A World Cup Miscellany: Group C

This is the third in series of (relatively) brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A and Group B). The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, and to utilize Eric Hobsbawn’s notion that “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” Take these group previews for what they are worth (which is mostly as filler while Tom is re-charging Pitch Invasion)…

The catty British press, I’m told, has labeled Group C with the acronym EASY: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks.  And it is true that by on-field stature there is not much here: England were probably lucky to be seeded, the US ranking of 14th in the world is widely understood to be inflated by a weak region, while Algeria (ranked 31st in the world) and Slovenia (ranked 23rd) are decidedly middling.  As a quartet of places, however, the group has some verve.

The England v US thing has, of course, dominated the Anglo-American media and has indeed been fun to watch.  I particularly enjoyed a brief exchange between Jon Stewart and Hugh Grant back in December soon after the World Cup draw had been announced.  Stewart, known to fans as a former college soccer player at William and Mary, started the interview by wanting to know of the English: “Are you fearing us?”

Grant was dismissive.  “I’m always surprised that you [Americans] have a male football team.  Because it’s a female game here—it’s little girls that play it, right?”  And then he gave Stewart a look that can only be described as snide.

After more jocularity and more burnishing of imagined masculinities, Stewart got to the point: “I just think that if we do beat you, it really does in some respects put the final nail in the Empire.”

It was all funny and charming in a way the befits the entertainment industry, but I remember it for something else: at the end of the interview it was fairly clear that underneath the guise of playful World Cup banter Stewart and Grant had realized they genuinely didn’t like each other.  True, that dislike was enhanced by the fact that Grant was there to hype a terrible movie that Stewart had clearly not bothered to learn anything about.  But it was real dislike.  On an iconic American TV show.  And it was (partially) about winning a soccer game.

That thematic, a sort of faux good humor edged by real investment of identity, may aptly characterize Group C.  The English have long had it and the Americans are getting it, while for the Algerians and the Slovenians I’m mostly guessing.  In fact, to an outsider Algeria actually seems to be a pretty serious place—the epic clashes with the Egyptians to qualify for this World Cup, the classic war movie The Battle of Algiers, Franz Fanon, Albert Camus, the Zidane lineage, etc..  But the Slovenians must have a reasonable sense of humor if only to deal with geographically-challenged Americans who have a hard time remembering how it is different from Slovakia (one obliging web-site even has a comparison table, including the helpful hint that Slovakia is ex-Czechoslovakia while Slovenia is ex-Yugoslavia).  So let’s turn to the facts.

Group C: The Group of _______________

Likely the most famous confusion about Slovenia/Slovakia is the story about former US president George W. Bush, who had met a Slovene delegation during his time as a governor.  Later Bush told a Slovak journalist: “The only thing I know about Slovakia is what I learned first-hand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas.”  Wrong Slov…. G.W..  Luckily, an organization called the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) came to the rescue with a helpful web-page noting that the key difference between Slovenia and Slovakia is that “Slovakia hasn’t joined the international boycott of Texas…yet!”

The point of the CCADP , beyond just mocking George W. Bush, was that Texas is famous as the death penalty capital of the Western world—bringing some morbid intrigue to a moniker like the ‘Group of Death’ and provoking me to make the esoteric statistic for Group C about executions.  Which turns out to be quite an easy calculation for this World Cup: according to Amnesty International, only 3 countries of the 32 in the World Cup committed any executions in 2009—the US, Japan, and North Korea.  Though the exact numbers aren’t available for North Korea, as a nation the US would seem to be the World Cup leader in barbarity with 52 documented executions during 2009 (compared to 7 in Japan).  There are several other countries in the World Cup that still proffer death sentences but haven’t actually executed anyone recently (including Algeria, which sentenced “at least 100” people to death in 2009, but had a government imposed moratorium on actual executions), but the United Kingdom and Slovenia are among the 95 countries in the world “whose laws do not provide for the death penalty for any crime.”

