovers for themselves, a secret thing, and this is the reason why soccer, which has so much ugliness around it and attached to it, still sinks so deeply into us: Because it is, it can be, so beautiful.
No country tries as hard or as consistently to play beautiful soccer as Brazil. It's an ideological thing. That is why Brazilian players are so loved. Not in South America, of course, where they have the status of a regional sporting superpower, but by pretty much everyone else in the world. In fact, the Brazil soccer team is unique in sports in being an example of a beloved overdog. In general, sports fans, and especially soccer fans, hate the overdogs (Real Madrid in Spain, Juventus in Italy, Manchester United/Chelsea in England). But Brazil, the only team to have won five World Cups, the only team to have won it playing away from its own continent, is loved. So a great many soccer fans have, at the national level, two teams: their own, and Brazil. It is the only favorite that's a favorite.
John Lanchester is a novelist who began his career reporting on soccer matches. His memoir, Family Romance, will be published next year.
Soccer Inc: Marketing Fanaticism
By Matthew Yeomans
What's the point of turning soccer into big business if your fans continue to treat the sport as just a game? Watching Costa Rican ("Tico") soccer had always been a low-key pursuit compared with the craziness associated with Argentine, Mexican, and Brazilian soccer. For one thing most of the stadiums were rudimentary—not exactly the intimidating cauldrons of Milan's San Siro, Real Madrid's Bernabéu, or Boca Juniors' Bombonera—and the fans, though occasionally demonstrating the blind, all-enveloping mania associated with hard-core hinchas, didn't see the need to get worked up on a regular basis. Maybe it was the relaxed Tico spirit, or maybe it was half a century of soccer underachievement, but on a continent where two of Costa Rica's neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador, had actually gone to war over a soccer game, Costa Rica fans lacked a little something in attitude.
So in 1995 the Saprissa soccer club decided to galvanize its fan base. In what must surely be the first instance of a club recruiting hooligan consultants, Saprissa brought in the ardent fans of Chile's Universidad de Católica to develop a local fanático culture. The result was La Ultra, a superfan clique that looked to mirror the rabid commitment of the best-organized barras bravas, or hooligans, and chants were scripted, La Ultra congregated en masse, dressed all in purple, and smoke bombs began to appear on the once less intimidating back terraces. The Alajuelense club soon followed suit, launching its own hard-core fan base known as La Doce (the 12th man). The results of this investment in fanaticism were quick and spectacular. A gang culture tied to La Ultra and La Doce quickly took root, fueled by a growing sense among poor Ticos that the burgeoning national economy was leaving them behind. With it came a startling increase in fan violence at soccer matches and at least one death. The traditional animosity of the regular Clásico between Saprissa and Alajuelense took on new venom.
Fan violence became such a problem that both Saprissa and Alajuelense took steps to bring La Ultra and La Doce under control. Today, the outright crime has subsided, but the underlying mood of fan anger remains.
Matthew Yeomans, a journalist in Cardiff, Wales, has covered the past three World Cups.
Morality Play: Soccer as Theater
By Robert Coover
Spain, summer of '82. The smog cap over Barcelona is like the lid of a pressure cooker, ablaze with sunlight, and up here on the top tier of the little Sarriá soccer stadium, where Brazil, Italy, and Argentina are meeting in a World Cup knockout round-robin, they seem to have sold ten tickets for every square foot of space. We have to go an hour and a half early just to squeeze in at all. No way to sit, no chance to go for drinks, by the time the matches start it's hard to breathe. My teenage son spends one entire game hanging over an exit from a stair railing. Each day we say: If it's not bloody sensational, we'll go to a bar and watch it on TV, this is crazy. And each day we stay.
We've been here before. The other time, in 1977, two years after the death of the dictator Franco, it was raining and dark and turning cold. We stayed that time, too, huddled under an umbrella high up on the roof under the floodlights in the blustery winds and pouring rain in the only seats we could get, and happy to have them. That night we were watching a late autumn Spanish league match between the two archrivals of this city, FC (Fútbol Club) Barcelona and Real Club Deportivo Español (the Spanish Royal Sports Club), a match that was more like a reenactment of the Spanish Civil War than a mere athletic event.
There are, it sometimes seems, only two universal games: war and soccer. War is perhaps closer to the realm of fantasy, soccer to that of the real, but both share this ubiquity and centrality, as though arising from some collective libidinous source, primary and intuitive. Perhaps they are simply variations of the same game, modern industrial-era ritualizations of some common activity from the Dreamtime of the species, back when both used the same players and the same field—which is to say, all the men of the tribe and all of nature. Still today, they often fade into one another. Soccer managers "declare war," generals apply soccer tactics and terminology, warlike violence invades the soccer field, spreads into the stands and out into the communities, soldiers wear their team colors into battle, fan clubs are known as "armies."
