Tag Archives: World Cup

Lasting Memories of World Cups Past and Present

Peter Wilt celebrating the US win over Algeria with the World Cup Trophy in one hand and the "Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous" in the other. Fake World Cup Trophy, real joy.

Peter Wilt celebrating the US win over Algeria with the World Cup Trophy in one hand and the "Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous" in the other. Fake World Cup Trophy, real joy.

In his weekly column, Milwaukee Wave President & CEO Peter Wilt gives us his World Cup memories from an indoor star on the big stage to Bob Bradley’s goalkeeping dilemma.

My memory can be rather selective and when it comes to past World Cups, there are usually only one or two moments from each that stand out for me.

Here are my most memorable moments of the last five World Cups along with thoughts on memories from South Africa 2010:

1990: I was working for the Milwaukee Wave — the first time — and one of our players, Jimmy Banks, a defender from UW-Milwaukee, earned a starting role under his former collegiate coach Bob Gansler who guided the United States to its first World Cup appearance in 40 years.  I may be using my selective memory, but I believe Jimmy is probably the first, last and only full time professional indoor soccer player to play in a World Cup.

Just making the tournament was considered a success.  After watching from the bench as the US was undressed by Lubos Kubik and Czechoslovakia 5-1 in its opening match, Jimmy Banks started in place of Steve Trittschuh  in the 1-0 loss to Italy and 2-1 loss to Austria that ended the return to World Cup play for the US.

My sole distinct memory from that tournament twenty years ago was 52 minutes into the Austria match when Andreas Ogris split Banks and Desmond Armstrong on a torrid run that led to the game’s first goal, chipped over Tony Meola.  Watching Jimmy getting beat wasn’t a pleasant memory, but I was still proud that one of our Milwaukee Wave players was on the world’s biggest stage.

Peter Wilt at the 1994 Opening Game at Soldier Field with Pele. Fake Pele, real Peter Wilt.

Peter Wilt at the 1994 Opening Game at Soldier Field with Pele. Fake Pele, real Peter Wilt.

1994: I was working in Los Angeles for the CISL during the US-hosted World Cup.  My trips back to the Midwest gave me the opportunity to attend several matches at Soldier Field including the tournament’s opening game between defending champion Germany and Bolivia.  Watching the opening ceremony in the south end with Chicago soccer legend Pato Margetic, I saw Oprah Winfrey fall through the stage, Diana Ross miss a staged penalty kick, Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry ejected from the match and Germany’s Juergen Klinsmann score the tournament’s first goal.  After the match I went to Kitty O’Shea’s inside the Conrad Hilton Hotel and watched the infamous OJ Simpson Bronco chase.

Oscar de La Hoya becoming the "Golden Boy" in Barcelona. Real Golden Boy, real Olympic Gold Medal.

Despite those incredible moments from the opening match, the single memory that stands out most from the tournament occurred two weeks later in Pasadena at the United States vs. Colombia group match.  I was sitting in a luxury suite high above the Rose Bowl next to boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya.  The 21-year-old future champ had already won Olympic gold in Barcelona and was 13-0 professionally at the time.  He was just 19 months into one of the best welterweight careers ever that would include five world championships.

Thirty-five minutes into the match John Harkes sent a long diagonal pass into the Colombia goal box.  Before it could reach Earnie Stewart, its intended target, the ball was  redirected by Colombia defender Andres Escobar into his own goal.   The goal helped lead to Colombia’s surprise demise and elimination from the tournament…and Escobar’s murder ten days later in Colombia.

The specific moment I remember was De La Hoya, whose Golden Boy Promotions is now a co-owner of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, turning and lifting his famous and powerful left hand and slapping mine in celebration.  Four years later I was back at that historic stadium slapping high fives to dozens of Chicago Fire players, fans and staff in celebration of the team’s inaugural season victory in the 1998 MLS Cup.

1998: My memories of France 1998, not surprisingly, are nearly non-existent.  The United States flamed out with three losses in group play amid reported personal problems within the team and I was keeping myself busy steering the MLS Chicago Fire’s inaugural season as the team’s general manager.  The Fire debuted just two months prior to this World Cup and our big name superstar and key to early season attendance and publicity success was Mexico’s legendary goalkeeper Jorge Campos.

