A World Cup Miscellany: Group B

In trying to think through the nations and the teams of Group B, I could not shake from my mind the word diabolical.  And I mean that in the best possible way.  Argentina with its strangely alluring combination of Latin style and ruthlessness; its claim to having hosted perhaps the most politically dubious World Cup of them all in 1978.  Nigeria with its 4-1-9 scammers and its prize winning writers; its enigmatic and brilliant Super Eagles dominating FIFA age-group competitions with players of uncertain age.  Greece with its recent protests for the workers of a bankrupt state; its cynical and magnificent 2004 European Championship on the back of 7 goals in 6 games.  South Korea…well, they seem ok.  It is a “random draw” after all.  But I admire them each in their ways.

Group B thus inspired me to go back to one of my favorite academic articles on the game, in which anthropologist Jeff Tobin draws on his experiences in Argentina to write about “Soccer Conspiracies: Maradona, the CIA, and Popular Critique.”  The central question he raises is about the relationship between soccer and politics.  Tobin references Umberto Eco as the typical intellectual who considers sport a potentially dangerous distraction:

“According to Eco, to the extent that we ponder sports instead of politics, we are all like the Argentines who welcomed the spectacle of the [1978] World Cup as an escape from thinking and talking about the military dictatorship: [now quoting Eco] ‘Sports debate is the easiest substitute for political debate.  Instead of judging the job done by the minister of finance (for which you have to know about economics, among other things), you discuss the job done by the coach; instead of criticizing the record of Parliament you criticize the record of the athletes; instead of asking (difficult and obscure questions) if such-and-such a minister signed some shady agreements with such-and-such a foreign power, you ask if the final or decisive game will be decided by chance, athletic prowess, or by diplomatic alchemy.  In short, it allows you to play at the direction of the government without all the sufferings, the duties, the imponderables of political debate…And at a moment like this, concerning oneself with the running of the government (the real one) is traumatic.  So faced with such a choice, we are all Argentines (Eco 1986: 171).’”

But Tobin disagrees with Eco.  He places himself amidst the “us who in the midst of governmental turmoil, general strikes, and even revolutions, persist in asking such questions as: ‘How did you become a Boca fan?’ ‘Who taught you that dance step?’ or ‘Do you salt the meat before or after putting in on the grill?’”  And Tobin sees Maradona himself as an embodiment of the common man who tries, with varying degrees of success, to use soccer as a lever on politics.  In Maradona’s bizarrely intense friendship with Fidel Castro, his insistence that his expulsion from the 1994 World Cup for drug use was a “CIA-style plot against him,” and the rest of his moderately delusional life, Tobin argues that Maradona feeds the mass critical consciousness:

“In the case of Argentine soccer, conspiracy theories produce a map of the occult economic and political forces that structure the soccer fan’s everyday life.  The theories serve to construct an image of the world in which ‘fair play,’ like ‘free trade,’ is exposed as an illusion, trusted only by giles (suckers).  Eco argues that in talk about soccer, ‘the strength that the citizen had at his disposal for political debate is vitiated and disciplined’ (Eco 1986: 163) and Sebreli writes that thinking about soccer ‘is a sort of training in escaping from oneself, in not doubting, not criticizing, not discussing, not thinking’ (Sebreli 1981:151), but I would argue that conspiracy theorizing trains soccer fans precisely to doubt, to criticize, to discuss, and to think.”

So what does this all mean for Group B?  Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps it is all just meaningless theorizing.  Perhaps whoever advances will have really been the best team on the field on the day.  Perhaps.

Group B: The Group of _______________

But enough abstraction.  What are the facts?  Frankly, there is little amongst the nations of Group B that stands out to me.

Nigeria, I suppose it is worth noting, is fairly easily the largest country in Africa by population with 155 million people.  That also makes Nigeria the third most populous country in the World Cup (behind the US with about 309 million, and Brazil with about 192 million).  But those numbers also remind me that many of the most populous countries in the world won’t actually be in South Africa because they aren’t that good at soccer.  Though there is a general correlation between population size, the numbers in a country’s talent pool, and the success of a national team, this World Cup is another reminder that the correlation is far from perfect: the whole continent of Africa has fewer people than India alone.  There are almost nine Chinese for every one Nigerian.  The fact that China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Russia failed to qualify means South Africa 2010 is missing over half of the 10 largest countries in the world: it is missing about half the world’s population in those 6 countries alone.  As the MBA’s might say, lots of potential for fresh markets.