The explanations advanced for soccer's intense mysterious power, the trancelike quality of great matches, its worldwide domination over all other sports, have been many. There is the game's inherent theatricality—not the razzmatazz of an American halftime, but the inner dramas of sin and redemption, the testing of virtue, the pursuit of pattern and cohesion, the collision of paradoxical forces. Soccer has often been compared to Greek tragedy, or seen as a kind of open-ended morality play. Perhaps the difficulty in scoring (and thus the usual narrowness of margins of victory, even between teams of markedly unequal ability) intensifies this sense of theater, causing the denouement—or the collective catharsis—to be withheld almost always until the final whistle. Nor, until that whistle, is there relief from the tyranny of time's ceaseless flow: Once you've fallen into a game, there is no getting out. The player must stay with that flow, maintain the rhythm, press for advantage, preserving all his skills, his mind locked into the shifting patterns; and the spectator, though less arduously, shares this experience.
One is left at the end, not with data, but with impressionistic images of bodies in motion. Nothing of importance can be statistically recorded about a match except corners, shots, goals, and saves (the American effort to record assists is admirable but—since it's often a complete mystery, even with TV replays, who's scored the goal—a bit desperate), and these will tell you almost nothing about the game itself. The player who actually wins the game may be the one who moves into space at the opposite side of the field, drawing a defender, forcing a new configuration upon the defense and making virtually inevitable a goal that was before impossible, but no one—not even he—may be aware of this. It's all narrative, and thus subjective: Each game is a story, a sequence of ambivalent metaphors, a personal revelation couched in the idiom of the faith. No game I know of is so dependent upon such flowing intangibles as "pattern" and "rhythm" and "vision" and "understanding." Which may all be illusions. And at the same time it is a very simple game: like dreams, almost childlike.
Read Robert Coover's entire essay. He's a novelist and essayist, first became obsessed with soccer while living in Spain. He has since chased the game through several decades and continents. His most recent book is A Child Again.
Greater Goal: Healing a War-Torn Land
By Henning Mankell
The first time I visited Angola I was not aware that I was in that country. It was 1987 and I was living in the northwestern corner of Zambia, near the Angolan border. Narrow sand roads twisted through the endless bush. It was easy to get stuck while driving, and I often lost my bearings on my way to some distant village. When I'd stop to ask for directions, if the person I spoke to answered in Portuguese then it was imperative to get back to the right side of the invisible border quickly. Angola, so deeply wounded by its long colonial period, was throttled after liberation from Portugal by a violent civil war. The rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's warriors, infamous for indiscriminate violence, were everywhere. A generation of Angolans did not know what it was to live in a country where peace reigned.
But there was also something magical about that land beyond the invisible border: Soccer was everywhere. On gravel pitches and sandy beaches, on sidewalks and city squares, the ball was played back and forth between hordes of young men. The balls were made of the most remarkable materials, an old T-shirt or fishing net or woman's handbag filled up with paper and grass. But they rolled and bounced, and you could do headers with them and make goals with them. War could never kill soccer in Angola. The soccer fields were demilitarized zones, and the face-off between teams conducting an intense yet essentially friendly battle served as a defense against the horrors that raged all around. It is harder for people who play soccer together to go out and kill each other.
Angola has seen many of its soccer players leave the country to seek their livelihood, mostly in Portugal. But they have not given up their citizenship. And when they are called home to put on black shorts and red socks and jerseys, their national team colors, they do not hesitate. They are known fondly as Palancas Negras, the "black antelopes."
On the eighth of October 2005, Angola arrives at Amahoro Stadium in Kigali. At that moment the astonishing situation is that if Angola can beat Rwanda by even a single goal, it will qualify for the World Cup ahead of Nigeria—no matter what happens in Nigeria's game against Zimbabwe. It is a nightmarish wait for all the Angolans who sit with their ears glued to radios. Luanda stands still, Huambo, Lubango, Namibe, Lobito, Benguela, Malanje, every city, every village is gathered at radios. Perhaps even the antelopes themselves stand out on the savanna with pricked ears.
When the first half ends, the score is tied at zero. Meanwhile, Nigeria is on its way to victory over Zimbabwe. But in Kigali the game continues without a goal. It all seems to be ending badly for Angola. One wonders what the players and coaches said to each other at the half. Nervousness spreads among the players. Rwanda, playing only for its honor, comes close to scoring on several occasions. Everyone agrees that Angola is playing miserably. It is a team at the edge of a breakdown, missing passes and misunderstanding each other. There are ten minutes left. The Angolans are almost unconscious in their desperation. Then the last-minute replacement Zé Kalanga makes a cross pass that is as surprising as it is brilliant. Fabrice "Akwa" Maieco is in the right place. With a header he perfectly launches the game's only goal, past Rwanda's goalie, one bounce on the ground, and then the ball flies up into the net.
A person would have to live for a long time in Africa to understand what this victory means. Of course no one imagines today that Angola will get very far in the tournament. But it is in the very nature of soccer to be unpredictable. If it were not the case that underdogs can sometimes defeat the predicted winners, soccer would be uninteresting.
