World Cup, Round 1:

First, a word about co-blogger Ilya Somin’s interesting post “An Underappreciated Advantage of American Professional Sports Over International Soccer”“. Ilya describes an “important advantage of US pro sports over international soccer: soccer often promotes nationalist and ethnic violence and provides propaganda fodder for repressive or corrupt governments, while US pro sports (with extremely rare exceptions) do not.”

“European and Latin American soccer rivalries are commonly linked to nationalistic and ethnic antagonisms . . . Many European and especially Latin American soccer teams are also closely associated with governments. This often allows repressive and corrupt regimes to obtain propaganda benefits from the teams’ victories. . . . In the United States, by contrast, pro sports rivalries are based on geographic divisions that have little or no connection to deeper social antagonisms over race, religion, or political ideology. . . . US pro sports leagues are sometimes criticized for failing to engage the deeper loyalties of fans as much as soccer does in other countries. On balance, it’s actually a good thing that they don’t.”

I think Ilya’s on to something here. What’s most interesting, to me, is that he describes this as an “advantage” of US sports. Another way to say what he’s saying: people around the world care about soccer in a way that is far deeper than the way most US fans care about their sports. It touches a much, much deeper chord, and, as a result, is much more bound up with all those things people care deeply about — religion, and politics, and honor, and the rest of it. I’ve said it before: soccer’s like life, and people care about it the way they care about their lives. Why that is so is a very interesting question — I believe it is inextricably tied in some way to the very nature of the game itself, but I can’t yet quite articulate the full theory for that. But to those of us who love soccer – all 2.75 billion or so of us — that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. Do US sports have an “advantage” because they lack this quality?? Depends how you measure these things. Ilya (like Jonathan Adler) has an unspoken theory of sport standing behind his comments: sports should take us away from the real world, it should provide us a respite from the ethnic tensions and religious divisions and political problems of the real world. I can see it – I just don’t share it. Sure, “promoting ethnic violence” and “providing propaganda fodder for repressive and corrupt governments” are bad things. But the way I see it, it’s a lot like love — many, many terrible things have happened over the centuries because of love, but “on balance” we’re better off for it — as Lennon and McCartney (huge soccer fans, both of them, incidentally) put it: “I don’t care what they say, I won’t stay in a world without love.”

Back to the playing field. Some good news and some bad news, so far, out of South Africa. The bad news is that the early indications are there might really be problems with the new ball they’re using in the tournament. [As for why FIFA, in its infinite wisdom, feels it has to come up with a new ball design for each World Cup, you’ll have to ask someone else – it is entirely inexplicable to me]. As is common before each World Cup, there’s been a lot of moaning and groaning about the new ball, particularly from goalkeepers, about the new ball, which is apparently more unpredictable in its flight than others. Most fans discount those complaints — but the first 5 games have provided a little evidence that there might be some problems with this ball. The scores so far: 1-1, 0-0, 2-0, 1-1, and 1-0. Could just be early-round nerves – but it does look to me like the strikers are having some problems keeping the ball under control. Free kicks, in particular — I don’t think there’s been a single one that hasn’t flown wildly over the goal, and these are some players whose abilities on free kicks is truly extraordinary. It’s a little worrisome

The good news, though, is that Lionel Messi was magical in Argentina’s first game. Messi’s the best, and by far the most entertaining through the sheer magnificence of his play, player in the world, though he has been largely out-of-sync when playing for the national team. But not yesterday — back to his old mesmerizing, jaw-dropping ways. He didn’t end up scoring, but only because of four astonishing saves by the Nigerian goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, who had what he himself described as the “game of his life.”

Good news, too, for the US, of course, courtesy of one of the most egregious errors by England’s keeper that you will ever see in a top-flight international soccer game. But the US deserved that result — even a 2-1 victory, which they almost pulled off, wouldn’t have been overly flattering; England looked uninspired in the extreme, and in my eyes their chances of winning this tournament went from very slim to none after yesterday’s performance.