Soccer Is Not A National Metaphor

World Cup Faces: A gallery of images

South African journalists generally looked forward to the World Cup with loathing, anticipating that all the thorny political and corruption stories they struggle even under normal circumstances to get readers interested in would be buried under an avalanche of trivial game broadcasts and match reports pumped out by foreign sportswriters. And so, one afternoon not long before the kickoff, a group of local writers were grousing about the World Cup over lunch in Johannesburg. At one point, a spirit of confession took hold, and one of them revealed he was planning to write a little about the soccer. “Oh,” said another, sympathetically. “You must mean soccer as metaphor.”

He didn’t. He meant soccer as soccer, actually: deep world-historical issues like dribbling, crossing, and scoring goals. But his companion was more prescient. This has become the World Cup of soccer-as-metaphor. We’ve watched dribbling, crossing, and scoring of a particular team described as a reflection of its nation’s political situation, national mood, or future trajectory. An Italy loss represents the decline of Old Europe. A Ghana win represents the economic aspirations of the entire African continent. And so forth. But this is a category error. It’s wrong to assume the most beautiful people are the smartest, and it’s also wrong to imagine the most capable nations in this World Cup are much other than capable at soccer.

This conflation began this year with South Africa. It wasn’t an unreasonable instinct, in the beginning. You could find plenty of clues to South Africa’s greater well-being in its preparations to host the World Cup: Could it handle all the logistics involved, just 15 years after the transition out of apartheid? Could the local governments in scandal-ridden provinces like Mpumalanga get it together to finish their stadiums in time? Could crime, the national scourge, be kept in check? Would black and white fans unite to attend the games?

world-cup-quiz-intro How the Cup Stacks Up: A World Cup quiz Matthew Ashton/AMA

But as kickoff approached, the mad search for soccer synecdoche extended from preparations to the performance of the South African soccer team itself. “DO IT FOR MANDELA,” headlines screamed the morning Bafana Bafana took on Mexico in the tournament’s opener, as if a triumph on the pitch would somehow ratify Mandela’s greater work to reconcile the country after black liberation. Then, the team’s subsequent 3–0 loss to Uruguay supposedly reflected the ways in which South Africans had fallen short of Mandela’s standard—like their tendency to “thrive when their confidence is up but wilt quickly in adversity,” as one newspaper put it. And as South Africa’s nervous, unfocused second effort stood in for the country’s current growing pains and lack of unity, so the score in its final match-up against France was held to be a sort of set of chicken bones that could divine whether the country would set itself right in the end. “All South Africans should appreciate that support for Bafana Bafana is support for South Africa as a country and its ability to overcome all difficulties,” asserted the youth branch of the ruling political party in an official statement. Or, as one fan explained it to the South African wire service: “Bafana Bafana is us!”

I suspect France would rather not imagine that Les Bleus are them, given the team’s unbelievable flameout in a bathetic melodrama of losses, intra-team screaming matches, and strikes by the players. But France the team has also been endlessly compared with France the country. I mean, going on strike: that’s so French! More alarmingly, the team’s meltdown is said to foretell of a coming racial meltdown back home. The New York Times wrote a whole article from Paris about it, in which a French philosopher explained that the players’ behavior mirrored the unrest of the North African youth in the ghettos around Paris. The multiracial soccer team “behaved as individuals,” said the politician Marine Le Pen, neatly demonstrating how it may be impossible for France ever to forge a multicultural national identity.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, we Americans were celebrating Team America’s redemption of American identity. Landon Donovan’s last-gasp goal in the game against Algeria seemed not merely fabulous but fabulously Yankee. It reflected our resilience, our earnestness, our up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy of believing perseverance can overcome any obstacle, even up to and including lack of actual talent. “Landon Donovan scores game-winner that embodies American spirit,” shouted the headline in the New York Daily News. “Whatever, however, the U.S. will find a way,” proclaimed the New York Post. My old colleague at The New Republic, Franklin Foer, went so far as to declare the U.S. team’s “temerity” a “potent tool for our public diplomacy.”

Which made it all the more perplexing when the United States flubbed its next game, against Ghana. Hey, what happened? This was supposed to have been soccer’s “Barack Obama moment,” Foer lamented. I guess that makes Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan soccer’s Deepwater Horizon.

Maybe the Americans lost because the Ghanaian team happens to play better soccer, not because the last year or so has revealed the general fragility of Barack Obama moments. Now, it’s undeniably fun to read something bigger into the World Cup. It’s a contest of nations that falls somewhere between real life and Risk: the countries are real, but their jostle for top-dog status comes to a satisfyingly conclusive end, unlike actual history. One country wins. And it’s hard to resist the temptation to think the final score vindicates the winner’s whole culture and governing philosophy, not just its coach. It’s especially hard to resist if you don’t know much about the game itself.

But the conflation has sharp limits. Take France. Twelve years ago, France won the World Cup—and the 3–0 blowout against Brazil was heralded as evidence that multiculturalism was working. The Los Angeles Times called the win “an unassailable argument that generations of immigrants have brought into France a rich flow of talent, physical strength and brains.” One politician lauded the soccer team’s “secret mission” to teach a “lesson” of “unity” to the French people. I guess les Français weren’t very good pupils, because four years later the right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second in the presidential election.

Or consider Switzerland. The team that shocked Spain in the qualification stage is more multiethnic than the Spanish squad—which fields Turks, Albanians, a Congolese, and a Cape Verdean. But what does that mean in the year Switzerland voted to ban minarets?

Anyway, investing so much meaning in a team can be not only silly, but dangerous. France needs a national identity crisis like it needs a hole in the head, and it really doesn’t need one triggered by something as trivial as a grudgematch between a soccer player and his coach. Down here in South Africa, I’ve heard more than a few whine-fests about the soccer team turn into whine-fests about the entire country. Bafana Bafana is twenty-three guys. It isn’t the soul of the nation.

Yesterday, Ghana took on Uruguay in a quarterfinal match in Johannesburg. As the last team from Africa in the running, they had a not-so-secret mission: to prove the whole continent is on the upswing. Most South Africans I know—white and black—rooted for Ghana now, and not because they particularly revere Asamoah Gyan’s footwork. When I watched the team beat the U.S. last weekend with a South African friend in a Cape Town bar, I suggested it was a little ridiculous to cheer for America’s loss in my face when he couldn’t even find Accra on a map. “I have to root for my people,” he huffed. How about supporting Germany, then: one of Ghana’s top players, the Ghanaian-German defender Jerome Boateng, plays for the German national team.

If you need to assign this World Cup a metaphor, it would the breakdown of international borders altogether. But I like the attitude of my one South African friend who is rooting for Germany. Is it because of Boateng’s story? Does he enjoy Berlin? Admire something about the “German spirit”? No, he told me, laughing. He likes how Germany attacks down the middle when it plays soccer.

Eve Fairbanks is a writer living in South Africa as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.