The Fire won its first two games, then lost the next five, with Campos only available for one of those games (a home opening win over Tampa Bay with 36,444 in attendance), before he joined the Mexico National Team for World Cup preparations.  In his absence, his backup, Zach Thornton led the Fire to victory after victory — eleven straight, in fact.  Midway through that stretch, Fire Head Coach Bob Bradley talked to me about his desire to relegate Campos to the bench upon his return and go forward with Zach in goal.

Bob was concerned about pressure to play Jorge for marketing reasons even prior to the trade that brought him to Chicago.  Despite the public interest in Jorge, the key to our acquisition of the flamboyant goalkeeper from Los Angeles in the first place was the inclusion of Chris Armas.  Bob never would have agreed to take the flamboyant star of the day without also receiving the quiet star of the future.

Bob and I had deep discussions before he accepted the Fire coaching position about what type of organization we would have.  It was critical to him that we would be an authentic soccer team with integrity and would go about things the right way.  My first — and most significant — test was securing a proper training facility, which we accomplished by taking over the Chicago Bears former training ground Halas Hall on the campus of Lake Forest College.  There were other tests before the Campos conversation, but this was a milestone decision that would point the direction of the team for years to come.

To me it was simple.  I just asked Bob one question:  “Who do we have a better chance to win with?”

2002: Not Ji-Sung Park saving our butt. Not  “Dos a Cero“.  Not Hugh Dallas screwing us. Not even having two of my team’s players — DaMarcus Beasley and Josh Wolff — in the World Cup.

It was Portugal.  Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Fernando Couto…the original Golden Generationhad matured and was expected to run over the United States in the opening Group D match for both sides.  John O’Brien in the 4th minute on the rebound of a Brian McBride header - “WOW!”  Then Landon Donovan’s chip deflects off Jorge Costa into his own goal in the 29th minute – “HOLY COW!” And finally, the former Milwaukee Rampage teammates combined for the dagger: Tony Sanneh racing down the right side and whipping it in for a classic Brian McBride header and an unimaginable 3-0 lead after just 36 minutes – “OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD!”

2006: It was June 17th again – twelve years to the day after Oprah fell through the stage and OJ cruised the I-5 in his Bronco with the world watching.  Section 8 Chicago had a small caravan driving from Chicago to Kansas City for the Fire match at Arrowhead Stadium.  We timed our departure, so we could get to St. Louis in time to watch Portugal beat Iran at the Scottish Arms and then the United States vs. Italy match at Milo’s Bocce Garden, an Italian joint on “The Hill” — St. Louis’ old Italian neighborhood that provided several of the famous 1950 USMNT members who upset England at Belo Horizonte.

The USMNT wasn't the only group to crash in June of 2006. Fake image of Peter Wilt's real crash.

The USMNT wasn't the only group to crash in June of 2006. Fake image of Peter Wilt's real crash.

After the disappointing 1-1 draw, I volunteered to drive the van full of Fire faithful the final four hours to Kansas City.  Rain had slowed us down a bit, but we were still on schedule to make the kickoff when our destiny coincided with that of the US World Cup team.  Both soon crashed without reaching their destination.  The US trip to the knockout round was derailed by Ghana a few days later.  Our trip to Kansas City ended 20 minutes away at the hands of a pickup driver fueled with booze and road rage.  The drunken driver, who apparently believed I had cut him off a mile back, pulled alongside and slammed into our van sending both vehicles spinning round and round and into the median of Interstate 70.  A strong set of cables in the median — and a decent job of Joie Chitwood style crisis steering and Bob Bondurant School of Defensive Driving — kept everyone alive and mostly healthy, though our rented van was totaled.  While I pleaded with the Missouri State trooper to charge the other driver with seven counts of attempted vehicular homicide, the twice previously convicted drunk driver was merely arrested for felony DUI.  I never did make it to the Fire match — and the assailant never made it to prison as he pleaded down to a misdemeanor — but I do have a World Cup memory that will likely never go away.

2010: So, what will be my enduring memory of the 2010 World Cup? There are many candidates and perhaps more to come on Sunday.

