on the world cup — june 2014

My only regret so far is seeing Ghana go down. The Ghana eleven always deliver the bang for the buck entertainment-wise, even if their bucks arrive with bagmen….”


by mike morgan


Work and the rigor of the daily grind aside, I currently find myself glued to the telly, absorbed by the international football spectacle in Brazil. As I write this, the first round of the tournament has been completed. I don’t trust myself with predictions (I thought the Republican Guard was going to stop the U.S. military in Iraq War #1 back in January, 1991 – so much for that). When you read these words, the end-result of the whole shebang might well be old hat and any opinion now, let alone mine, as to whom might beat whom has as much value as Lehman Brothers paper.

In my Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, I consider myself a veteran soccer spectator, especially if one looks at the latest breed of younger hipster fans that crowd the gin palaces for the games. They are familiar with the jargon, the haircuts, the players, the outfits, even the off-side rule. They know it all. I don’t even try to contend with them. They certainly outnumber my generation. But they somehow haven’t earned the pedigree yet. Their fervor for the U.S. team is unabashed. These newer conscripts might have to learn the hard way.

I believe my football-watching credentials stem from a combination of age, memory and a limited ability to apply the lessons of history to the unfolding drama. My first World Cup learning experience was in 1966, the last time England hosted it, and the last and sole time that they won it too. I was an eleven year-old brat in Durban, South Africa back then, with newspapers and the radio providing the only informational outlets. The 1966 World Cup was the competition of the recently deceased Portuguese dynamo Eusebio, of Lev Yashin, the Soviet-Russian goalie known as “The Black Panther,” and of the short, steely English midfielder Nobby Stiles. Imagine trying to keep up with today’s crowd of superstars when you’re stuck with the handle Nobby. No Ronaldo when it came to flashy Adonis looks, Nobby Stiles sported a comb-over that covered his rapidly balding pate. He had false gnashers too, and the photo of him holding the trophy aloft in one hand and his dentures in the other at Wembley remains a classic World Cup image. Nobby Stiles was indeed an unlikely candidate for the Colgate Toothpaste advertising contract. That 1966 campaign was captured in a compelling feature-length documentary film “Goal,” now virtually impossible to find.

Since 1966, I floated in and out of World Cups, missing large chunks of some, catching parts of a few, while vividly recalling most others. There are snippets of memories worth mentioning: Argentina hosting the 1978 event in football stadiums where only weeks before “The Disappeared” (Los Desaparecidos) had actually disappeared, courtesy of the junta; the heavily Yorkshire accented play-call announcer in the 1986 affair who completely gave up on the correct pronunciation of any foreign players’ names and absolutely butchered that of the West German captain, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge; wondering how long English football firms might stay alive should they export their brand of primitive violence to the Southside of Chicago in 1994 – bottlenecks versus Glocks; did Marco Materazzi call Zidane Zidane “a dirty terrorist” before the head butt in 2006?; Colm Meaney’s tee-shirt in the film of the Roddy Doyle book “The Van” which read “Fuck Scillaci!” after Italy knocked out Ireland in the 1990 quarterfinals; and the poor English goalkeeper Robert Green’s monumental gaffe known as the boo-boozela at Rustenburg, South Africa in 2010.

Big guns in this World Cup have already been eliminated. The mighty Spanish galleon has hit the reef, sunk with all hands missing. The Italians, who survived the next rumble in the jungle, surrendered in a manner that would do their war record proud. And as for England, their effort is best summed up on the latest cover of Private Eye Magazine, Peter Cook’s birth-child. It shows a photograph of the English squad deplaning in Brazil. A bubble comes out of the cockpit inquiring “Should I keep the engines running?”

The Vaquero teams are on the rise…Costa Rica, Colombia, Uruguay, Mexico and Chile. I recently read a thoroughly engrossing yarn by Hank Wangford entitled “Lost Cowboys.” Hank Wangford is an English Country and Western artist. He’s a bit of a nutter in the same quirky tradition as earlier fellow countrymen loons, Screaming Lord Sutch and Long John Baldry, except Hank has more twang. The book is a travelogue about his journeys during the mid-nineties from the tip of southern Patagonia to the Alamo in search of the original Latin American cowboys, who were horsemen long before their northern counterparts. It’s a real rangy lark, full of history, booze, Gaucho gear, Pampas grub and music. Hank Wangford recalls the war-cry of the Llaneros cavalry in Venezuela who rode against the occupiers, land-barons and the Conquistadores. Because things became a tad confusing in the heat of battle and because allegiances changed, the Llaneros settled on “Viva Fulano de Tal!” – “Long Live…Whoever!”

