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The Puzzle

Posted By Brian Phillips On June 22, 2010 @ 4:13 pm In Featured | 18 Comments

Nothing is funnier than this article, but nothing is faster than this tournament, even if it seems to roll at a regal pace. If you stop to rest, or write a post about John Terry’s failed career as the seditious leader of a crushed splinter sect, two more matches blow past, the tortoise wins the championship, and the only rock with your name on it is covered with vines forever. We have to move with the times. If John Terry’s failed career as the seditious leader of a crushed splinter sect tells us anything, it’s that.

Tactically leaving aside, therefore, all fleeting astonishments—New Zealand holding Italy with a team of milk-truck drivers; Portugal’s 7-0 foxtrot over the dreams of Chinese actors everywhere—I zoom out to larger questions. As of this morning, two mysteries ask to be noticed, both involving faltering continents: the collapse of the African teams (one win and six goals in their first twelve matches) and the gathering failure of the top European teams (France out; Germany, Italy, England and Spain unsafe). I don’t have an answer for either, but then, all tales are unfinished at this point.

With Africa, at least, it’s possible to formulate team-specific explanations. People will try, but I don’t see a convincing pan-African supranarrative that will explain these six teams’ struggles. Algeria’s triumph was just making the tournament over Egypt, who might—even granting that the Algerians are still in this thing—have been tougher in the actual moment. Cameroon were splintered by cliques, and then Eto’o is a player whose ability to do it all tends to vary in direct proportion with the amount of help he has, like a superhero whose powers only work when he’s inside the Justice League satellite. Ivory Coast were stuck in a ridiculous group, unless you think “how badly you can beat North Korea” is a legitimate selection mechanism. Nigeria were missing their best player. South Africa never belonged and almost did it anyway. And Ghana deserve no criticism up to this point.

None of that transparently justifies any of the “this continent isn’t ready” stories about to be unleashed by a reluctant media, though on the basis of these performances there’s no particularly strong evidence that it’s ready, either. Correlation is only causation if you work in the House of Representatives, and Africa’s near-zero is probably just bad luck and accidents happening.

With the European powers, on the other hand, it gets harder to draft micro-explanations. What’s happened feels both more atmospheric and more obscure. It’s possible to talk about fullbacks, or to invent psycho-epics about the teams with the most media pressure, but even those theories fall short.

What happened to France was a typhoon, a once-in-a-lifetime weather event that swallowed itself and drowned the grimmest prophecies (and drowned the prophets, and drowned the islands the prophets were standing on). England are quietly going mad in a watery country-house way, blinking too much, ranting about taxes, and bringing the hot-water-bottle to dinner. Germany are probably fine, although when ABC News is asking who’ll replace Löw if they lose the Ghana game, you know some sort of funk is afoot. Spain seem to have righted themselves, and their mishap against Switzerland can’t exactly be counted against Europe; but seeing Torres a step slow, and Xavi playing out of the drift of the game, is too bizarre not to leave questions. Italy fans—the ones who knew what they’d see once the “world champions” belt came off—were actually okay with the draw against Paraguay. But the New Zealand draw was incredible.

“It’s Africa’s year” was always a hope that could dissolve without much resistance if it didn’t come to pass. “Europe is terrible” wasn’t even an idea before the tournament (this is the World Cup, so someone undoubtedly advocated it, and I wish that someone the righteousness of his Twitter account) and, if it turns out to be true, will be harder to dismiss as a coincidence. Rumblings have already started about overpaid stars not caring about the colors. That overlooks the fact that the South American sides aren’t exactly staffed with eager amateurs, but it also feels like beating a dead hobbyhorse: does anyone really believe that Wayne Rooney doesn’t fall asleep dreaming of cradling the World Cup? It’s raining in his dream, and he’s bellowing into the wind in all the iconic photographs. Throughout this event, players have been bleeding, sobbing, screaming, and sweating on the grass, and they’re not doing it to fantasize about next year’s Bolton match. Let’s revisit this if the Europe collapse is still real in a week; until then, it’s more a surprising potential than a fact that needs an autopsy.

What’s amazing, really, is that these two narratives exist to be compared at all. Through two rounds, the top five African teams (leaving out Algeria) had a record of one win, three draws, and six losses. England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain had a record of two wins, five draws, and three losses. Europe’s a bit better, but then, England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain have collectively won half of all World Cups. The African teams haven’t won half their World Cup games. Again, this is probably a momentary cloud formation; France excepted, all the European teams could still go through. Still, it’s unexpected. It doesn’t necessarily point to parity, and it doesn’t mean South American dominance forever. But at the very least, it’s a sign of the weird premonitions that can arise as the World Cup races past.


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