In contrast to statistics on executions, Group C also happens to be the group that comes out highest for this World Cup in its average ranking on the UN Human Development Index—mostly because the US, England, and Slovenia all have relatively high standards of living, while Algeria is the highest of the African countries (its per capita income is significantly lower than South Africa, but that is made up for by a significantly higher life expectancy).  Group C also has the most populous country (the US with 309 million people) and the least populous country (Slovenia with 2 million people) in the competition.

Overall, however, in thinking about this group I can’t stop going back to Jon Stewart’s comment about putting “the final nail in the Empire.”  These countries all in their own way are globally associated with very different versions of colonialisms—Britian in its faded glory, America as a hegemonic abstraction, the Algerians in their fierce independence fight against the French, and Slovenia with an appropriately small “Ten-Day War” to dissociate itself from Yugoslavia.  Ultimately, then, I’m labeling Group C the ‘Group of Confusing Postcolonialims.’

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

To start here, I must make clear that I am an American kid, and a US fan—I’ve got the US Supporters Club scarf to prove it.  I’ve also got tickets for all three US group games in South Africa, and there is no question who I would like to see win: U-S-A.  But to be fair and balanced, 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 cannot try to take a global perspective and say that we deserve to go through.  First, there is the arrogance of having laid a plan 12 years ago to win this specific World Cup—along with the presumption that Carlos Queiroz was the man to explain how to get to the promise land (he of the failed stints with the MetroStars and Real Madrid).  And then there is the fact that as a frequently reviled global bully away from soccer, the relative mediocrity of the US men’s team sometimes feels like a bit of a relief: at least with soccer an American abroad doesn’t have to pretend to be Canadian.  So while I’ll be rooting proudly for the US in South Africa, for present purposes they are out.

For Slovenia they get immense credit just for making it this far—and being a legitimate threat to go through.  The whole country of Slovenia has fewer people than my fair city of Portland Oregon (the Portland metropolitan area has around 2.2 million people, while Slovenia has about 2.1 million), and my Portland Timbers can’t even beat Crystal Palace Baltimore let alone a Russian squad managed by Dutch master Gus Hiddink (as Slovenia did in the World Cup qualification play-off).  But with all due respect, I just don’t know how much it means to Slovenia: from everything I read it just seems like a nice, comfortable place and I suspect it will stay that way whether they advance or not.  So they are out.

Which leaves me feeling ok about suggesting that England and Algeria should advance if there were any justice in the world (which there usually is not)—for both countries advancing in the World Cup just seems like the type of thing that would matter a lot.  The English (probably) did invent the game, after all, and the Algerians certainly deserve some recompense for “The Shame of Gijon” (the debacle where the Germans and Austrians conspired to keep Algeria from advancing in the 1982 World Cup).  The University of Algeria also deserves some credit for offering the game some of its best intellectual pseudo-credibility in the famous quote from Albert Camus when asked about his time playing in goal for Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA): “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA.”

Unfortunately, according to The Albert Camus Society of the UK: “People have read more into these words than, perhaps, Camus would want them to. He was referring to a kind of simple morality he wrote about in his early essays, an ethic of sticking up for your friends, of valuing courage and fair-play. Camus believed that the people of politics and religion try to confuse us with convoluted moral systems to make things appear more complicated than they really are, possibly to suit their own agendas. People may do better to look to the simple morality of the football field than to politicians and philosophers.”

Wait, so the point was actually that looking for morals in football is juvenile?

Group C – Some Stats

FIFA rank Betting odds on winning the Cup Population GDP per capita Rank out of 182 nations on the Human Development Index Life expectancy Prisoners put to death in 2009 A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)
England 8 6.5 51.5 mil. $34600 21 79.4 yrs. 0 1
USA 14 80 309 mil. $46400 13 78.2 yrs. 52 25
Algeria 31 600 35 mil. $6700 104 72.3 yrs. 0 12
Slovenia 23 300 2 mil. $27600 29 77.9 yrs. 0 24
*Note that the statistics reported here for ‘England’ are often actual data for Great Britain as a whole—since that is what is usually available in international comparisons.
- 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.”
– Number of prisoners executed in 2009 is based on data from Amnesty International and is available 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.

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