That is how I feel about this World Cup. Screw the loaded powerhouse usual lot…Argentina, Holland, Germany, Brazil, France, etc. Let the shoeless peoples have their day. This is a huge part of what makes the competition so intriguing. My only regret so far is seeing Ghana go down. The Ghana eleven always deliver the bang for the buck entertainment-wise, even if their bucks arrive with bagmen.

And then there is the U.S. presence. They are a likeable team, Klinsmann, Howard, Dempsey and the rest. So far to their credit, they have held their own. In another time, perhaps I might wish them the best. The problem is all of the surrounding tub-thumping and other assorted nonsense and hypocrisy that come with being a U.S. national entity on a world stage. Prior to their game against Portugal last Sunday, the television promotion showed a solitary Tim Howard atop a hill, waving the old flag Iwo Jima style. That’s standard operating procedure for internal consumption, irritating but predictable. It is the accompanying commentary that is indigestible and ahistorical baloney…”Alone, on foreign soil, for the first time.” They’re a football team for pity’s sake, not a Special Forces Unit or an Amphibious Assault Task Force. I am sure that every competing nation in the World Cup has its own variety of patriotic schlock (“shlag” for the Germans). But it is different when this comes from one of the richest countries in the world, a country not ashamed to militarily occupy others nor to wave the lethal big stick, a country whose fan base is substantially more privileged than those who live further south or are locked-out immigrants here from there. Little effort is made to distinguish the aspirations of the U.S. soccer squad from those of the U.S. as a superpower and self-appointed world enforcer. A much greater effort is made to combine them. The homeland audience does not seem very interested in discerning any distinction. Latching onto the football underdog label doesn’t quite cut it here, but merely amps up the opportunities for more exaggerated doublespeak. This intertwined posture makes it harder to feel joy or sorrow for the U.S. team and their legions of supporters when things do or don’t go their own way.

The football that is being played out all over Brazil is riveting. I have never understood why they wait four long years to do this. It is unfair to the rest of us. So where is the rub? For me, it’s encapsulated in a single acronym…FIFA, the governing world football body.

FIFA is rotten to the core. This is almost universally accepted. FIFA is so corrupt that even its apologists have a rough time defending it. Here is a small example. My sister Bronnie and her husband Norms live in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Some World Cup games were played there in 2010, including the one when Holland beat Brazil in the quarterfinals. Everybody in Port Elizabeth was excited, the big show was coming to town. Small business people optimistically thought that this might be their payday. FIFA, with its inimitable sense of community needs, banned all local street vendors within blocks of the Nelson Mandela stadium. The choice of available drinks was limited to Coca-Cola and Budweiser, a.k.a. formaldehyde, ensuring that the corporate sponsors were the only ones getting a payday.

And then there is the Qatar madness. With palms greased aplenty by the House of Thani, the ruling family of Qatar, FIFA went ahead and awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Qatar has two separate populations, the smaller local Arab bourgeoisie and everybody else, who all happen to be migrant laborers from countries like India, Bangladesh and as far away as the Philippines. These are the construction workers, the taxi-drivers, the street sweepers, the cleaners, the lowly clerks, the maintenance people, the road builders, the ditch diggers, the housemaids and nannies…the grunts. Already close to a thousand workers have died erecting stadiums in the desert heat. Most of these people are trapped documents-wise in this fiefdom, unable to return home, whether they want to or not. Let me tell you, if the World Cup had been hosted by South Africa in 1986, there would have been an international outcry, rightfully so. Qatar today sounds eerily similar to South Africa then, a minority ruling elite with the usual flunkies, and a majority of desperate people on hand to serve them. It’s a genuine five-star bwana/missus construct. This is the place that FIFA believes is deserving of a World Cup. That should tell you everything you need to know about FIFA.

But the FIFA il Duce Sepp Blatter (what a great name for a toad) is not Chicharito, the Mexican forward. Nor is he James Rodriguez, the Colombian goal scoring machine, nor Joel Campbell, the Costa Rican winger, nor Sully Muntari, the ball-hawking Ghanaian. And this is where the rub ain’t, watching these guys play. They make me a willing witness. For this I won’t apologize. I wish the World Cup would never end, then I could become Smokebox’s roving investigative cub reporter, their Tintin of soccer. And for those of you worried about biters or a certain player with canine tendencies, there is an easy solution to that problem. Uruguay should recruit the next Nobby Stiles.

-Friday, June 27, 2014
Originally published:
Issue Sixty-Nine
July 2014

A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.


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