  • The two US goals unrighteously called back
  • The despair of the US/Ghana match
  • Watching Mexico defeat France with a restaurant full of Mexicans
  • Watching Argentina beat Mexico in a bar full of Argentines
  • The wild three minutes of Paraguay/Spain
  • The crazy finish of Ghana/Uruguay
  • The steady buzz of the vuvuzelas
  • Or the raw jubilant emotion following the most important United States goal in the last 20 years.

While they are all memorable in this extended moment that continues through Sunday, I don’t think anyone will be surprised when five, 10 and 20 years from now, the memory of 2010 will be voiced over by Ian Darke:

“Howard, gratefully claims it.  Distribution, brilliant.  Landon Donovan, are things going here for the USA?  Can they do it here?  A cross and Dempsey is denied again!  Donovan has SCORED!  OHH, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS??? GOAL! GOAL! USA certainly through.  Oh, it’s incredible!  You could NOT write a script like this.”

…and the United States of America ERUPTS!

A Mental Game: On Happiness, or Does it Matter Who Wins?

Happiness?

Why do we care?  Why will hundreds of millions of fans watch the World Cup this summer and hinge their lives around game results?  Why does it matter whether the millionaire players, coaches, and owners of Inter Milan beat the millionaire players, coaches, and owners of Bayern Munich in the Champions League final?  Why does anybody, no matter how few, bother going to watch FC Dallas play?

Presumably at some level most soccer fans invest ourselves in what, after all, is twenty-two men or women in short pants chasing a ball because we enjoy it.  Somehow the game makes us happy.  But why?

As it happens, studying happiness is hot right now in the social sciences.  Psychologists have realized they spent way too long focused primarily on pathology and dysfunction, failing to learn about the other side of human experience.  Economists have realized that people are as motivated by irrational emotions as they are by rational cost-benefit analyses.  And soccer, it seems to me, can be a pretty interesting place to apply some of their ideas.

The explosion of scholarly interest in happiness does not, unfortunately, make for easy answers.  Happiness is tough to define and measure.  Most research tends to operate with the assumption that it’s best to just trust people and simply ask: On a scale of __ to __, how happy are you?  The problem is that when the question is that blunt and superficial, most people say they are happy.  It misses the proverbial ‘masses who lead lives of quiet desperation.’  It misses those FC Dallas fans.

The alternative is to try and measure the things scholars think associate with happiness.  Though those things include a wide range of characteristics from autonomy to environmental mastery, in my read of the literature they boil down to that old Freudian formulation: what matters is a combination of ‘love and work’, people and purpose.  We tend to be happiest when we balance engaging social relationships with a sense that what we do matters, be that a job, raising a family, contributing to a community, or maybe even supporting a team.

How do you know who is happy? (photo by bdebaca from flickr.com)

But focusing just on people and purpose also fails to tell the whole story because it doesn’t address the classic social science problem of causality—do good social networks and success in one’s endeavors cause happiness, or are happy people more likely to have good social networks and succeed?  In fact, it turns out that statistically, when dealing with large data sets, the single best predictor of happiness is something we don’t have much control over: personality.  Optimists with a sunny disposition are happier than pessimists ridden by anxiety almost regardless of the circumstances of their lives.  A sanguine Aussie will consistently out-happy a dour Englishman no matter their relative fortunes in South Africa this summer.

While this may not be revolutionary stuff, the science of happiness does highlight some ways that our fandom can lead us astray.  One recent PR company survey, for example, found that 93 percent of England fans would “give up food for a week to see England win.”  This makes news because it seems to say something about how much the game matters to people—because it seems to say how happy it would make them to see their team win.  But they are wrong.

Predicting Happiness

Say hypothetically I want to predict how happy English football fans will be one year from today.  And say I have to make that predication for two potential scenarios: 1) England wins the 2010 World Cup; 2) England is knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in a game where Carlos Tevez scores with a balled fist, Wayne Rooney gets dismissed on a second yellow for diving in the box, and Diego Maradona celebrates by belly sliding across Frank Lampard’s bow wearing a t-shirt saying ‘the Queen can stuff it.’  Here’s my prediction: in either case, English fans will be exactly as happy as they are today.

