With the World Cup standing as the globe’s most prominent popular cultural event of the moment, I think it is appropriate for me to take a cultural semiotic look at it, especially in the wake of all the commentary that has followed Brazil’s rather epic loss to Germany in the semi-finals. As I write this blog, Holland is playing Argentina in the second semi-final, but since neither the outcome of that game nor the final to follow is of any significance from a semiotic point of view, I will not concern myself here with the ultimate outcome of the games but will focus instead on the non-player reactions to the entire phenomenon.
Let me first observe that while I am myself not a fan of the game that the rest of the world calls football (I’m not a fan of the game that Americans call football either), I am fully aware that to much of that world the prestige of the World Cup is roughly equaled by the value to us Americans of the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, the NBA finals, and the BCS championship combined. I have also been surprised to learn that the Olympic gold medal for football has hardly a fraction of the significance of the World Cup for the rest of the world, as signified by Argentina’s attitude towards Lionel Messi (currently the world’s greatest scorer, but perhaps the greatest of all time), who brought home Olympic gold in 2008 but is still regarded as a lesser man than Diego Maradona, who, in spite of a controversial career that boasts no Olympic gold medals, did bring home the Cup in 1986. (Perhaps lesser “man” is the wrong term: Argentines simply regard Maradona as “God”).
So I get the point that football is a very big deal in the rest of the world, so big that it may not be possible for most Americans to grasp just how big a deal it is.
Which takes me to the semiotic question: why is football such a big deal? What is going on when a reporter from Brazilian newspaper O Tempo can remark, in the wake of the 1-7 defeat at the hands (or feet) of Germany: ”It is the worst fail in Brazil’s history. No-one thought this possible. Not here. Not in Brazil. People are already angry and embarrassed. In a moment like this, when so desperate, people can do anything because football means so much to people in Brazil”?
To answer this question I should perhaps begin by clearing the decks in noting that I don’t think that Ann Coulter has the answer. I mean, American football, basketball, and baseball (our most passionately followed sports) are team sports too (Coulter appears to think that soccer-football is morally inferior because it is too team oriented and insufficiently individualistic, which is odd when one considers that names like Maradona, Pele, Bobby Charlton—and let’s throw in Georgie Best for good measure—are names in Argentina, Brazil, and Great Britain that are at least as magical as Babe Ruth, Joe Montana, and LeBron James are in America, and probably a lot more so).
So how can it be explained? As always there is no single explanation: this question is highly overdetermined. But let’s start with the sheer variety of sporting choices in America. The list of easily available spectator and participant sports here is so long there really isn’t much point in trying to list them. America has them all, and so the appeal of any given sport must always be taken in the context of a lot of other sports competing for attention (which is why Los Angeles, the second largest metropolitan market in America, can get along perfectly well year after year without an NFL franchise). On the other hand, in much of the rest of the world while football isn’t precisely the only game in town, it is often practically so (let me except those African nations wherein long distance running is practically the only game in town: which is why Africans—in men’s competitions, not women’s—win most of the important marathons). A game that doesn’t require much in the way of expensive equipment, football can be played by all classes, and of course offers a fantasy pathway to fame, glory, and riches for impoverished football dreamers. In other words, for the rest of the world, football is the big basket into which nations put most of their sports eggs.
But who cares anyway? Whether someone is carrying a ball over a line, kicking a ball into a net, throwing a ball into a basket, or hitting a ball onto the grass or into the bleachers (and so on and so forth), what difference does it make? Why is Brazil in despair? Why do people die at soccer-football games? What gives with British soccer hooligans?
Here things get complicated. Perhaps the most important point to raise is that sporting events have served as sublimated alternatives to war since ancient times. The original Olympics, for example, featured events that were explicitly battle oriented—today’s javelin event at the modern Olympics recalls the days of spear throwing and a foot race run while carrying a shield—and the role of international sport in modern times continues to be that of a symbolic substitute for more lethal conflict (consider the passionate competitions between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War, with the 1972 Olympic basketball final and the 1980 hockey “miracle on ice” looming especially large in memory). While I could go on much further here, suffice it to say that the significance of the World Cup is intimately tied up with nationalism and international conflict. So when the Brazilian “side” fails to kick as many balls into a net as the German side, the emotional feel is akin to having lost a war. This is not rational, but human beings are not invariably rational animals. Signs and symbols can be quite as important as substantial things.
Americans right now are trying to get into the game when it comes to the passions of global football, but in spite of decades of youth football competition and legions of soccer moms, it really hasn’t happened yet. All in all, American sport is still rather isolationist (I do not say this as a criticism): though we call the World Series, well, the World Series, only American teams play in that game, and the Super Bowl is only super on our shores. But while there may be something parochial about our sporting attitude, at least it isn’t a matter for a national crisis if “our” team loses. That’s not a bad thing.
Personally (and not semiotically), I believe that people should only get passionate about their own exercise programs (I feel awful if I miss a day of running), but, consistent with the mores of a consumer society, sport in America is increasingly a spectator affair, something to watch others do for us as a form of entertainment. It isn’t good for the national waistline, but at least we aren’t in a state of existential angst because a handful of guys with tricky feet just lost in the semi-finals.
By the way: Argentina just went into the final. Maybe Messi will be God.