When Worlds Collide


When Fabio Grosso placed his penalty kick into the back of the French goal, Italians around the globe erupted into a state of euphoria.  I was one of those Italians, hungrily following every kicked ball throughout Italy’s run to winning its fourth World Cup, which ranks second only to Brazil’s five.  For my brother Franco and me, it brought us back to the moment in 1982 when Italy won its last World Cup.   There were tears that day, as my father and mother, aunts, and uncles sang and danced in tribute to i raggazzi’s (the boys) victory.  This offered our immigrant community a brief respite from the harshness of Reagan’s recession.

“È nella nostra sangue.”  “It’s in our blood,” my father told us when he first taught us how to play.  My memory of the first time my father, a bricklayer by trade, said those words to us is forever burned in my mind and heart.  I was seven and my brother was five.  As he showed us how to dribble the ball, pass, and kick, we could not believe this was the same man who spent most of his waking hours working on his knees.  In one joyous moment, my father flipped himself into the air kicking the ball up and behind him.  This, we learned, was the bicycle kick.  A beautiful move to clear the ball out of harm’s way or sending it searing into the opponent’s goal.  “Ma la chiave e’ la difesa,” my father taught us, “che noi italian.”  “But defense is the key . . . we Italians are like iron.”

No truer words were spoken.  While teams like Brazil and Argentina could dazzle with beautiful goals, Italian soccer was one built around an impenetrable defense that called on players to be tough, smart, and gritty.  For my father, this is what it meant to be Italian, a true reflection of the culture and his people.  A few years after our first lesson, our family stayed in Italy for a time, contemplating a permanent move back to my parents’ hometown of Coli a Volturno.  Here, our love for soccer grew as we had an outlet to experience the joys and wonder of calico (soccer) on a daily basis.

Yet, while we connected with soccer deeply, it was difficult to sustain that once we returned to America and our hometown of Philadelphia.  The game, virtually ignored and dismissed in the U.S., was something that barely registered on the sports radar.  There was a professional league that Brazilian great Pele played in for a time, but it was fading fast and shut down in 1984.  As a result, my brother ended up playing baseball, becoming one of the best pitchers in our town, and I found myself scrambling for loose pucks as a winger in hockey.  But we fervently held on to our love of the sport, trying to keep up on the world of international soccer — and, more importantly, the Italian national team — any way we could.  It was difficult, but a struggle we willingly endured.

So, every four years, we were granted a soccer feast with the World Cup tournament.  Italy lost early in 1986 where Argentine legend Diego Maradona shined helping his country beat West Germany in the final.  In 1990, Italy once again had its heart broken when it lost on penalties to Argentina, who then lost to West Germany in the final.  The 1994 World Cup brought even more heartache to gli azzurri (the blue as the team is affectionately called), as Italy would lose on penalties, this time in the final to Brazil.  Both 1998 and 2002 were disappointing World Cups for Italia, but great for countries new to the World Cup like Senegal and South Korea.  Italy finally pushed through this year, and for my brother it was long over due, waiting twenty-four years for the dazzling replay of 1982.  It was for us a way to reconnect with our father, who died in 1988 of cancer, brought on by pollution in the air and water from the local landfill housed two blocks from our house.  It was a victory he would have loved, as the Italian side played with equal parts brilliance and tenacity in front of an estimated TV audience of 30 billion.  They did it with unyielding teamwork, discipline, and spirit all anchored by a defense, midfield play, goaltending, and a sprite counter attack that was like iron throughout.

While 30 billion remained riveted to the drama in Germany this summer, here in the U.S. the media once again waged a war against international soccer.  Of course, the dreadful performance of the U.S. team did not help matters.  From the opening match against the Czech republic, they looked disorganized and unprepared playing with no passion and even less heart.  They did themselves and their country no small favor, as they were eventually sent home after the first round seeming not to care how dismal their play was.  There was great hope indeed for the U.S. in this World Cup, particularly after their quarterfinal performance in 2002’s World Cup.  Former player turned ESPN commentator Eric Wynalda described this year’s performance as a “giant step backwards” with “massive coaching mistakes made.”

