[William Birdthistle, guest-blogging, May 16, 2007 at 11:02am] Trackbacks
Kulturkampf on the Soccer Pitch:

On Monday, our challenge was to figure out what soccer team the Guardian clip was skewering with its depiction of players being coached to dive, writhe, and plead for medical help. Of course, the exercise is something of a Rorschach test, since there are no identifying insignias anywhere and none of the players looks familiar. So, what are we to make of the prominence in the comments of confident nominations for Italy, Portugal, and Mediterranean nations generally?

Gross generalizations or hard-won reputations? Certainly, Northern European nations like to tell a story in which they alone uphold chivalric honor on the field against the encroachment of continental duplicity and sneakiness. This observation fits in nicely with broader cultural tales of Anglo-Saxon fair play, organizational abilities, and willingness to queue up versus Mediterranean penchants for eating dinner late, arguing about a 35-hour work week, and willingness to wear Speedos in public.

In practice (i.e., in pubs from Manchester to Munich), the argument is typically deployed with references to Mediterranean siestas, friends whose pockets were picked in [Rome, Marseille, the Algarve], and that time some guy cut the line at [the Coliseum, the Louvre, a Lisbon shrimp shack]. All of which results in this kind of behavior at the World Cup:

Of course, this isn't the only version of the story. Italian, French, and Portuguese fans are quick to point out the boorish style of English soccer, which long consisted of mindless punts towards galoots up in the box, savage tackles, and nary a whit of style or skill. Roy Keane may not go down lightly in a challenge or be willing to roll around in front of his mates, the argument goes, but he'll happily snap your shin in half.

(See also, Rooney, Wayne, and groin stamp.)

There is a certain amount of truth to both sides of this debate, as footage of English and Italian league matches from twenty years ago will bear out. Yet there has also been a good deal of intermixture in the game since then. The English Premiership today includes many more foreign players than years past, as well as huge amounts of skill and, of course, a fresh surplus of diving. The Mediterranean leagues also include many more foreigners today, a more attacking game than the catenaccio affairs of decades ago, and some serious aggression of its own. For instance:

Only the Italian league seems unwilling to welcome as diverse an array of players and styles -- and so long as the Italians keep winning World Cup and Champions League trophies, they may be unlikely to feel any need to change.

If it is true that some nations are more tolerant of diving, what accounts for that attitude? And is diving a less competitive retreat from a willingness to contend using athletic ability alone or is it, instead, a more competitive willingness to engage in total warfare where every possible advantage is used?

A variation of this discussion of social norms also extends to questions about which of these kinds of societies produce better kinds of players (defenders, goalkeepers, attackers) and officials. Here again, gross caricatures dominate pub and taverna chat about how good goalies can come only from nations with a strong ethic of defending the realm, or how only a laissez-faire society with flair can produce gifted strikers.

I suspect that these topics tie into much deeper cultural attitudes and norms that lie far beyond the scope of these few paragraphs. But, for what it's worth, many observers have pointed out that diving and faking injuries are phenomena almost wholly absent from the women's game.

While Monday's comments connected with a well-established debate about cultural observations in European soccer, Tuesday's collection revealed another, decidedly American cultural debate. That is, the effeteness of this whole game of soccer. This attitude belies a very interesting difference between America, where soccer is not a blue-collar sport, and most of the rest of the world, where it most certainly is.

In America, some commentators would have us believe that soccer is weak because players don't use their hands and there's no manly contact such as there is in football. In Europe, others would retort that American football is just rugby for people who need padding, and baseball is cricket for people who can't catch a ball with their bare hands. Without delving into the merits of these positions, if there are any, what is interesting is the apparently universal need to establish the manliness of one's native sport.

Perhaps this simply has to do with standard nativism and the common tendency to dismiss other stuff as effeminate, Communist, fascist, or whatever else happens to be the epithet du jour. But in England, the saying is that soccer is a game for gentlemen played by thugs, while rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen. So perhaps there's room for "evolution" in American attitudes as well.