The Shame of the World Cup

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Reuters/David Gray
Spain’s Xabi Alonso getting kicked in the chest by the Netherlands’ Nigel de Jong during the World Cup final match at Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg, South Africa, July 11, 2010

For any practitioner of Zen who imagines he has achieved a state of detached equanimity, the ultimate test must be to watch his national side play at soccer’s World Cup. That England’s team is dull, I tell myself after the first game, I can handle; that they are truly dire, I reflect after the second and third, is perhaps only par for the course. When, in their first knockout match, England goes 2–0 down to a fluent and attractive Germany, it seems the perfect opportunity for resignation and acceptance.

Then it happens. England scores. 2–1. And scores again! The ball strikes the bar behind the goalkeeper and goes a yard into the goal before bouncing out. We have all seen it, we are delighted. But the referee doesn’t blow his whistle! Neither he nor the linesman has seen it. Not that they have poor eyesight. They see a thousand tiny things. It is extraordinary, watching the replays of complex fouls and tussles, how rarely referees and linesmen are wrong. But in this case they blinked in synchrony precisely as Frank Lampard’s strike went into the goal.

Immediately the television is showing replays. Inside the stadium on huge screens the crowd can now see that the ball was even further into the goal than we originally thought. But the rules do not permit the referee to change his mind. Even thirty seconds after a wrong decision, it is too late.

I am reminded of a moment some years ago when I was standing on the terraces in Verona’s Bentegodi stadium among some of Italy’s most notoriously violent fans during a game against Inter Milan. “The violence doesn’t start with us,” the young man beside me remarked. It was halftime and the screen above us was endlessly replaying two incidents. In the dying seconds of the half, Verona’s center forward, running alone into Inter’s penalty area—the part of the field around the goal where a foul requires a penalty kick—had been pulled down from behind. The whistle sounded, but no penalty was given. The referee had contrived to blow for halftime exactly as the foul was committed.

The way it is run, football is a constant incitement to violence,” the young man beside me went on. What he meant was: we are invited to support our team and celebrate sportsmanship, but what counts is money. Inter Milan is a big, favored, rich team and Verona is not. The other incident on the screen showed a scuffle between players, coaches, and owners as they left the field for the changing rooms. Forty-year-old men in heavy winter coats were swinging fists. “It’s a miracle how nonviolent we are,” my companion concluded. Later the referee was besieged …

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