The World Cup and National Narratives

As I mentioned when we discussed what constituted an American-style of play here a couple of weeks ago, outsiders like to form a stereotypical view of how a national team plays based all-too roughly on certain past performances. It helps us organise stories in our heads about each team when the World Cup rolls around every four years.

These images of certain teams tend to persist far beyond any relation to reality.  ESPN can still keep trying to sell Brazil as samba soccer, but perhaps after this World Cup people will stop buying it, unless it’s all laid at Dunga’s door (Maradona to coach Brazil in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, anyone?!).

Or the Germans still managing to shock the English in 2010 when they produce a player or two who doesn’t fit into the robotic stereotype, as Gabrielle Marcotti pointed out last week:

It’s not as if, before the wave of recent immigrants were integrated in the team, Germany were a bunch of giant, muscle-bound Robocops (or Stefan Effenbergs, if you prefer). This is the side that produced Pierre Littbarski in the 1980s and Tomas Haessler and Andy Moller in the 1990s. Players who were uber-German and uber-talented, blessed with flair and creativity, as well as sterling technique. Come to think of it, so is Thomas Mueller and he’s as Teutonic as they come.

The fact of the matter is that German football has a long history of producing flair players: it’s just that we tend not to see them as such for the mere fact that they’re… well… German.

Another good example of this was superbly discussed by Raphael Honigstein yesterday, addressing the flood of commentary surrounding the apparently suddenly dull Dutch team, as if total football had been flooding through their veins until this World Cup kicked off. That is, of course, nonsense:

This sense of realism should not be confused with a radical departure or even a betrayal of the grand Dutch tradition. It’s always been there, to greater or lesser extent, over the course of the last 30 years. Mourning the demise of “Total Voetbal” these days makes as much sense as lamenting the switch from black and white to color television or the disappearance of horse carriages from city centers. The Dutch moved on decades ago. Most casual observers have simply been too lazy to notice it.

Honigstein points out that even the Netherlands’ sole major championship winning team at Euro ’88, for all the magnificent skill of van Basten and Gullit, was backed in brutal style by Ronald Koeman, while Jan Wouters in the 90s precursed Mark van Bommel as villainous midfielder pretty nicely.

At the excellent blog Minus the Shooting, the question of “relevant and irrelevant histories” is brought up as we consider narratives about national teams slightly more broadly. Writing ahead of today’s first semi-final, the question of how to fit the prospect of Uruguayan victory into a neat historical context is raised:

Spain finally lifting the trophy is a narrative that already carries a sense of inevitability – it’s a triumph that has already been written, and held back from general release for two years. Now that Brazil have no longer already won the tournament, there’s a case for saying that Spain have already won it. The same narrative can be quickly adapted and refitted for the Dutch – ‘the long wait is finally over’. There is no comparably comfortable frame in which to fit a Uruguayan victory.

So, by the fact we don’t have a neat storyline to fit Uruguay into, they confuse us. As for style: how does Suarez’s handball fit with Forlan’s flair into a soundbite?

Uruguay, indeed, present quite a conundrum from both a common perspective on their style of play and their place in the sport’s pantheon: they have two World Cup victories, but none since 1950. They were once famed for their magnificent teams of the 1920s and 1930s, but who remembers the wizardry of José Leandro Andrade today?

Uruguay have instead in recent decades, especially in the British media, been associated with negative defensive play ever since the 1966 World Cup. Their glorious past did not happen in the television era, so it may as well have never happened at all, as Minus the Shooting continues:

Granted, Uruguay’s glories were a long time ago. But when has that ever been relevant to the expectations placed on football teams? Brazilian players are still being feted for what their team did forty years ago; England are judged (and judge themselves) every four years by the standards of 1966; African teams are still labelled as naive and impetuous based on the performance of Zaire in 1970. German teams and Spanish teams are just about still viewed in the context of their past representatives as villainous mecha-men and talented bottlers respectively, although these two seem to be finally losing their grip this summer. In the group stages, the BBC wheeled out an excruciating montage showing clips of past German triumphs interspersed with footage of pistons and machinery – but even they have since realised that this German team represents something different. These three-time World Cup winners would be fresher faces on the podium than the Spanish or Dutch.

Putting aside the two unfolding exceptions above – and progress on these fronts will be immediately undone if either team reverts back to historical type for even one game – these images seem impervious to the passage of time, and are held to remain true no matter how much contradictory evidence amasses. The fact that Uruguay have underachieved since 1950 doesn’t explain the strange discrepancy about them; they are the only World Cup winners whose achievements have been definitively consigned to the history books, and deemed not relevant to modern analysis. You can never write off the Germans because of their past wins – but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a pundit say ‘Well, I’ll tell you what… I think Uruguay might be dark horses to win back their title this year. End the sixty years of hurt.’

The obviously ill-fitting narratives surrounding all four countries in the semi-finals perhaps suggests that we ought to work a little harder to dispel them before judging teams: Spain are no longer bottlers (2008 and all that), Germany are no longer teutonic automatons, the Dutch are no longer Brilliant Orange, the Uruguayans are neither their glorious ancient history nor their negative 1960s. But maybe all of them never even were those things, except briefly, in the first place; Spain, after all, first won the European Championship in 1964.

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