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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

What the New Yorker does and doesn't get about "soccer"

Once every four years in the run up to the World Cup, the New Yorker runs a feature about what it has to call "soccer". These pieces, with their distinctive blend of great respect and polite puzzlement, are something I have come to look forward to. They are generally the best things written about football because they take nothing for granted. After the tournament in France in 1996 the magazine's Paris correspondent, Adam Gopnik, who grew up in Europe, wrote a memorable despatch in which he unpacked his theory that soccer's essentially tragic nature, in which the bad guys (the defenders) generally prevail, made it fundamentally unappealing to Americans who like to see the triumph of the men in the white hats.

This year they've got Hampton Sides to profile the American goalkeeper Tim Howard ahead of the England-USA game this weekend. As usual it's a good read, although it falters slightly when it has to describe the English self image when it comes to football. It says England is (note the giveaway singular) "good but rarely as good as its fanatical supporters believe".

I can imagine how you might get the impression of iron fanaticism if all you read was the copy on special promotional six packs of lager. No true Englishman really believes that the team are that good. In fact, far from believing that other nations have hardly any right to play the game, as the piece implies later on, we are predisposed to think most nations are better at it than we are. It is only when we have been worked upon by our two key industries, the deadly tandem of brewing and media, that we allow ourselves to unleash the fateful lightning of that fragile spark of optimism that flickers in our breast and briefly entertain the idea that we are contenders. Come six o'clock on Saturday night we will be swaggering conquerors. By ten o'clock it will be a different story. What the New Yorker, admirable though it is, doesn't understand is what all the ancient football-playing nations off the world understand. The despair you can handle; it's the hope that does you every time .