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 in his changing room and the police had to be called.

Fortunately, these are not the kind of fans who make it to hugely expensive World Cup games in distant South Africa. How many Mexicans were present in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium when Argentina’s first goal came courtesy of one of the worst failures to call the offside rule that I have ever seen? Again, only moments after the incident, TV screens were showing crowd and referee alike what they already knew: how bad the decision had been.

TV evidence is not admitted. Shortly before this edition of the World Cup, FIFA—the Swiss-based outfit that lucratively runs the World Cup—dismissed the idea of introducing technology to check whether a ball had crossed the goal line. The referee is expressly forbidden to look up at the TV replays before making a decision. This situation will not change, remarked England’s Italian coach, Fabio Capello, until the French suffer a major injustice.

What did he mean? He was explaining, in a typically Italian way, why he feels total discretion is given to the referee. The French, who together with the Germans are perhaps the most powerful force in FIFA, were the last team to qualify for the tournament. Their play-off match with Ireland had run into extra time. Just when a penalty shoot-out seemed inevitable, the French striker Thierry Henry lifted his hand to stop a bouncing ball from running out of play and passed it to a fellow Frenchman who scored. Despite Irish protests, the referee did not (as was his right) ask Henry whether he had handled the ball, but simply gave the goal. The loss of TV revenue to FIFA should France fail to go to the World Cup would have been considerable. What Capello was suggesting was that if this cheating had happened at the other end of the field, it would have been noticed.


After the Germany–England game, the German goalkeeper spoke of how he had understood that the ball was well inside his goal but pulled it out and pretended nothing had happened in the hope that he could fool referee and linesman. He was pleased with himself. Carlos Tevez, Argentina’s offside striker, said he knew that the goal against Mexico was offside, but chose not to say anything. It’s interesting that FIFA uses sophisticated equipment to check players for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, punishing those who test positive with long bans. Getting away with cheating on the field and boasting about it afterward is not penalized at all.

In the last seconds of the quarterfinal between Uruguay and Ghana, Luis Suarez, standing on the goal line, stretched an arm out and palmed away a ball that would otherwise have settled the game in Ghana’s favor and made it the first African country to qualify for a World Cup semifinal, a fitting achievement with the competition being held for the first time in an African country. However, Asamoah Gyan struck the ensuing penalty kick against the bar and Ghana went on to lose the penalty shoot-out. Speaking to the press, Suarez declared that his was “the hand of God,” associating himself with Maradona’s famous hand-ball goal that sank another indifferent England team in the quarterfinals in Mexico in 1986.1 On that occasion the diminutive Maradona had punched the ball into the net above the goalkeeper’s head. Once again referee and linesman blinked. Uncontrolled by technology and unpenalized afterward, such “gamesmanship” gives the referee a chance to see or not to see, as is convenient. If technology is ever introduced, one suspects that the eyesight of match officials will improve dramatically and as a result the players will cheat less.

By chance I arrived in Germany on July 7, a few hours before the national team’s semifinal with Spain. Munich was buzzing with expectancy. Flags fluttered on cars and horns sounded from open windows. Even some middle-aged women had red, black, and yellow stripes painted on their cheeks. “People think of the colors simply as those of the Bundesliga,” my host’s son assured me, denying any connection between football and national feeling. “It does get disturbing when the flags with the black eagle appear,” remarked his mother. I told them that in England the nationalism would be blatant.

It was a warm evening. Four families and their friends had got together on a big terrace balcony. Similar groups sat on other balconies. Of course we hear that the World Cup is being held in South Africa, but for the viewer it takes place in the virtual space of TV where all the play is mediated by an urgent, partisan voice who unites us in our search for victory.

The strains of the song that we can’t help remembering as “Deutschland über alles” wailed from every open window. The men who knew something about football were tense and silent, but the women seemed entirely confident. Everybody was drinking. One man present, however, was Swiss and it took only the briefest exchange of glances between us for both to understand that however much we respected and even loved our hosts and would wish to seem neutral, nevertheless envy dictated that we wanted Germany to lose. Given that there is general rejoicing whenever a big team crashes out of the World Cup, schadenfreude is a guaranteed emotion. Anyone seeking spiritual progress would be advised to retire to a monastery for a month.

