Ronaldinho was stretching just outside the penalty box. Harry Kewell was running in place at the opposite end of the field. Around me, a heaving sea of people, all of them dressed in yellow: the home jerseys for both teams are an almost identical shade – though Brazil is more canary, and Australia more mustard.
I was sitting in the nether regions of the Allianz Arena in Munich. Over the circle at midfield was a pristine white tarp, which had a logo on it, drawn in buoyant tones, depicting four interlocking circles, all but one of which were occupied by three frighteningly happy smiley-faces.
And, notably, arching around the circumference of the tarp was the slogan for this year’s World Cup: “A Time to Make Friends.”
I imagine I was not alone in thinking it a rather unusual slogan to choose for a game that – on so many levels – is a controlled reenactment of war. Where the names of certain positions (sweeper, striker) sound all too much like soon-to-be-invented machine guns, and where certain aspects of the game are eerie echoes of military jargon (counterattacks, danger zones). When one thinks of soccer, friendship is not the first thing one thinks about.
The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has called the sport a “ritual sublimation of war,” and considering that, the World Cup must be no less than a custom honoring the apocalypse. What is this international quadrennial celebration of sport if not a celebration of our fear (and perhaps delight) at a vaguely imagined “end of times”?
Nations collide. Former colonies do battle with their colonizers. Angola attacks Portugal. Ivory Coast goes to war with France. England confronts, well, the rest of the world. Some of the contests have historical resonance, while others have more contemporary significance. Who among us did not thrill at the idea of an Iran-America showdown, but alas, besides being in different groups, neither team was good enough to advance out of the first round.
On the field, too, the action was anything but friendly. There was the Portuguese elder statesman Luis Figo, who got away with a headbutt to the Dutch player Mark van Bommel. There was Wayne Rooney of England, who in characteristic fashion did not get away with stomping on the groin of Portugal’s Ricardo Carvalho. And who could forget the moment that will live in World Cup infamy, when Zinedine Zidane rammed his monk’s tonsure into the chest of Marco Materazzi.
A time to make friends it was not, at least not on the field, not during the matches.
Of course, there were, for every minor skirmish or head ram to the solar plexus, a hundred displays of good sportsmanship, if not outright friendliness. Players, as usual, exchanged jerseys after matches – wiping sweat, wiping tears. Hands were extended to the fallen. Asses were patted.
After the games, however, in the press conferences, players and coaches engaged in a level of shit talking that rivaled some of the most garrulous street ballers of Harlem – or perhaps certain blogs. The passive-aggressive angle was favored by French coach Raymond Domenech in his team’s win over Portugal: “I do not like to comment on the team of another coach. I don't like other coaches to make comments on my team, so I'm not going to do it.”
Passive aggression aside, it still looked, from the stands and press boxes, very civil – a bit too civil perhaps. At the same Australia-Brazil match, I sat next to a perpetually grinning German family who were rooting for Brazil. Father, mother, daughter, and son were decked in matching shades of yellow and green. (The level of German Brazilophilia is quite astounding; it was by far the most ubiquitous flag – apartment balconies, restaurants, car windows – second only to the German drie-color.)
I wanted to see Brazil lose. How, you ask, how can anyone hate the “beautiful game” played by the poets of Brazil? I am, admittedly, one of those people who hates it when a team wins too much. I hated the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the Jordan and Pippen Bulls. I loathe the Yankees. I was looking for Australia to pull off an unlikely upset. I joined the Australian fans, the Socceroos, as they chanted, to the tune of Yankee Doodle:
Whooo the fuck/
At the same time, I have the odd habit of loving the uniforms of teams I hate. While in Berlin, the final stop of my three-city World Cup pilgrimage, I bought a Portugal zip-up because I liked its lush maroon color, though I hate almost every player on their team. I also own a Real Madrid jersey, a team in the Spanish professional leagues, a team so stacked with international soccer stars it’s ridiculous not to worship them. Among their biggest stars is (rather was) Brazil’s Ronaldo. He was starting against Australia this day, and, yes, I was wearing my Real Madrid jersey – with his name on it.
“He was offsides,” I shrieked as Ronaldo, a once-spectacular striker, now in his bloated dotage, received the ball dangerously close to the Australian goal.
I must have confused the smiling German family sitting beside me, what with my jersey. “Goot pass,” said the father, giving me the thumbs up.
Can’t you tell I want Brazil to lose, old man? I thought to myself, before realizing, after explaining to him at length why Brazil cannot play together as a team, that the man couldn’t understand a word I was saying. “…you can tell they don’t want to pass it!”
“Yah,” he nodded, smiling. “Goot pass.”
It was all very fishy, this friendliness, bordering, like those smiley-faces, on the frightening. It seemed to be a cover, a façade, an empty pastel-hemmed slogan made flesh: A Time to Fake Friends.