Guest post: Brian Finn from Brazil!

27Jun10

World Cup Part I: Soccer and the American Psyche

I remember when I decided to quit playing organized soccer. I was eleven years old. I had just played a game in which my teammates and I had worked incredibly hard for what seemed like a long time only to have the whole thing end in a scoreless tie. I came home took my cleats off and never put them on again.

Team sports are supposed to have definitive outcomes as reflected by a score that reflect the level of play between the two teams.  If you could dominate another team and still have the outcome be a scoreless tie or end in a lost due to a fluke goal as determined by a bad reffing decision then that activity isn’t a competitive sport but rather a strange exercise in chance that involved physical activity. As beautiful as soccer can be at times, it has always been hard for me to care about it as a player or fan.

I am not alone. Most of my countrymen share a similar emotional dissatisfaction with the sport’s low scores and capricious outcomes. However, for some reason the media is always convinced that soccer is just about to catch on. They said it when we hosted the World Cup in 1994. They said it when we got Beckham in 2006. They’re saying it again now that the US scored a late minute goal against Algeria. However, the fact remains that America is and will always be the country where Tiger Wood’s marital problems will generate more coverage on ESPN.com than the World Cup. Here in Brazil we get a day off when the national team plays. In America we can’t name a single player on the national team.

Brazilians are fascinated by American indifference to the World Cup. They want to know why we don’t care. It is after all such a beautiful game and the rest of the world loves it, why not us? I tell them that I think that our indifference is not a testament to some narrow mindedness or cultural isolation, as some people would like to suggest. Rather, our indifference reflects our unique “awesomeness” as a nation (this response goes over really well).

America as the richest and most powerful country on the planet doesn’t need soccer to define itself. We don’t need to win a soccer game to have patriotic pride, to feel like we’re good in the world at something. Mexico might need it, Serbia might need it, but we don’t.  Again I know this response is in many ways condescending and arrogant and I apologize for sounding that way but it is really the only way I can explain the fact that Americans don’t get all hung up on soccer the way smaller countries with less geopolitical and economic dominance do. If you have a better explanation, let me know.

World Cup Part II: Picking North Korea over Brazil

It is hard not to like a lot of things about Brazil. It has to be one of the most likable countries on the planet. Brazil’s soccer team is just as likeable as everything else in the country. The national side is led by Kaka who is by all accounts a good dude, – humble and charitable in the community. The rest of the players from Elano to Fabiano are much more joyful and sportsmanlike than the players from a lot of the European teams. The Brazilian team has no scowling, over hyped Wayne Rooneys or whining quitters (e.g. entire French National Team).

That said, when I watched the first match at my friend Arno’s friend’s house in Jardim, I was the only person in a roomful of 25 Brazilians not rooting hysterically for Brazil’s side. I would have liked to root for Brazil because I love the country but the fact is that as a rule, during the World Cup, I always root for the country that has the lower GDP per capita and the most miserable living conditions. North Korea for this reason is by far and away my favorite team in the World Cup.

Why does this make sense? Well, the way I look at it is that if North Korea wins or does marginally well, it will provide millions of people with a brief moment of pride and joy before they go back to their shitty lives of getting starved to death on collectivized farms. Yes, the win would be used by the regime for propaganda purposes but who cares. It is not like Kim Jong Il is going to retire anytime soon. It is not their fault that they live under an oppressive regime and like everyone else on the planet they deserve some modicum of joy every now and then.

After North Korea, my other favorite soccer teams are the African and Islamic ones. I know a soccer win for a country like Ghana will provide people there with happiness for weeks. Have you ever seen how happy people get in an African country when they win a World Cup game? It is unbelievable. Watching footage of Senegal after they beat France in 2002, left me with a lump in my throat.

When a developing country wins, you can’t help but feel that their joy is a deeper, more meaningful kind of joy. The win is evidence of some higher affirmation and relevance in the scheme of the world. Not to say that people in Italy don’t get extremely happy when their team wins. They do. It is just that a soccer win for a country like Italy will be enjoyed the way getting drunk at a carnival is enjoyed. Furthermore, the Italians when all is said and done still get to be Italians and enjoy beautiful weather, girls, ancient buildings and Capuccinnos. After they are done watching the game, the North Koreans have to go back to barren one-room houses that feature wood stoves and nothing to adorn the walls except for a picture of the Dear Leader.

World Cup Part III: Why Game Theory Says Its in America’s Interest to Lose

My desire to see crappy countries win holds true even when America plays. I very much wanted Algeria to beat America the other day. That might sound unpatriotic but I actually think losing to Algeria would have been the most patriotic thing to do. Let me explain.

Algeria was representing the Arab world. The Arab world is not enamored of the United States, in fact for the most part the Arab world hates the United States. A good chunk of that hatred comes from the fact that the Arab World feels overwhelmed and impotent in the face of American/Western dominance in economics, military and culture.  Time and again, Arab countries have failed to significantly challenge this American dominance and this consistent failure has over time yielded an inferiority complex.

America’s main geopolitical challenge is how we assuage this inferiority complex so that we can work with these people. We need to assuage this inferiority complex while at the same time preserving our own superiority. This is where soccer comes into play.

You see, I do care about America’s relative superiority in areas like economics, military and culture and I care about how we can preserve that dominance for the decades ahead. However, I don’t give a shit about how good we are at soccer. Neither do most Americans. These Arab countries on the other hand do care about soccer. Like most other people around the world, they remember victories and defeats for decades. The joy of beating the United States and knowing that they have something in which they are superior to us will help them forget about the other hundred things that we do better then them.

This is the essence of good game theory bargaining. You give your opponent something that he values a great deal that you pretend to value a great deal but you know is actually worthless to you. You then get something in return that you actually value. If he knew you didn’t value that thing you were giving up, he wouldn’t give you a good trade, which is why you have to pretend that thing you’re giving up is valuable.

I propose that the State Department develop a plan to ensure that the US soccer team lose every single soccer game they can to Muslim countries. We then stage fake riots to pretend like the loss is meaningful to our national psyche. We can then watch as the Muslim countries gloat about their win and their dominance over America’s evil empire and while they are doing that, we go about our business making oil deals, moving troops into certain regions, securing sea lanes and selling them our television shows. In other words, we can go about being America and they won’t care because they beat us in soccer.

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