But a great victory has already been won. It brought no gleaming cup. This triumph exists first of all in the hearts and minds of the Angolan people. To go to the finals of the World Cup in soccer means an enormous amount to the self-confidence of a country that has been ravaged by war and deprivation. A country, battered for so long, will be built up again.
Henning Mankell is the author of some 40 novels, including crime novels featuring inspector Kurt Wallander. He divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique, where he directs Teatro Avenida.
Ode to Maradona: Falkland's Revenge
By Thomas Jones
The highest compliment anyone could pay anyone else when I was growing up in England in the 1980s was "skill" (as in "man, your new skateboard is so skill"), and nobody was more skill than Diego Armando Maradona. His name was invoked as the highest form of praise, on the soccer field and elsewhere ("man, your new skateboard is so Maradona"). It took me a while to realize that the word referred to a human being, let alone a soccer player. Then I saw him score against Italy in the 1986 World Cup, leaping several feet into the air outside the left edge of the six-yard box to tap the ball deftly over the outstretched right leg of the Italian captain, past the outstretched arms of the keeper, and into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal. It was evident, even to me, that Maradona was not merely skillful, but skill embodied.
The next time Maradona scored was June 22, the day Argentina played against England. The two nations had last clashed four years earlier, not on a soccer field but in the Falklands War, which Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges later compared to "a fight between two bald men over a comb." By the time Britain had retaken the islands from Argentina, more than 900 men (most of them Argentines) had lost their lives. The victory saw Margaret Thatcher's popularity soar in Britain; the defeat contributed to the downfall of the right-wing military junta that had ruled Argentina since 1976.
All that was ancient history four years later—or so both teams insisted before the game. Maradona scored both of Argentina's goals in a 2-1 victory over England. The second of them, 11 dazzling seconds of superhuman skill, was voted Goal of the Century in 2002. When Maradona executed an exquisite arabesque, stretching his right leg elegantly behind him, I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd taken off into the air and started flying. He appeared to be moving through a different time frame from the England players, who came to tackle him only once he was already past them.
To my surprise, nobody I knew wanted to talk about that second, extraordinary goal. All anyone wanted to talk about was the one he'd scored four minutes earlier, with his fist. Maradona's one-time fans were seething with fury, as if he'd betrayed them personally. Overnight his name had become an insult, a by-word for cheating. I was baffled. What became known as the Hand of God incident just didn't seem so bad to me; it still doesn't. For one thing, I find it impressive that Maradona, five feet five inches (164 centimeters) tall, should have beaten the goalie, who was nearly a foot taller, to the ball. And weren't the referee and linesman most at fault, for not spotting the foul and for allowing the goal? I've always suspected that high-minded censure of the Hand of God is a way of dressing up disappointment and frustration that England lost; that the behavior for which England fans will never be able to forgive Maradona is not his cheating, but his running around five England players like so many wooden posts to score the greatest goal that's ever been scored and knock England out of the World Cup.
Thomas Jones is an editor and writer at the London Review of Books.
Group Therapy: A Nation is Born
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Not so long ago, when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, soccer was an expression of ethnicity, of political orientation, of self. Many feel that a 1990 match between Zagreb's Dinamo and Belgrade's Red Star marked the beginning of Croatia's war for independence. At the beginning of the match, fans from both sides clashed in the stands and on the field. The Serb-dominated police beat Croatian fans while allowing Serb fans to run amok, and the events caused the already bubbling frustrations with Yugoslavia to boil over. Even the players were not immune. Upon witnessing a policeman beating a fallen Dinamo fan, midfielder Zvonimir Boban karate-kicked him, becoming a hero of the growing independence movement.
The war that followed was long and brutal. More than ten thousand people were killed, and one thousand are still missing today. Not surprisingly, tourists stopped visiting the Croatian coast, and the region became associated with suffering. For a country so rich in potential, so enthusiastic about what it could achieve now that it was on its own, being classified simply as a war zone or a former Yugoslav republic was a blow.
Croatia's independence was recognized in 1992, but the 1998 World Cup brought another form of recognition. Elation had already begun to sweep the country when Croatia beat powerhouse Germany in the quarterfinals. "Is it really possible?" people seemed to be asking one another, unable to contain their optimism. In Zagreb, large-screen televisions were set up on the city squares so people could watch the Croatia-Netherlands third-place match in raucous groups. It was a Saturday, and I watched in my apartment with friends, drifting out to the balcony to listen to the excited conversations and shouts coming from the cafés below. The sound of cheers filled the air when Croatia scored. It was like the city was one gigantic living room, everyone's eyes on a single television set. Traffic all but stopped, and the street below was empty. When the game finished with Croatia the winner, people flooded the streets. They filled the main square, and that night, all night, we heard happy, drunken voices singing.
Coming nearly three years after the war ended, it was an emotional moment in a young country's history. On television, reporters interviewed grown men who could not stop weeping. The country had not seen such unified celebration since its declaration of independence. Now no one could deny Croatia its place on the map.
Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness: And Other Stories and The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living.