My prediction is based on a famous study in the science of happiness that evaluated the ‘real life’ equivalents of that English soccer dream/nightmare: in 1978 a group of psychologists compared two groups at the extremes of what we imagine to define our well-being—people had won the lottery, and people who had been paralyzed for life.  Immediately after their respective fateful events, there reported dramatic differences in their emotions—the lottery winners were ecstatic, the paraplegics were devastated.  Of course.

But over time a funny thing happened: they adapted.  The lottery winners started to realize that they still couldn’t afford everything they wanted, that they couldn’t trust people who had been good friends, that money changes but does not eliminate the stresses of everyday life.  Those who had been paralyzed came to realize that they could still engage in fulfilling relationships, that it could be rewarding to make little bits of progress in dealing with new challenges, that their physical limitations changed but did not eliminate the meaning of their lives.  After six months or a year, each group (along with a control group who had experienced no dramatic life events) expected to be back to the exact same level of happiness they’d reported before fate intervened. Extending the results of that study to virtually any life events, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (of Stumbling on Happiness fame) goes so far as to say “If it happened over three months ago, with a few exceptions, it has no impact on our happiness.”*[see end note]

Granted, objective events and circumstances do make a difference in the short-term; the night of England’s World Cup win/loss will undoubtedly be an alcohol-lubricated orgy of joy/woe.  And great games do offer aesthetic pleasures, along with the types of emotional highs (and lows) that constitute the immeasurable part of human experience.  But even in the short term an interesting range of variables mediate between events, between the win or the loss, and our emotional response.

The Social Relativity of Happiness

One key mediator between events and happiness is our relative perspective on what could have been—what academics call “counterfactuals.”  While competitive sports are alluring precisely because they delineate clear winners and losers, feelings of ‘success’ are relative to our expectations and our imaginations.

A famous research example here drew on the Barcelona Olympics to compare the emotional responses of silver and bronze medal winners.  As Victoria Husted Medvec and colleagues reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, objective raters consistently found bronze medal winners to be happier than silver medal winners.  In a follow-up study with amateur athletes they confirmed that this inversion of objective results was because people were thinking about what could have been: the bronze medal winners were comparing themselves to those who came in fourth, while the silver medal winners were comparing themselves to those who won it all.

Photo from Reuters

In soccer terms, this suggests that fans’ happiness at the World Cup depends less on where they finish and more on where people think their team could have finished.  Subjective perceptions of what could have been matter more than objective results.  In fact, I’d hypothesize that on average English fans would be happier with a second round exit than a loss in the final—because they wouldn’t have to torment themselves with how close they came to winning it all.

This subjectivity of fans’ emotional reactions is further compounded by that other key variable in our happiness equation: people.  Both in the short term and in the long term we tend to be happier when we are engaged in healthy relating with others.  One relevant study here was done by María-Angeles Ruiz-Belda and colleagues in Spain, who video-taped soccer fans watching televised games from the World Cup and from La Liga.  The best predictor of whether or not the fans seemed happy during the game had nothing to do with goals being scored or favorable results; what mattered was the presence of other people.  Although Ruiz-Belda and colleagues use these findings to question the relationship between smiling and emotional experience, from a soccer perspective the results suggest that the full glory of the game only happens when shared.

The social essence of happy fandom also shows up in theoretical efforts to explain our irrational attachments to our teams.  Why do we identify with players we don’t know and franchises that use us for our money?  Probably the most common theoretical explanation is called the BIRG effect: Basking In Reflected Glory.  The idea is that we unconsciously use teams to orient our social identities in a way that tells us something about whether we are good or bad: when the US was up 2-0 at the half against Brazil in last summer’s Confederations Cup I was irrationally happy because of a vague sense that the score line reflected well on me.  When the US proceeded to lose 3-2 I was irrationally miserable because of a vague sense that I myself, sitting dazed in front of a pub TV 10,000 miles from the actual game, had failed.  But while BIRGing makes some sense I’ve never accepted it to be the full story—there are too many people willing to stick with their teams through too many lean years  (think again about the English and the World Cup) to make BIRGing the only thing that matters.

