A World Cup Miscellany: Group D

This is the fourth in series of miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, and Group C).  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.”

This is the second time around for the teams of Group D.  It is the only quartet in the tournament comprised of four teams who were also at the World Cup in 2006 (so long as we stretch a bit by allowing an independent Serbia to substitute for 2006’s ‘Serbia and Montenegro’).  While that may mean something about big game experience, for my miscellany series it means better writers than I have already done the hard work: Ghana, Serbia, Australia, and Germany were all covered in my sacred book, the 2006 Thinking Fans Guide to the World Cup.  So I thought I’d turn the introduction over to them, selecting excerpts from longer essays on each:

Here’s British author Geoff Dyer on Serbia (and Montenegro—as they were combined in 2006):

“I could be wrong, could have been unduly influenced by Rebecca West’s belief ‘that acceptance of tragedy…is the basis of Slav life,’ but it should not be assumed that all teams attending the World Cup actually want to win it.  We hear much about the will to win; the idea of choking is taken as a tightening up, a defeat brought about by wanting too badly to win.  But there is also a will to lose.  We English know all about this.  Chris Waddle succumbed to it in Italy ’90.  Something in his English heart—and in ours too—craved defeat, shame, the taste of ashes in the mouth.  The urge does not usually manifest itself so simply.  Ideally one wants to feel wronged, cheated, robbed, betrayed.  The Serbs will not win the World Cup but they might achieve their goal: to crash out as a result of some error of their own which is either compounded by or—even better—indistinguishable from a decision by referees or linesmen who have been duped by the cunning of the opposition who are themselves in cahoots with FIFA.  ‘Only part of us is sane,’ writes Rebecca West, ‘only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in piece, in a house that we build, that shall shelter those who come after us.  The other half of us is nearly mad.  It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.’

History plays a part in this.  No one in England can remember anything about football from before the 1966 World Cup.  But in Serbia, I imagine, people remember incidents and talking points from every game since the dawn of time.  This also occurs within the context of an individual match.  X fouls Y because Y fouled him because he was fouled by X…As I understand the Serbian mentality there are always prior offenses to be taken into account.  That’s why the Serbian writer Vesna Goldsworthy begins Chernobyl Strawberries, her memoir of growing up in Belgrade, with an epigraph from Wittgenstein: ‘It is difficult to find the beginning.  Or better; it is difficult to begin at the beginning, and not to try to go further back.”

Here’s British novelist Ben Rice writing about his wife’s home country, imagining what it must have been like to play in Australia’s world record 31-0 thrashing of American Samoa (back when the Socceroos had to play preliminary qualifiers in the Oceania region):

“You are killing the American Samoans.  By halftime you have bagged six goals, more than you’ve scored in an entire season for the Serie A side where you play your club football.  If you liked you could wheel on a gas Barbie, cook up some prawns, have a few beers, make love to a beautiful woman right here on the pitch, and probably score a few more.  But you get no pleasure from this game.  It is nice to be home, bloody oath it is, but despite the vast improvement to your international goal stats, you are miserable.  It’s a bloody farce.  The fans are already barracking for the opposition.  Some of them are leaving.  Your coach has fallen asleep on the sideline.  And one of these American Samoans, you can’t fail to notice, is young enough to be your kid.

Your mates back in Italy will just assume football in Australia has an entirely different scoring system.  You will never be taken seriously.  You consider suggesting to the referee that you play without a goalkeeper, that you play blindfolded, that you withdraw half your team from the field, or offer your opponents a twenty goal cushion to make more of a game of it, but you know this will not help; if anything it will only reinforce the amateurishness of the contest.  And then it hits you—the only decent way to make the organizers appreciate your plight is by creating a massive comedy scoreline, a scoreline that will hopefully transmit the message that soccer deserves a proper place in the sporting psyche of the nation.”

Here’s British writer Caryl Phillips on Ghana:

“In August 2005 I sat on a crowded British Airways jet that was flying from London to Accra.  Seated all around me were the players and coaches of the Black Stars—the Ghanaian national football team—who, the previous evening, had drawn 1-1 in a friendly match with Senegal that had been played in London at the ground of Brentford Football Club.  The players were polite, relatively quiet, and displayed good manners and behavior of a type that one would never expect from an equivalent group of English players.  An hour into the flight one player tapped me on the shoulder and politely asked if he might ‘borrow’ my iPod, while another player eyed my newspaper until I folded it in half and offered it to him.  It appeared that these young men did not have much in the way of material possessions; in fact, I had seen better kitted-out high school teams, and the mind boggled when one realized that by contrast with their own seemingly modest lifestyles, one of their teammates, Michael Essien, had just been transferred from Lyon to Chelsea for $40 million and was earning more than $75,000 per week.  In fact, he probably earned enough in one half-hour stretching session in the gym to equip all of his teammates with iPods.  Of course, Michael Essien was not on the flight.  He had remained behind in London, but as I somewhat self-consciously listened to my music I wondered just what kind of a cohesive team spirit could possibily be engendered in a squad of players where First and Third World values clashed so crudely.

Three months later, Ghana qualified for its first-ever World Cup appearance…”

Here’s Der Spiegel journalist Alexander Osang, who grew up in East Germany before reunification, on Germany:

“With reunification there was an opportunity for change—no more GDR and no more GDR national team—but I couldn’t let go of the past.

