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The multiverse of sport

Even if the albiceleste does manage to confound European sceptics and bring the World Cup back to where it belongs after walloping the Germans in the Maracanã today, the political impact would in all probability be slight.
By James Neilson / As I See it

If anyone said that LatAm brotherhood would trump soccer rivalry, he or she could hardly have been more wrong

Sporting triumphs may do wonders for a country’s morale, but the resulting “feel-good factor” all politicians hope will work in their favour rarely lasts for very long. On occasion, it can harm them as people ask themselves why is it that, unlike the local politicians who never seem to get anything right, their athletes are world-beaters. So even if the albiceleste does manage to confound European sceptics and bring the World Cup back to where it belongs after walloping the Germans in the Maracanã today, the political impact would in all probability be slight.

Thanks to television, for many people, perhaps most, sport has become as important as it was in Ancient Greece. As yet there are no modern equivalents of Pindar, for centuries regarded as by far the greatest lyric poet of his age, who celebrated the feats of Olympic champions, but throughout the world hundreds of millions of “ordinary” men and a fair number of women feel personally represented by soccer players, cricketers, cyclists, tennis-players or runners. This is understood by newspapers that not that long ago would have consigned news about the deeds of soccer players and the likes to the back pages; today, even the snootier ones give them front page headlines they would once have reserved for the start of a new world war.

Sports fans can pick and choose. Most are keen on whatever their compatriots are good at. For several years, Spaniards took great pride in the achievements of Miguel Indurain that barely rated a paragraph in Argentine dailies. Indians went wild over Sachin Tendulkar, a cricketer whose name means nothing to all but a tiny handful of Latin Americans, though it would appear that interest in soccer is growing in a subcontinent without any home-grown stars: British teams improve their finances by selling suitably inscribed shirts to their admirers in New Delhi and other distant cities.

It is just as well that sport offers people a variety of different universes. In what is known as the real world, the US is top dog and China, with over four times as many people, is catching up. In the currently all-embracing world of soccer, Argentina is a great power (so too, unfortunately, is Germany), the US is on a par with Costa Rica, while China remains a minnow, as indeed it is in most disciplines even though in the Olympic Games it contrives to get many medals. In rugby, a handful of countries, let by New Zealand, rule the roost, with Argentina from time to time moving into the international elite. Tennis seems to be becoming a Slavic domain, cycling still belongs to Western Europeans despite sporadic inroads by North Americans and Colombians, and cricket is largely confined to what was once the British Empire.

For Argentina, the latest edition of the World Cup has been a pleasant but at time nerve-wracking experience, with plenty of last-minute escapes from defeat. For Brazil, it started well enough until that fateful day when Germany handed it the worst thrashing in its until then proud history. Had it happened somewhere else, that would have been extremely galling for the many who see prowess on the soccer pitch as a worthy alternative to success in other fields, but to their dismay it happened in Brazil. And to make matters even worse, Argentina reached the final after seeing off Holland.

If anyone said that Latin American brotherhood would trump soccer rivalry, he or she could hardly have been more wrong. According to those who have been following the tournament, many allegedly Bosnian, Iranian, Nigerian, Belgian and Dutch fans were in fact Brazilians who wanted Argentina get the kind of treatment Germany eventually meted out to their own team. For their part, Argentines have made no secret of where their hearts lie: whenever they spot a camera, they stick gloatingly seven fingers out and laugh. Will such undisguised animosity have any effect on bilateral relations? Probably not.

The many Brazilians who, before the tournament got under way, had been marching up and down the streets of major cities shouting slogans against what they said was a criminal waste of money that should be used to improve social services, will have mixed feelings about that memorable encounter with Germany. Most may have said they wanted Brazil to be beaten, but few will have really meant it, let alone be pleased that it happened in such a fashion. As far as most people are concerned, winning is everything: with very few exceptions, they would much rather see their team come out on top despite playing badly that watch it go down to an unlucky defeat after providing the cognoscenti with an unforgettably brilliant performance.

For Dilma Rousseff, her country’s defeat, described by masochistic Brazilian journalists as “ignominious”, “shameful” and “disgraceful”, in the semifinals could hardly have come at a worse time. Like David Cameron’s government when London got to host the Olympic Games, she had assumed that the national team would boost her ratings by doing exceptionally well in front of an adoring home crowd. The bet paid off in the case of the UK, where, for a couple of days, millions basked in vicarious glory, but although for a while Brazil seemed to be on its way to yet another World Cup final, in a question of minutes such an agreeable fantasy vanished as the Germans hammered in one goal after another, and by doing so made her decision to spend billions of dollars preparing the country for the event look even more preposterous than before.

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