So I was pleased recently to stumble across some scholarship from a psychologist named Daniel Wann who has offered Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model as a complement to the BIRG effect.  Ok, the name is not as catchy, but the idea fits with everything else I know about happiness: Wann has good evidence that fandom facilitates happiness because it offers us the types of real, imagined, temporary, and enduring connections to others that our human nature craves.

Ultimately, as many others have noted, where else other than the sports arena can grown men cry, hug, sing, and dance in a way that enhances both their masculinity and their social networks?  Where else can people of all stripes engage in loud, desperate, eccentric yet culturally endorsed expressions of our full emotional range?  We often think soccer makes us happy when our team wins, but the evidence suggests it actually makes us happy by offering rare opportunities—real or perceived—to connect amidst the penetrating anomie of modern life.  So, if the science of happiness is right, the England fan screaming ‘God Save the Queen’ with arms around mates after a second round loss may actually end up happier than the fan sitting alone on a tropical island watching Rio Ferdinand raise the Jules Rimet trophy. Or at least, if that isn’t any consolation, know that a year later winning or losing probably won’t make one bit of difference.  Right?

*Note: Oddly, one of the exceptions to Gilbert’s claim may be soccer related: in their recent book Soccernomics Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski present some provocative data suggesting that hosting a World Cup does increase happiness in a country even several years after the event—though they also find that hosting other major games does not influence national happiness.  They present further data suggesting that the idea of losing in major competitions as a cause of fan suicide is a myth—in fact, they argue, sports events tend to bring people together in a way that prevents suicide.  So while the whole picture is certainly a bit more complicated than I’m making out, the basic argument holds—major events by themselves don’t matter as much as we expect them to over the long term.

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—though his other efforts to write about ‘A Mental Game’ can be found here and here.  He can be contacted at drewguest (at) hotmail.com.


To Go or Not to Go: The World Cup 2010 South Africa Question

South Africa 2010

The US is going to South Africa.  As I followed Grant Wahl’s twitter feed of Saturday’s game from San Pedro Sula, an odd experience of using a 2009 technology to get around the 1980 closed circuit, I was surprised, impressed, and pleased with the fortitude Bob Bradley’s men showed in Honduras.  Having not been able to watch, I imagine the game to have played much like the Confederation’s Cup this summer: the US offering just enough tactical and technical savvy to complement their most distinctive quality of sheer determination.  There are still many questions as to how far that combination can take the US at the World Cup finals, and I’m sure much will be written on that topic between now and next June.  But for me the US victory, along with the crystallizing of all the nations that will be at the finals next summer, raises a more difficult question: will I be in South Africa with them?

As the World Cup qualifiers conclude and the final slate of teams becomes clear, I find myself tormented by the truth and the cliché: going to see the World Cup in South Africa would be a “once in a lifetime experience.”  I consider myself lucky in that I have been to South Africa before, and know it to be a place of much wonder.  But my previous travels were part of other experiences in Africa, and were funded accordingly.  For this World Cup it seems to all be up to me and my “struggling middle class” existence.  And by my count going to South Africa next summer would be a dauntingly expensive endeavor.

I imagine I’m not the only world soccer fan sitting somewhere in the world and trying to work through the mental calculus of what exactly a trip to the World Cup would be worth.  And while there are many personal variables that we all have to take into account, I also put my faith as a social scientist in the idea that there some patterns and trends to help make sense of the value of soccer fandom.

And for me these patterns and trends are complicated by, and more interesting because of, the fact that we are talking about Africa: a continent that is fascinating, diverse, vibrant, and where somewhere around 40% of the population is estimated to live in extreme poverty (defined as less than a dollar per day).  Even if I can figure out a way to afford it, could I enjoy a sundowner at Soccer City or Royal Bafokeng with a clear conscious?  Probably not—but if I can figure out the right rationalizations to assuage my middle class guilt then I might be able to do it anyway.