Still, the U.S. media fell back on tried and false denouncements of soccer.  The most recent headline on USA Today I read declared that Americans don’t like soccer because it’s boring, low scoring, the players are not real athletes, and that the sport is unnatural because players can’t use their arms and hands.  This seems to sum up the consensus as to why America and American’s don’t get soccer and as a result can’t compete with the rest of the world.  Now, if you have been a longstanding soccer fan, these absurd declarations are not surprising.  Nevertheless, these stereotypes are frustrating and conceal actually what, in my mind, causes the American media and some political leaders to misrepresent and denigrate soccer, dismissing the might and resolve of working-class athletes

One clear reason is the U.S.’s inability to dominate the sport, far, far away from even being able to compete with the top countries in the world.  Not easy for a country that sees itself haughtily as the world’s sports goliath.  However, in what way can the U.S. be said to dominate sports?  Bruce Arena, this year’s U.S. National Team coach, sums it up best: “Soccer is the only sport with a real championship,” he told Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker. “We call the Super Bowl a world championship, but that’s a joke.  Who else plays?  The best athletes in every country play soccer.”  Indeed, Arena is right on this point.  Qualifying for the World Cup is an exhaustive and difficult two-year process, which brings two hundred teams together to compete for one of thirty-two spots in the tournament.

The World Cup draws teams representing countries from around the world in a spirit of fair play (player diving and bad officiating aside).  And while the contest is still dominated by European countries with respect to who qualifies, the South Americans dominate the final result, winning nine World Cups out of eighteen total.  The African continent continues to produce excellent teams including Nigeria, Cameroon, and Senegal.  From 1950 until 1990, the U.S. did not even manage to qualify.

During the U.S.’s 40-year absence, American sports here were steadily climbing from fringe activity (with the exception of baseball, already considered America’s pastime) to mainstream popular entertainment.  They also rose to prominence in the business world, generating over 30 billion in revenue from ticket sales, TV, advertising, sponsorship, and media affiliations.  However, while sports like basketball and football became entrenched in the popular consciousness, they have not carried the same sense of community and cultural connection that so permeates international soccer.  The business of sports trumps everything and anything else in America.

More importantly, soccer is a reflection of a nation’s character, not its political ideology, but it is difficult to exorcise political ideology from American sports, notwithstanding the fallacy perpetuated here in the U.S. that politics and sports do not and should not mix.  As I traveled from place to place around the U.S. — watching matches in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Watsonville — I met and spoke with a diverse group of fans from newly initiated to the tried and true.  I learned that many fans worried that American success in this year’s World Cup would allow them further to push their ideology and all that it is wrapped in it, including the war on terrorism and the occupation in Iraq.  “If Spain wins the World Cup,” Spanish Jose fan Santa-Maria told me, “it would mean that for this tournament Spain is the best team not the best country.  We could see the opposite if the U.S. did well, asserting themselves as the best country on political grounds.”

Indeed, politics is an element of any sport, the U.S. exploits like no other. Senator John McCain demanded that FIFA not allow Iran to compete in this year’s World Cup as political punishment even through the team had qualified fairly just as the other thirty-one teams had.  As Dave Zirin and John Cox wrote in “Using Soccer to Kick Iran”: “much of this anti-Iran campaign has less to do with the unrealistic goal of banning the top-level Middle Eastern team than with grooming public opinion for aggression.”  And early in the tournament, U.S. striker Eddie Jones dismayed many with his astonishing declaration: “We’re here for a war.”  Is it any wonder that most of the world looks forward to a quick U.S. exit from the World Cup?

Make no mistake: American impatience with soccer is also conditioned by how sports are presented here.  All the major sports include many stoppages, substitutions, time outs, long periods of standing around, and announcers’ dull and obvious banter during the course of action, allowing the sports fan to stop, digest, and analyze the game, ad nauseum (also, perfect for advertisers to pitch their products).  Also, the emphasis on scoring in U.S. sports is tantamount to instant gratification, feeding the fan constantly with hollow style rather than substance.  An important element of soccer, in contrast, is the continuous play — these athletes often run up to 8 miles continuously in one game — which creates tension and attention that keeps the fan focused on the match.  Watching soccer requires some work, but Americans — or more significantly, those with a financial stake in the game — demand that sports be easily digestible and as homogenous as possible.  That demand has become even more pervasive as the marketing of sports continues to generate huge revenue for all stakeholders.  In short, American-style advertising and soccer are just not a good fit.

Does that mean that soccer is a money-loser?  By no means.  International soccer is big business in Europe and throughout the world.  The Economist once did an analysis of Manchester United, soccer’s best known sports brand, and the New York Yankees.  The accompanying pie chart included in the article was nearly entirely shaded in favor of Man U, as their revenue and earnings dwarfed those of the Yankees.  So, the economic argument against soccer makes no sense.  And the stereotypes the American media assigns to soccer are just that — stereotypes.  This leads me to the final conclusion that America’s inability to build culture and community on soccer, combined with its inability to dominate the sport, exposes the real issue underlying the American resistance to soccer: lack of control to establish the ground rules for how the sport is marketed, how it is played, and ultimately how it serves American ideological interests.

