3QD’s Other World Cup Analyst Mark Blyth: Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Learning to Hate Team Nike

It’s nice to think of the World Cup as the coming together of a cosmopolitan select. Admirers of the beautiful game come from everywhere to applaud, converse, and celebrate. Part of this is true. The other part that is true is how clueless petty nationalists from all over the world get together to talk total crap about things they think they know much more about than they actually do. Thus far, my world cup wobbles between both sects.

So after arriving in Berlin I discovered that Easyjet had managed to lose my bass guitar (more on that later), which needless to say put me in a great mood. This was heightened when 24 hrs. later they admitted to having no idea where it was. I suspected it was on tour with a Heavy Metal band that checked in at Copenhagen at the same time as me. I hope it got a groupie.

So the first day was very much a mixed bag of games. The Australia – Japan game was a classic. 1-0 down until the 84th minute when Tim Cahill from Everton took the game by the scruff of the neck and banged in two in six minutes. When John Aloisi knocked in the last one on 92 mins I felt a lot better. This was what the World Cup was all about – great underdog comebacks. Go the ShielaRoos!

My mood was then substantially altered by Bruce Arena’s decision to take a bung from a betting syndicate and play half of his players out of position. The resulting “Gersenkirschen Massacre” has been detailed here by Alex Cooley. Suffice to say that as an American-by-default I was equally pissed off. So far, one for the Aussies and none for the Yanks. I wonder what would happen with Italy.

What the hell was I thinking? Every time there is an international tournament involving the Italians I fall for it. The great players, the Azzuri-legend, the ‘dark-horse’ for victory bullshit…and it’s the same every time. This time the poor Ghanaians had to suffer ‘forza Italia” which basically involves going one goal up that then slowing the game down to a pace where your grandma would fall asleep. If they win, they will do so by boring their way to the semis. So much for the first day. Little did we know the delights that the next day would bring.

What it brought, courtesy of my friend Alex Hamilton’s friend Pete (Thanks Pete) was a ticket to the Brazil – Croatia game. First game in Berlin, first game with the Brazilians. First game against Balkan warriors – exciting stuff. The stadium is awesome. 80 thousand seats and each with a perfect view. I know it had an expensive refit, but really, after this, why bother designing stadiums? Just copy this one. Anyway, to the game and the bizarre sociology of German identity.

So we get inside the stadium and are forced to drink Budweiser (Bastards!!!) but the atmosphere is amazing. The Croats are going nuts, and the Brazilians, well, there must be 60 thousand of them, which is interesting when you consider that Brazil is country with an income distribution so skewed it makes the US look like Denmark. And then you begin to realize that while there are some Brazilians here, most of the crowd are Germans in Brazil shirts. Now I don’t want to come across as the petty nationalist here, but I cannot think of another country where football fans would have their home country shirt in the closet, along with another country’s shirt for special occasions. After all, its not as if Brazil and Germany historically had a lot in common (no jokes about ‘the Boys from Brazil’ please). The first football club in Brazil was set up by Brits, for example. So I got to wondering why it was that so many Germans identified with Brazil, and then the game started.

Brazil is of course the greatest team in the world? Bollocks and my arse. Croatia should have had them, and if the marvelously named Dado Prso had a strike partner in the mould of Jan Koller they would have had an equalizer at the least. Brazil may have some of the greatest individual players around; Kaka, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Adriano are clearly super-world class. But are Emerson, or Fred, or Gilberto in the same league? Ronaldo had clearly eaten so many pies he was rooted to the spot throughout the game by force of gravity. One moment of brilliance by Kaka separated the two teams. So I got to wondering why was it that not only did around 50 thousand Germans have Brazil tops, but why does this team have the reputation of being so good? I’m not doing a ‘US media on Bode Miller’ here and extrapolating a trend from one data point, but Germany and Italy combined have more World Cups, and Brazil have crashed and burned on more occasions than internal Aeroflot flights.

In search on answers I began to question random Germans in the stadium (being nicht so schlecht auf Deutsch – as they say) and the responses ranged from the poetic “in my chest I have two hearts, one for Germany and one for Brazil” to the pathetic “they are the best team in the world.” The former is just weird – the latter is the worst form of “Jordan Jocking” – that is, supporting someone because they are the best since everyone agrees they are the best, regardless of any actual evidence to the contrary.

I began to think about how much team Nike (Brazil) are the most media exposed team of all time. They are billed as favorites six months before the tournament began and everyone just accepts it. They may have amazing individuals, but they are yet to convince me that they are a team. (Argentina’s demolition of Serbia and Germany’s ‘never say die’ against Poland show what it means to be a team). And as for all the samba soccer stuff, they have one of the most vicious defenses around. Does anyone think Croatia’s captain Niko Kovac left the field with bruised ribs just by falling on them? So after the game I went in search of other answers as to why so many Germans wear Brazil shirts, and the answer never varied…“because they are the best.” Really, OK, let’s experiment. I started asking people to name the back four…eh??? Mmmm??? Roberto Carlos – one point. No chance. Yes, Ronaldinho is amazing, but that’s not a team.

And then it struck me. It’s a bit like being the ‘Anti-Scotland.’ Scottish national identity is such that you are regarded as a traitor if you do not support, let’s say, Sudan or Zimbabwe over England, and quite a few Scots have the jerseys of other teams in the closet; just in case they play England. But this is an identity is born out of a sense of weakness in ones own team (and a boat-load of history, no matter how distorted). The Germans, in contrast, have consistently good teams (even when they think that they don’t) so why the aping of Team Nike?

My hypothesis? Its because the Germans are not allowed to have a national identity. So they seek the one that they would like to have, cool, bohemian, good dancers, suntans etc., – hence the mindless Brazil-jocking. The Germans I spoke to regarding this (admittedly unscientifically derived) hypothesis remarked that showing the German flag as much as they do at the moment (in the middle of hosting the tournament) is unprecedented. Yet as a US resident, I see more Stars and Stripes in the my local 7-11 than I have in the whole of Mitte. So, having seen the game and gotten some sense of where the cosmopolitanism of the Germans comes from (as usual, from inter-generational war guilt), it was time to go home to our local bar in Mitte. And when we did, the other side of my world cup came into sharp relief.

We ran into an Irish bloke and I asked him if he thought it odd that not just in the stadium, but here on the street there were thousands of Germans, who were hosting the damn tournament and have a good team, wearing another team’s colors. After all, could you imagine the Irish having two tops in the closet? The response was of course “well, you have to admit that they are the best team ever.” I did not, and things got heated. Maradona was better and did more than Pele – period. They scraped their way to the final in France and were deservedly hammered, etc. But then he responded with the clincher argument. I was sitting with Alex Cooley, and he was contributing to the conversation. So our Irish friend pointed out that as an American he knew fuck all about anything about football so we should shut up. Brilliant logic. So there you have it. Nationalism trumps cosmopolitanism in the defense of an over-hyped team most people know bugger all about while sitting in a city filled with Germans in denial. I was having a blast – and the best was yet to come.