The Economic Calculation

Though there are many different possible ways to figure the likely costs of a trip to South Africa 2010, for sake of a baseline I’m just going to try and keep things simple.  When I search for a plane ticket from the west coast of the US to South Africa for next June or July the least expensive fare I can find is around $2,300.  When I look at a basic package offered by an official FIFA partner that would allow me to attend at least two games (there are lower price packages are for one game—but going all that way just for one game doesn’t seem right) and stay in the lowest class of shared accommodation the cheapest seems a bit more than $3,000.  Figuring in meal money and other expenses, a low end estimate for a weeklong trip for two games is going to be around $6000.00 for one person.  And since I’d really like to go with my wife, the baseline for us is ultimately around $12,000.

Of course an official package is not likely to be the most cost-efficient way to travel, but I’ll admit to being intimidated by FIFA’s iron grip on ticketing.  For both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010 I’ve been a good consumer, played by the rules, and entered the official “ticket lottery” with hopes that the allocation process would be fair.  But for all my efforts and credit card numbers I’ve gotten nothing but automatically generated emails informing me that—surprise—I didn’t get any tickets.  I am eternally embittered by the fact that big tour companies and corporate partners seem to have access to infinite numbers of tickets when a non-corporate fan such as myself is merely strung along in a “lottery” implying that this is really about my bad luck.  But that’s capitalism, and I do nothing but occasionally rattle the bars of my personal iron cage from the ivory tower.

And the ivory tower, when you are a junior faculty member at a regional institution where the incentive is “quality of life” and “mission fit” rather than money, doesn’t pay very well.  For the amount of education required the pay at my job is perhaps only undercut by non-profit work with social services—which, of course, is my wife’s job.  I’m not going to get into any more specifics, but suffice it to say that $12,000 would be many months of our combined total take-home pay and years worth of “disposable income.”

Maybe this is the way to go

To dream a dream.

But the voice in my head (the one unconsciously negotiating with travel board marketers and credit card ads) tells me that you can’t put a price on the experience of attending a World Cup.  Watching the US walk out for their match against North Korea (just a prediction for the “random” draw) on the glistening grass of Durban or Polokwane would, I imagine, be “priceless.”  But the trick here is that I could still get some satisfaction from watching that moment on TV—particularly if that TV was a new plasma screen HD model that I purchased with a fraction of the money I could save by not going to South Africa.

This type of calculation also gets tricky because it starts as a rational cost-benefit analysis and quickly becomes a test of one’s life’s philosophy.  There is, for example, a growing body of research looking specifically at what makes people “happy,” the bottom line of which is often that money matters much less than things such as healthy relationships and meaningful experiences.  In Jonathan Haidt’s interesting 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, for example, he notes that the pursuit of luxuries is often misguided:

People would be happier and healthier if they took more time off and “spent” it with their family and friends, yet America has long been heading in the opposite direction.  People would be happier if they reduced their commuting time, even if it meant living in smaller houses, yet American trends are toward ever larger houses and ever longer commutes.  People would be happier and healthier if they took longer vacations, even if that meant earning less, yet vacation times are shrinking in the Untied States, and in Europe as well. (p. 99)

I would presume this would include “soccer vacations”—though it is somewhat surprising to me that I haven’t come across much research specifically looking at the personal value of sports fandom.  There is a great deal of research looking at the macro-scale value of mega-sports events such as the World Cup, and some research about what motivates sports fans generally, but it is hard to find much attempting to analyze what fans get for their money.  Hard core fans the world over spend great sums to follow their team and, in effect, subsidize millionaire players—and while we know a lot about the business implications of that process we seem to know little about the personal implications for fans.

One of the few academic analyses I could find laid out a diverse assortment of factors that determine whether people decide to spent money on “sport tourism” including escape, aesthetic players, “tribal connections,” cultural connections, vicarious achievement, tradition, income, alternatives, and more.  But ultimately, Aaron Smith and Bob Smith conclude, it is too much to really put it all together into a single equation: “Modeling the fan-sport relationship and the factors that impel individuals to make consumption decisions that involve travel is monumentally troublesome, since fans are not motivated by individual or psychological needs alone, but by a complex set of social, cultural and economic factors.”  So whether I want to take out a second mortgage for the prospect of watching the US v Bafana Bafana on African soil is more “monumentally troublesome” than just fiscal strategy.