After reporting on Senegal’s stunning defeat of France, its former colonizer, in the 2002 World Cup (“Senegal Conquers the Cup”), I learned that the U.S. had been trying to force FIFA to change the game since the 1990 World Cup.  The U.S. proposal: divide the game into four quarters similar to American basketball, and change the officiating a bit to match North American Hockey.  Why?  So there would be more time allotted for commercials and advertising.  FIFA would never consider changing the sport in this manner and continues to reject this proposal.

In the end, soccer is not only a reflection of a nation’s character but also an expression of the world’s painful transition to a multi-cultural global community.  Nothing can be clearer evidence of this than the unfortunate incident involving French-Algerian superstar Zinedine Zidane and Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the final.  The incident is well known as it gripped most of the world.  In overtime, after an exchange of words, Zidane head-butted Materazzi in the chest.  Zidane was red-carded and sent off.  The controversy of what Materazzi exactly said to provoke such a response has caused Brazilian, English, Italian, and French news media to hire lip readers to decipher what was said and FIFA to launch an investigation.

The Zidane-Materazzi incident brought into sharp focus the racial and cultural tensions that reside deep within international soccer.  Eduardo Galeano takes up these and other similar points in his brilliant Football in Sun and Shadow: An Emotional History of World Cup Football.  In one passage, he writes that Ruud Gullit — a star Dutch soccer player of Surinamese descent — once dedicated a Golden Boot award to Nelson Mandela, “who had spent many years in jail for the crime of believing that Blacks are human.”  Sadly, responses to the incident reveal what lies beneath the surface of not just soccer but sports in general: a steadfast ignorance that boils over in hate and rage.  Some comments found on the blogoshpere were telling; “Zidane’s action prove that Arabs are stupid and violent”; or “Italians are dirty players and cheaters . . . they should all choke on their spaghetti.”

One could say that this was a clash of multiculturalism in international soccer — simmering for the past seventy-five years — as the French national team is composed largely of immigrants and blacks and the Italian team — with the exception of one player — is made up largely of native Italians.  French far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen expressed his thoughts regarding the multicultural French team: it had “too many players of color” who failed to reflect Frenchness; “France does not totally recognize itself” in its mostly-black team; and “maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of color and should have been a bit more careful.”

In 1998, France won the World Cup thanks mostly to the outstanding play of Zidane.  Le Pen and others espoused this same vile hate then as well.  So, perhaps Zidane’s rage is manifestation of a weight too heavy to carry after all these years of representing a country that was almost ripped apart twice this past year alone in racial riots.  Whatever Matterazzi may have said just added a spark to a powder keg ready to explode.

One can only imagine how difficult it is to navigate being adored for one’s athletic prowess and reviled for one’s ethnicity, all the while expected to perform at the highest level for one’s country.  While Zidane has refused to elaborate on what Materazzi said specifically, this incident shines the light on the ugly side of catenaccio (meaning dead bolt — the term for how Italians refer to their style of play).  There always has been a healthy strain of cynicism that girds Italian life and filters into their soccer, but more disturbing is that the Zidane-Materazzi confrontation brought to the international spotlight what many of us have been witness to in Italy and throughout the Europe: a growing intolerance towards the ever changing multicultural world.  The resounding defeat of the European Constitution by the French provides stark evidence of this as well.

The win-at-any-cost attitude that streams through soccer from the Spanish League to the English League has had serious repercussions in Italy with the match-fixing scandal in its premiere soccer league, Serie A.  Two of these teams, Juventus and A.C. Milan, are the most successful clubs in soccer history.  They also happened to be owned by the wealthiest people in Italy.  Juventus is owned by the Agnelli family, the most powerful industrialists in Italian history.  A.C. Milan is owned by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s wealthiest person and former Prime Minister.  Ironically, a similar scandal engulfed the Italian professional league when the team won in 1982.  It seems that Italians perform best — refusing to let outside distractions in, banding together in a spirit of unity, and becoming stronger — as chaos and controversy swirl around them like vultures.

Early in this new century, the world changed much, but the dark side of American jingoism and international soccer’s chauvinism has not.  Against that darkness, nevertheless, shine the words of the late Bill Shankly, Scottish International and legendary manager of Liverpool FC: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards.  It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”   Let’s hope that, over the next four years, we all accept Shankly’s challenge and make a greater effort to embrace world citizenship both on and off the pitch.

Antonino D’Ambrosio, a writer and filmmaker based in New York, is the author, most recently, of Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer.  Currently, D’Ambrosio is Artist-in-Residence at Long Island University (Brooklyn Campus).  His most recent film is In the Land of Bolivar, which chronicles the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and was filmed at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela.  His upcoming book is Politics in the Drums: A People’s History of Political Popular Culture from 1960 to the Present.  D’Ambrosio is the founder of La Lutta New Media Collective, a non-profit production group.