I watched the 1990 World Cup semifinal, between Germany and England, on a big screen in the Berlin Lustgarten, with thousands of people.  England’s Paul Gascoigne cried, and I cried too when Germany won.  I stood among rejoicing German fans, very alone.  I Couldn’t watch the final against Argentina.  I simply couldn’t bear it.  I drove my seventeen-year-old Polski Fiat, a gift from my brother-in-law before he fled to the West, to a residential area in Berlin and parked there for ninety minutes.  I sat in the stillness of the city and waited.  When I heard the screams and the fireworks, I knew that it was over.  Germany had won and I had lost again.  Later I learned that the game had been decided by a penalty kick, taken by Andreas Brehme, a blond defender; a typical German goal.  After winning the championship, Franz Beckenbauer, who’d coached the team, predicted that a reunified soccer-Germany would be undefeated for years.

In 1999 I moved to New York to leave it all behind.  I didn’t have a soccer team anymore—why not live in a country that didn’t care about soccer?  Things went well.  I only encountered the game in the tiny tables at the back of the New York Times sports section.  Or sometimes, watching my son play in Prospect Park, when another father made a friendly reference to the great German soccer tradition, and I’d nod, smiling.  Some things you can’t explain.”

Group D: The Group of _______________

The idea that in soccer there are ‘some things you can’t explain’ is both disturbing and comforting to me: I had a tough time tracking down clever non-soccer related statistics for Group D.  Beyond learning a few odd facts (did you know Serbia is the country with the most chess grandmasters per capita in the World Cup?), I mostly learned that these are four extremely disparate countries.  They do, however, share pretty good soccer teams.

Though I’m with those describing Group G (Brazil, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Portugal) as the tournament’s actual ‘Group of Death,” Group D could also make a good statistical argument for itself.  Group D has the highest average FIFA ranking of any quartet in the World Cup, and the best average betting odds on winning the whole thing.  That is mostly because there is no true patsy in this group; each takes its sporting cultures seriously.  In fact, this group would also have the highest average FIFA ranking of any in the tournament if it were a Women’s World Cup—the Germans and the Australians are even better on the women’s side as on the men’s, and the Ghanaians are among the best women’s teams in Africa.

But still, what strikes me as most notable about this group is where I started: it’s the only group where each team was also there in 2006.  And aside from Germany, if we stretch the facts a little it is almost the case that 2010 is the second time around for each of these teams: Australia did manage to have a mostly amateur team qualify in 1974 but this is only their second appearance since then, and Serbia was represented regularly in various Yugoslav incarnations, but still…I’m going with the Group of Teutons and Second Chances.

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

In calculating who would advance with my secret formula of soccer history and global politics, for Group D I’m hopelessly biased in regard to soccer history.  As a US fan I still harbor anger towards the Germans for the cheating hand of Torsten Frings that kept the Americans from the semi-finals.  I’m also somewhat bitter about Ghana being awarded a controversial and critical penalty in 2006 due to the simple fact that Oguchi Onyewu is a much larger man than Razak Pimpong.  But on that one I’d rather blame the referee.  Let’s see, who was that again?  Oh, right—Markus Merk.  German!  With that, and a desire to prove that it is not only English fans tormented by the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, in my mind Germany is out.

Ghana, on the other hand, gets my sympathies.  Ghana was the first independent African country, it is often held up as a model of relative democratic stability on the continent, and it is the place that gave us Freddy Adu.  Ghana also happens to be the poorest country (by GDP per capita) in the tournament, making them the truest underdog.  I’ve also always liked the Ghanaian flair for team names: Accra Hearts of Oak is one of my all-time favorites for club teams, and I find the story behind the ‘Black Stars’ fascinating (Ghana’s independence leader Kwame Nkrumah named the team after the ‘Black Star’ shipping line imagined by Marcus Garvey to connect the African Diaspora).  So Ghana is in.

In regard to soccer justice, I can’t say much between Australia and Serbia.  It is a bit disappointing that Neven Subotić played for the US at the U-17 and U-20 levels (and even played some at the University of South Florida) before switching to Serbia, but at least he was born in the former Yugoslavia—he’s traitorousness is nowhere near that of Giuseppe Rossi.  I also have some bad memories of travelling through Australia in my younger days and getting endlessly hassled for being in a short-lived bohemian phase.  But overall I feel some kinship with the Aussie soccer fans in that the momentum of the game in that country, gradually overcoming hints of xenophobia and the pull of another idiosyncratic football code, feels akin to what’s happening in the US.  I suspect, on the other hand, that soccer is robust enough in Serbia to survive—and if Geoff Dwyer is right, maybe even thrive—with a first round exit.

So from my completely subjective standpoint, if there were any justice in the world Ghana and Australia would advance from Group D.  But keep in mind, there is rarely any justice in the world.

Group D – 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 FIFA rank of the Women’s National Team A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)
Germany 6 14 82 mil. 34200 22 79.4 yrs. 2 23
Australia 20 125 22 mil. 38900 2 81.2 yrs. 14 26
Serbia 16 66 9.9 mil. 10600 67 74 yrs. 39 7
Ghana 32 80 24 mil. 1550 152 60 yrs. 44 6
- 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.”
– FIFA rank of the Women’s National Team is based on the “FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking” updated March 12th 2010
- 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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