The one weird thing that did stand out as I combed through obscure statistics was that, compared with the averages for the other seven World Cup groups, this group looks a little sad—in a literal, emotional sense: not counting Group H (since there is no data available for North Korea), Group B has the lowest average rank on ‘satisfaction with life’ among 176 nations ranked by the University of Leicester (the Argentines are the sunny ones at 56th in the world, followed by Greece at 84th, South Korea at 102nd, and Nigeria at 120th).  Perhaps not coincidentally, as a quartet this group of nations also seems to have the highest per capita alcohol consumption of any in the World Cup (though the individual honors go to Germany).  Ultimately, then, combining the conspiracies with the dissatisfactions and the liquor, I’m labeling Group B the ‘Group of Drowned Sorrows.’

Who would advance if there were any justice in the world?

Again drawing off my secret formula combining soccer history and global politics (ie, completely subjective and having little to do with who actually plays the best soccer), I find myself torn.  Despite it being fairly clear that Maradona has virtually no idea what he is doing as a manager, let alone in the rest of his life, Argentina maintains a perplexing allure.  I still remember fondly the awe I felt growing up watching the Argentine 11 step onto the pitch in their glorious blue and white stripes, a band of shaggy haired assassins ready to dance, destroy, or both.  But the cult of Maradona at this point feels too overwhelming, and I’m skeptical of kirchnerismo as a long term solution.  So Argentina is out.

Otherwise, I always have a soft-spot in my heart for the African nations, but I have little emotional connection to Nigeria (other than learning over the week-end that Team USA members Oguchi Onyewu and Maurice Edu are both sons of Nigerian parents) and know that the reputation of Nigerians across Africa tends to not be good (see, for example, ‘District 9’).  I also find the appointment of Swede Lars Lagerback as Nigeria’s manager for the World Cup to be among the more bizarre moves in a bothersome pattern of African teams being coached by short-time Europeans with little local knowledge.  I do want to support a country whose recently confirmed president is named Goodluck Jonathan (an academic with a penchant for fedora-like hats nonetheless!), but I just can’t do it.  Nigeria is out.

So purely by process of elimination, from my completely subjective standpoint if there were any justice in the world South Korea and Greece would advance from Group B.  But keep in mind, there is rarely any justice in the world.

Group B – Some Stats

FIFA rank Betting odds on winning the Cup Population GDP per capita in US$ Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index Life exp. Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually Rank of 178 nations on ‘satisfaction with life’ A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)
Argentina 7 7.5 40 mil. 14600 49 75.3 8.4 56 8
Nigeria 20 125 155 mil. 2250 158 46.9 10.57 120 9
South Korea 47 250 49.7 mil. 28000 26 78.6 7.87 102 28
Greece 12 150 11.3 mil. 30000 25 79.5 9 84 21
- FIFA rank is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking” updated April 28th, 2010
- Betting odds on winning the World Cup are from the “win-market” best odds as of May 12th on the Guardian web-site.
- Population is rounded from estimates drawing on various sources in Wikipedia.
- GDP per capita is in US dollars and based on 2008 list by the International Monetary Fund “derived from purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations.”
- The Human Development Index rank is from the United Nations Development Program combining 2007 data on “Life Expectancy, Education, Standard of living and GDP.”
- Life expectancy in years is based on the 2009 list from the CIA World Factbook for “overall life expectancy at birth.”
– Per capita litres of pure alcohol consumed annually is based on consumption among adults based on data available through the World Health Organization Statistical Information System.
- Rank on ‘satisfaction with life’ is based on data analyzed by Adrian G. White of the University of Leicester (and reported here)
- The 1-32 ranking of how much the World Cup matters is my own totally subjective sense of how much the country as a whole cares about how the team performs in South Africa; it is intended entirely in fun.
Andrew Guest writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. He is an academic social scientist and soccer addict living in Portland, Oregon.  Having worked (and played) in Malawi and Angola, he has a particular interest in Africa.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.

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