World Cup: Where was the world?

Maybe I’ve been teaching too long. But I was in the Netherlands recently, and when the World Cup soccer championship match between Holland and Spain rolled around last month I recalled some paintings of royalty in Amsterdam’s Rejksmuseum, and I wondered whether any of the TV commentators were going to mention that the two finalists had—forgive the expression—some serious history.

For starters, Spain used to run Holland, the result of a dynastic maneuver in the mid-1500s, and the Spanish monarchy ruled the Dutch for nearly 100 generally miserable years until Holland won its independence in the bloody 80 Years War.

There’s more. The two countries have a spectacularly colorful mutual history. Yet I never heard a peep about it on TV.

What we got instead was the nerdish insight and curiosities that TV sports commentary normally offers to fill dead air—stories of pluck and sacrifice, chatter about rules and refs and bungled calls, crossfire about a re-engineered ball, updates from the clairvoyant German octopus.

Too bad. Because this was the World Cup. And the World Cup is, I think, unique among sporting events. It is a truly international competition. The Olympics and other world tournaments are sort of international, but only in that their competitors come from all over. The athletes don’t compete as national teams, they compete as individuals. The country “rankings” are largely a media contrivance.

The World Cup, however, draws genuinely national teams, which are adored or reviled as emissaries of their homelands. It’s the nations of the world that are playing.

So why not hear something about these nations of the world? Who are these countries anyway? I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the swelling numbers of U.S. viewers who tuned in to see, say, Ghana play Uruguay in the quarterfinals could locate either country without a GPS.

Our own country’s ignorance of the world is already legendary. The National Geographic’s 2006 survey determined that even after three years of war more than six in 10 Americans ages 18 to 24 couldn’t find Iraq on a map of the MIdeast. Four in 10 couldn’t point out Pakistan in Asia, and nearly half couldn’t find India. (Knowledge of the motherland wasn’t too hot either. Half of respondents had no luck finding New York on a map.)

So this, then, was what educators call a teachable moment. You had quarterfinals in which South American teams stood tall, with neighbors Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina in contention. Couldn’t we have heard something from those countries, some scene-setters so that more of our fellow citizens would understand how different Uruguay is from Paraguay, and how they get along, what they look like—something?

This stuff isn’t dull. We might have learned that around the time of our Civil War those same four South American countries fought the most horrific war in the continent’s history, the murderous War of the Triple Alliance. Three of them joined forces to nearly annihilate Paraguay, leaving three-fifths of its population dead and practically ridding it of males—fewer than 10 percent of the survivors—spawning a culture where men are more lavishly privileged than perhaps anywhere else on earth. (Paraguay’s current president has survived continuing claims he sired illegitimate children—he has acknowledged at least one—though, admittedly, they date from before he entered politics, back when he was a Catholic bishop. I’m not making this up.)

But I digress. The point is, this isn’t about dry pedantry. It’s about sending hip young reporters with hand-helds onto the streets of foreign cities to give reality and texture to a rare moment of shared international experience. How is a multi-racial national team—like Holland’s—seen within a country that’s riven, like much of Europe, by anti-immigrant turbulence? And oh, why does the Netherlands have nonwhite players in the first place? What, Indonesia? What’s the connection? (And where’s that?)

It’s ironic that it was Disney-owned ESPN and its cousin ABC that telecast the World Cup so mindlessly, since Disney has long championed globalization, implanting Magic Kingdoms and Tinker Bell castles in Europe and Asia, serving up EPCOT-style knockoffs of English pubs and French cafes, celebrating at least a simulacrum of internationalism. Couldn’t its chiefs discover a way to present the World Cup in the context of the rich passion and expectation that people throughout the world brought to it?

Apparently not. The result was pallid and denatured. ESPN blew the call, and managed to strip the championship of its special value, and to deny U.S. viewers a cup that was actually full of the world.


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3 Responses

  1. Dear Mr. Wasserman,
    As a high school student who watched the 2010 World Cup, I found myself agreeing with many points made in your article from the Miami Herald, “History lost in the game”. I see history as a very humbling subject. The cultures of the world are so rich and diverse that, to gain a worldly understanding of them and their histories, one must have a lifelong interest in learning about them. Your proposal to making the World Cup a truly cultural experience for viewers is one that I hope can be realized. I think many would benefit and find that type of commentary interesting, I know I would!

  2. Re:History Lost
    Excellent point – a “teachable moment” lost – one of too many. I, for one, went on the web and learned about the War of Triple Alliance – I had no idea. I aslo learned a lot more about Paraguay. Very intersting. Thanks again. At least I learned something!

  3. Dear Mr. Wasserman:
    > I apologize for my tardiness on commenting on your column of last week. I really think that your idea to have the network that carried the World Cup give a history lesson on the various countries that participated is unwise and unworkable. For one thing, whose version of history will be proffered? Do you get into religious aspects of a Protestant Holland being oppressed by a Catholic Spain? No T.V. network that I know of wants to touch any of that. Also, the network heads would be terrified of the dumb jock commentators insulting an entire race or country by offering their own silly insights or attempts at humor. It is best not to attempt to cast pearls before swine and leave history lessons to the History Channel.
    > Sincerely,
    > William Muller

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