Long Neck, 13 June

Dear Karl Ove,

I too supported Croatia. But supported might not be the correct word. To support a team means that you want that to win, but it implies more; it implies action. It’s true that I wanted Croatia to win. And not just because they were the “perceived underdog.” My cheering on of Croatia was primarily a negative act. More than anything I wanted Brazil to lose.

The outcome would have been different if the referee, Yuichi Nishimura, had not imposed himself on the game at two key points. (I realize this statement is a tautology, but hear me out.) Mr. Nishimura awarded a PK to Brazil for Fred’s clear dive in the box. And then he disallowed a goal scored by Croatia for a foul that just didn’t happen. The final score was Brazil 3, Croatia 1. But the correct final score should have been a 2–2 draw.

The reaction of the Croatia coach, Niko Kovac, was understandably vitriolic, but should he have exercised restraint? This is what he said: “If that was a penalty, we don’t need to play football any more,” he said. “Let’s play basketball. It’s a shame. We talk about respect, but that wasn’t respect — Croatia didn’t get any. If that’s how you start the World Cup, we’d all better give it up and go home.” Give it up and go home? Really? Are all the matches fixed? Is that what he’s saying?

And this from Dejan Lovren, who was the Croat player accused (wrongly) of the foul in the box against Fred that led to the PK: “Why don’t they just hand out the trophy to Brazil right away? Everything is going their way, everyone is saying they must win it, so why do we play then?”

Why do we play then?

Usually, I’d say that this sort of talk is just sour grapes, but in this case Croatia have the right to feel aggrieved.

But play on we must! There’s still hope. Some team is bound to beat Brazil. Brazil simply aren’t playing well enough to win the World Cup.

If Brazil keeps playing the way they did last night, they won’t go far in the World Cup, not even with help from the referees. Croatia could have still won the match without the assistance of Yuichi Nishimura if their goalkeeping had been of a higher quality. The Croatian goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa, came up short on all three Brazilian goals, giving the impression that with just a little more luck or quality, he could have kept a clean sheet. To his credit, he did manage a few saves (well, one that I recall and he did get his palms on Neymar’s PK).

Now that I’ve mentioned Neymar… something has to be said about Neymar. Why does the media want to reduce this tournament to singular personalities? Brazil becomes Neymar. Argentina becomes Messi. Portugal, Ronaldo. Or is that just the framework imposed on certain teams? Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain are not reduced to a singular personality. Let’s just hold this question and focus on Neymar for a moment.

The story is that this is Neymar’s World Cup. Jonathan Wilson wrote this in the Guardian: “This is supposed to be Neymar’s World Cup, just as the Confederations Cup was Neymar’s tournament. When the teams were read out before kick-off, it was his name that got by far the biggest cheer.” The people love Neymar. He is their champion, like Hektor at Troy. Will Messi play the role of Achilleus?

Why am I against Brazil? I should be on their side. Not that I want to ape everyone else and back a likely winner. But as a supporter of the New York Cosmos I should be able to sympathize with what it’s like to be anointed the champion. It’s the weight of expectation and the curse of being the favorite.

Croatia (rightly) claims that Brazil is favored in this tournament. Similar charges of favoritism by the powers that govern the game have been directed at the Cosmos. Bruce McGuire commented that the NASL was set up for the Cosmos. The entire league is built around the Cosmos winning. If Fifa has ordained this World Cup to be Brazil’s in every way (not only do they play host, but they play as champion already). Which means that every other nation in the tournament is playing the spoiler role.

Let’s come back to my first question. Why does the narrative collapse onto a single player like Neymar? I think you are right when you say that this impulse to star-creation is a way of simplifying the game for people who know nothing about football. When a person doesn’t understand what they are seeing on the pitch, then you can at least say to them, “Watch that guy. He’s the star.”

To combine both Brazil and the Cosmos, let’s take Pelé as an example. Pelé was similarly burdened with the starring role in a narrative that should have been collective. For both club and country, Pelé was the star. When he stepped onto the field it was Pelé and ten other guys.

Why does it seem as though we must have someone who is “the greatest player”? Much has been said in the lead up to this tournament about Maradona and his status as the greatest player ever. Greater than Pelé even? Did Maradona usurp Pelé? And because Maradona won the World Cup for Argentina (that’s the narrative), now Lionel Messi is burdened with the task of claiming his place in the historic narrative. Unless he manages to lead Argentina to a victory in Brazil on the 13th of July, he will be second to Maradona. To be truly great, or to be considered so, you must be the star player on a side that wins the World Cup. Both Pelé and Maradona accomplished that. If Brazil wins this World Cup, will Neymar’s name be placed alongside Pelé and Maradona? Or will he have peaked too young?

