A World Cup Miscellany: Group E

This is the fifth in series of brief and miscellaneous perspectives on the World Cup groups and nations (here’s Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D).  The mostly light-hearted intention is to both provoke and satisfy curiosities, and to fill some space amidst the World Cup frenzy…

Maybe it’s because the Dutch are often described as having a ‘philosophical’ approach to their football.  Or maybe it’s because the old Monty Python skit on soccer philosophers (where Nietzsche was “booked for arguing with the referee; he accused Confucius of having no free will”) has been popping up lately.  Or maybe it’s just me.  But when contemplating Group E (Holland, Denmark, Japan, and Cameroon) I couldn’t stop thinking about philosophy.

I’ve never been very good with philosophy, mind you, but that may just be appropriate to the vain pursuit of trying to make sports seem profound.  In other words, I know just enough philosophy to cobble together quotes from a big thinker native to each of the countries in Group E and then take those quotes totally out of context: as they might translate to the World Cup.

With Holland, for example, my occasional academic interest in sports and play has led me at various points to the well-known 1938 book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga.  It’s the type of book that I know is supposed to be really good and profound—but I’ve never quite gotten it.  Kind of like Dutch football.  If they can’t win anything, and if they somewhat regularly fail to qualify for the World Cup (as in 1982, 1986, and 2002) then I find it hard to appreciate their genius—no matter how many Dutchmen tell me I’m supposed to.

But maybe the answer is in Huizinga?  In Homo Ludens he takes a world historical perspective on play, explaining it as a lost art:

“As a civilization becomes more complex, more variegated, and more over laden, and as the technology of goods production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past.”

Perhaps, then, the Dutch national team’s reputation for style over results is a symbolic move towards recovering the lost art of play?  Damn civilization and its “rank layer” of “doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions.”  Damn scoring goals when it matters.  To play, to really play, is the thing.  And to exit the World Cup somewhere around the middle of the knock-out stages.

Though the Japanese don’t have the same soccer history as the Dutch, East Asian philosophy also rings of prioritizing subjective experience—the momentary beauty of an elegant poem, the First Noble Truth of life as suffering.  When I looked up the man the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the most significant and influential Japanese philosopher of the twentieth-century,” I found a similar theme.  Though I couldn’t understand most of the importance of Nishida Kitarō, I could recognize the wisdom in the poetry he wrote to cope with the death of his first wife and four of his eight children:

The bottom of my soul has such depth;
Neither joy nor the waves of sorrow can reach it

This may just be the best the Japanese can hope for at the 2010 World Cup: to not worry about the joy or the sorrow (especially since there is likely to be more of the latter) and instead contemplate the depth of one’s soul.

Which brings me, obviously, to Søren Kierkegaard.  The Dane, famed for his existentialism and his depression, may well have been talking to the current Danish national team in one of his famous quotes:

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.”

Translation: in South Africa the Danes will either advance from the group or they won’t.  And they will regret it.

Leaving only Cameroon, with somewhat less of a modern philosophical tradition but—make no mistake—some legitimate intellectual heft.  In fact, one of the earliest (and best) essays offering a critical local perspective on South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup is a 2006 piece by Cameroon-born, Sorbonne-educated, South Africa-based post-colonial scholar Achille Mbembe:

“Every indication is that ‘Africa, the cradle of humankind’ will be the dominant theme of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. On the world scene, such platitudes will only further relegate the continent to the realm of folklore. Not only does such a theme smack of nativism, it does not say anything meaningful about who we are, who we want to be, and what our proposition for the world is.

That Bafana Bafana (the national football team) will not win this competition is a public secret. Now, if we cannot win on the soccer field and if our victory won’t be economic and financial, then we better start thinking hard about changing the very terms of what it means to win at all.”

Translation: The trans-national Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, with players who ply their trade in 11 different countries, will be serious.

Group E: The Group of _______________

In looking at the statistics for the nations of Group E  (see below) the most striking thing is the relative wealth of Holland, Denmark, and Japan.  Having those three countries in the group, the only one in the World Cup with three nations whose GDP per capita is over $30,000 per year, makes Group E easily the wealthiest group (on average) in the tournament.  Not coincidentally, it is also the quartet with the highest average ranking on the UN ‘Human Development Index.’