Football punditry is no doubt the most facile and inconsequential form of writing known to man. I read it avidly. In one’s eagerness to remain within the emotional aura of a memorable game one laps up any silliness. The genius of football pundits is to take the most recent result as a demonstration of absolute reality. They know that the losing fans won’t be reading about the game—they want to forget—and that the winners want to feel that victory was heroic, deserved, inevitable. The Germans had beaten England 4–1, then Argentina 4–0. These are remarkable achievements. Their squad was young without established superstars. Hence, for the pundit, youth and team organization were suddenly infinitely superior to individual genius or experience. What was more, the team included players of Turkish, Polish, and other ethnic origins; this healthy acceptance of a new immigrant influx could be presented as part of the reason why the Germans were winning, as if the political significance of the development were as influential on the field as the players’ wonderful talent. It was confidently predicted that this new inclusive Germany would brush aside a misfiring Spanish team that had struggled to 1–0 victories over Portugal and Paraguay. The ladies at the party were on the edge of their seats.


Ten minutes into the game it was clear that the Englishman and the Swiss could relax. The Spanish were superior to an extent one rarely sees in the final stages of a major competition. With ten of their players hailing from just two Spanish clubs, the team has a homogeneity of style and intention entirely lacking from most national sides, which tend to be cobbled together in the last weeks before the tournament. Add to that the fact that the present Spanish team is, to a man, enormously talented, all showing a remarkable ability to control, hold, and hide the ball under intense pressure, and it becomes difficult, as German coach Joachim Löw would later remark, to see how they can be beaten.

Playing a passing game of great subtlety, but without hurrying to score, they patiently wear down an opposing team, until frustration opens the door to victory. So on this occasion when the one Spanish goal arrived deep in the second half, the Germans seemed resigned to it. Nor, afterward, did the Spanish trouble themselves to score a second, as if only a romantic would make the effort to notch up more. At 1–0 the game was over.

The cameras lingered on a pretty little blond girl, German flags on both cheeks, weeping her heart out. One shudders to think what the trip to South Africa and the match tickets cost her parents. With prices ranging from $150 to $500 a ticket, and even with some tickets at reduced prices, relatively few South Africans were able to attend any of the games. The energy that FIFA does not spend on making sure that results are fair was lavished on preventing local manufacturers from cashing in with fake merchandising.

One has to hand it to the Germans: they know how to lose with a minimum of fuss and sour grapes. “Like waking from a stupid dream,” remarks my editor with admirable cheerfulness when I arrive at my publishers the following morning. “Thank God it’s over and we can get back to work.” If the World Cup has one great merit, it is the opportunity it gives a nation to experience the delirium of the embattled community in search of world domination, and then to snap out of it without any serious harm having been done.

However, someone has to win and remain imprisoned in the illusion of glory. The final saw Holland playing Spain, two European colonizers on African territory. Before the game Nelson Mandela’s grandson complained that FIFA had put “extreme pressure” on the elderly hero to attend, despite the fact that he was in mourning for the loss of a great-granddaughter. “Their focus is on having this world icon in the stadium, yet not really paying attention to our customs and traditions as a people and as a family.” The miracle is that anyone ever imagined that FIFA might behave otherwise.

In the event the grand finale was a disgrace; it also offered another pathetic “English” performance in the shape of the referee, Howard Webb. Having seen German youth outclassed by Spanish skills, the Dutch decided for spoiling tactics. That is fair enough, but their harrying and pressing came with a systematic intimidatory violence that amounted to the worst possible advertisement for football. A “filthfest,” the Guardian’s commentator called it. Webb showed plenty of yellow cards but didn’t have the courage to send a man off until the last minutes of extra time. The moment when Nigel de Jong lifted his leg high to kick his studs into Xabi Alonso’s chest and then was not shown a red card was emblematic of the mentality that FIFA has created in players and officials.

The Dutch team knew that Webb would not want to be responsible for ruining a TV spectacle with a dismissal, so they ruined the game themselves in the hope of grabbing a goal from the shambles they had created. Andres Iniesta’s wonderful strike just five minutes away from a penalty shoot-out was the tournament’s only moment of poetic justice and FIFA’s only fig leaf. On this ugly showing 2014 is rather too soon for a repeat performance.

—A previous version of this article was published on the NYRblog.