The Philosophical Calculation

With no possibility of a rational economic decision, a fan is left with one’s own perspective on what a personal experience of the World Cup and of South Africa is worth.  And this is where the broader context of Africa becomes particularly relevant.

Since South Africa was awarded the World Cup there has been simmering controversy about perceptions of South Africa, and Africa more generally, as dangerous and dysfunctional.  Though such concerns are often just naive exaggerations of real facts about crime rates and work stoppages, in my mind they should not play a factor in anyone’s decision to go to South Africa.  The simple reality that millions of people both manage and thrive in South Africa everyday suggests that you will too—in my admittedly brief visits to South Africa the people I interacted with were unfailingly decent, interesting, curious, and welcoming.

South Africa 2010

South Africa, at risk of sounding like a travel agent, is truly a vibrant nation diverse and engaging both for its people and its geography.  But with such diversity, and with the type of inequalities that are common in many parts of the world, there are problems.  One of the fascinating things about South Africa is that it encapsulates much of the entire dynamic continent of Africa—its wonders, its potential, and its challenges.  Travelling in South Africa means being careful, but not any more so than in travelling through any unfamiliar place or any big city whether in Africa, North America, or Europe.

South Africa is also worth visiting because of the starkness of its inequality—some of the richest people in the world live across the street from some of the poorest (where in the US we tend to do more spreading out our inequalities).  And this is another interesting question that always strikes me when I think about travelling to Africa.  The expense of getting to Africa does not only take money away from my large screen plasma TV fund—it could equally be spent on doing my small part to rectify the unjust distribution of wealth in the world.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi we used to have American or European groups travel through on week-long “service” missions to build houses or help schools with projects.  Though the people in these groups were unfailingly good willed, the amount they were able to tangibly accomplish in a week was very little.  But, I couldn’t help but think, the $20,000 a ten person group would have spent on airfare might have been able to accomplish quite a bit in a country where the annual per capita income is around $700.

Peter Singer

Though I realize I’m getting a bit off the soccer topic here, a recent book by philosopher Peter Singer has had me thinking about this even more.  In The Life You Can Save, Singer approaches the injustice of global inequality by noting that spending a relatively small portion of our income on aid efforts can make a big difference in the least developed parts of the world—which, unfortunately, often include Africa.  One of his striking philosophical tricks is to point out that donating a few hundred dollars, the cost of a nice pair of shoes, can cure life-threatening illnesses for children in the developing world.  And if we were walking by a pond where a child was drowning we would not hesitate to dive in—even if it meant ruining our expensive shoes.  Yet in our daily lives we don’t think to sacrifice our luxuries towards the possibility of greater moral goods.

To try and bring this back to soccer, Singer’s parable can be applied in interesting ways to the World Cup question: if I had a precious World Cup ticket in my pocket and on the way to the stadium passed a drowning child, would I hesitate to dive in if it were going to ruin my ticket?  I would hope not.  Then how can I justify giving my money to FIFA and its corporate affiliates rather than to one of the organizations working to make a real difference in African lives?

The Muddled Calculation

So ultimately, despite my faith in social science and the inspiration of Conor Casey in San Pedro Sula, I’m just not sure what to do.  In the global scheme of things I consider myself very lucky to have good food to eat, a decent place to live, and health insurance—but I still can’t help but sometimes envy the luxuries of super-rich soccer fandom.  If I only had an extra $102,000.00 to give to Emirates, for example, I could get in seven games at South Africa 2010 and a month at The Table Bay Hotel.  And life would be good.  I think?

The fact that 2010 will be the first World Cup in Africa is ultimately both a boon and a burden.  It will be a spectacular soccer showcase, and I suspect South Africa will be a brilliant host who will open the world’s eyes to the vibrancy of a continent too often associated only with problems.  But some of those problems are real, and truly confronting those problems means finding ways to cope with and think about the massive inequalities of modern society.

When the US national team lands in South Africa it will be “disadvantaged” on the field compared to some other teams whose players are assured of regular playing time at the top clubs in the world.  But when US fans, and relatively wealthy fans from all countries, land in South Africa they will experience the advantage of the wealth and power required to simply afford such a journey.  I’m finding that it takes some confusing calculations for me to figure out whether I can be part of that experience.

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.