Contrasting the statistics from Holland, Denmark, and Japan with those of Cameroon does, however, offer cause for some notes on global inequality.  We all know the general cliché of Europe = Rich, Africa = Poor, but seeing the numbers up against each other in a soccer tournament somehow reinforces for me the tragedy of global inequality—the Dutch are struggling through ‘the great recession’ on $40,000 per person per year, while the Cameroonians manage on $2000.  And even if we put money aside, looking at life expectancy ranges from Japan’s 82.6 years to Cameroon’s 50.4 years is simply shocking.

I did, however, find an interesting statistic in which Cameroon is equal to its European group mates: tax rates.  According to NationMaster.com, Cameroon, Denmark, and the Netherlands are 1, 2, and 3 in the world for “the highest rate shown on the schedule of tax rates applied to the taxable income of individual” (at 60%, 59%, and 52% respectively).  Japan, in relative contrast, looks like a Tea Partier’s paradise at 37th (at 37%).  But still, combining the overall high tax rates, the somewhat fatalistic trend in each nation’s philosophical history, and the conventional soccer moniker, Group E reminds me that only two things are certain in life—and shall be ‘The Group of Death and Taxes.’

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

ESPN's 2010 FIFA World Cup Murals by the Cape Town-based AM I Collective

In this first African World Cup, Cameroon has to be a sentimental favorite.  They are, after all, the African country who has played in the most World Cups (5), and their 1990 performances against Argentina and England are widely regarded as the point where African soccer began to be taken seriously around the world.  I remember that opening game of Italia ’90 between Cameroon and Argentina like it was yesterday—the joyful exuberance of the Indomitable Lions, the fear and confusion of the Argentineans, Roger Milla dancing with a wild grin at the corner flag.  But then I realize that memory is a funny thing, and I’ve probably been watching too many Coca-Cola commercials.  The historical record suggests that famous game was actually a relatively brutal display of cynical soccer—by the end Cameroon had two players dismissed for violent play.  Francois Omam-Biyik scored the only goal for Cameroon off a deflected cross and a goalkeeper error (Milla played briefly  in the game, but his magical scoring run only started after the first game).  Cameroon did play some nice soccer at points in the 1990 tournament, and their performance was iconic, but it wasn’t always pretty.  Using my secret formula of soccer history and global politics, however, the history is enough to justify Cameroon going through.

And speaking of having one’s perceptions distorted by marketing and clichés, I have some grudges against Dutch soccer.  First, because they get much credit for playing the ‘beautiful game’ and ‘total football,’ they seem to get a free pass for employing unrepentant leg-breakers such as Nigel De Jong.  Second, the arrogance too often associated with Dutch football is hard to stomach.  I can’t believe American viewers are going to be subjected to Ruud Gullit commentary on the World Cup after the hubris and embarrassment that was his tenure with the LA Galaxy.  Third, in my experience Dutch soccer people love to tell anyone who will listen what an accomplishment it is for them to be “so good for such a small country.”  And while they are certainly smaller than some of the other favorites, population-wise there are 10 other countries at the World Cup with fewer people than the Dutch—including group-mates Denmark who have only 5.5 million, compared to Holland’s 16.5 million, along with an equal number of European Championships and World Cups (one and zero).  Of course, the Dutch do have some brilliant players, coaches, and teams; they can be a joy to watch.  But in my mind they are out.

Finally, there is not much between Japan and Denmark for the other spot.  I’m partial to the Japanese for sending one of their former World Cup goal scorers, Takayuki Suzuki, to my local Portland Timbers.  Sure, he seems to have lost a step or five—but how many USL teams can claim players with World Cup goals?  But my scales were ultimately tipped by learning that Danish center back Daniel Agger has a bit of the old Kierkegaard attitude in him (or on him): two of his many tattoos read, in Latin, Memento mori (“Remember you will die”) and Mors certa hora incerta (“Death is certain, but the hour is uncertain”).  For quite literally embodying the ethos of this Group of Death and Taxes, Denmark is in.

Meaning that if there were any justice in the world Cameroon and Denmark would go through.  But remember the lessons of the great philosophers: there is rarely any justice in the world.

Group E – 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 Rank out of 117 nations on ‘highest marginal tax rate’ A subjective ranking of how much the WC matters by country(1-32)
Netherlands 4 12 16.5 mil. 40000 6 79.8 3 14
Denmark 35 125 5.5 mil. 35800 16 78.3 2 31
Japan 45 300 127.5 mil. 32600 10 82.6 37 29
Cameroon 19 110 19.5 mil. 2150 153 50.4 1 11
- 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.”
- Rank on ‘highest marginal tax rate” is “the highest rate shown on the schedule of tax rates applied to the taxable income of individuals” 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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