Jonathan Wilson quoted what Felipe Scolari, Brazil’s coach, said about Neymar: “The star player will be the champion because if you’re the star player and don’t win the World Cup, it doesn’t make sense.” Scolari isn’t boasting or making any predictions; he’s just describing the “preferred” narrative. Wilson went on to write that what Scolari said was “both a warning to Neymar that his fate is bound up with the team and an acknowledgement that this is expected to be his coronation as part of a Brazilian triumph.”

Being the star player is a grace, a privilege as well as a burden. It’s like being the chosen, the messiah. But the star’s fate is in the hands of his ten teammates. One player does not win the World Cup single-handedly. If soccer was about individual talent, genius, ability, then Sweden should be playing in Brazil, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t do it by himself. And no matter how good Gareth Bale is, Wales will never go to the World Cup unless Fifa expands the tournament to 48 teams.

Also, Neymar was lucky to even be on the pitch for the whole match against Croatia. Just a few minutes before scoring his first goal, and the equalizer, he slung his arm into Luca Modric’s face in what appeared to be a deliberate, calculated act of violence. Mr. Nishimura, the (infamous) referee, took the safe option and showed only a yellow card, but a red would have been not overly harsh. It’s wholly possible that Brazil will have to play without Neymar on the pitch at some point in the group stage unless he reigns in his conduct.

I didn’t intend to write so much about Croatia-Brazil and the simplification of the World Cup narrative into a drama about the stars. Like Fredrik, I found so much of interest in your letter. What you wrote about nostalgia led me to think about how I don’t have a long history with the sport of football. Like many Americans I’ve been on the four year cycle, only tuning in to watch soccer during the World Cup. There were a few years just after I moved to New York when I followed the local MLS side, the Metrostars, but I was still a casual fan. And it was only during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that made a point to watch most of the matches not just the ones with the USA and the final. I admit that I am a soccer newbie. And even after two years I still can’t remember how to spell Klinnsman properly.

When you and Fredrik write about those golden years of the past and your childhood memories of watching the legends play in historic World Cups, I can only feel jealousy, and feel that I have missed out on something wonderful. It’s possible that my fervent passion for soccer today is driven by the desire for some imagined future where I too will be able to look back to now, this summer of 2014 and remember that, yes, these were (are?) the good old days. I want my future self to have what you and Fredrik have now, a sense of history, a sense of connection.

One the attractions of being a supporter of the New York Cosmos is that they come with a ready-made history. Admittedly, they were only formed in 1971 which by European standards is only just yesterday, but supporting a team whose history dates back to 1971 feels different than supporting a club that only started playing in 2013. Perhaps the nostalgia I feel for the Cosmos of the past is only borrowed, but does that make it any less real? Are we not allowed to write our own narratives of the past? Aren’t we allowed to invent (within reason) any story that gives us meaning for our lives today? Surely, that’s what storytelling is about, at least in part.

You wrote that football is the opium of the people. Perhaps you meant that remark to be humorous, but there is an important insight contained in your variation on Marx’s famous line. Most people don’t know the context of Marx’s original statement about religion being the opiate of the people. It’s just as likely that Marx was complimenting religion on providing a valuable and necessary comfort to people who are suffering from oppression under capitalism. So what if we know that religion is just a happy story we tell ourselves so that we suffer less. What’s wrong with happy stories? And what you wrote, places football (soccer) in that role of providing comfort to the masses. Only that football has been packaged by the capitalists and sold back to us. Shouldn’t the World Cup belong to the people and not to the corporations?

Another way that football is like a religion is that it does bring us together. Football is a common subject, a network of narratives, a story-space which provides all of us with a language to express ourselves and our ideas. I wrote about this in my book, Rough Drafts. How when you sit in a pub having a beer, everyone sitting at the bar is your friend. You can talk to anyone at a bar. The safest thing to talk about with a random stranger at a bar is sports. Sports is a common language, the vernacular of the people. It’s that common ground that brings us together, that binds us. It’s a foundation on which to create a community.

Alas, I could keep on writing, but I’m going to try to spend some time in the office before Mexico takes on Cameroon later today. Gotta run. Vamos Mexico!

Cheers!

Donavan

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