Wednesday, June 21, 2006

This Post Sponsored by the United Colors of Benetton

Two items from Monday's print-edition New York Times belatedly caught my eye last night, both illuminating some of the far-flung, small-p political ramifications of the World Cup: how this tournament intersects with life and culture in some of the globe's less jolly quadrants.

First, from a summary of the Times' excellent World Cup blog:

"...[A]n Iran fan writes to The Times blog: 'World Cup would have been a great opportunity for us ordinary Iranians to remind the world of our humanity. We are a lonely people: oppressed by our own regime at home and dehumanized by the media abroad. How fitting would it be if we could use this chance to overcome this loneliness, even if for a short time. Alas that it is not going to happen...'"

If that doesn't shake you up just a little bit, you've been dehumanized yourself. "A lonely people"? I don't think I've ever read a more heartbreaking phrase.

Then, from the serious—grimly, grimly serious—A Section, reporter Marc Lacey files under a Mogadishu dateline regarding Shariah-slinging Islamic courts' take-over of the Somali capital. At the top:

"Flush from a military victory earlier this month that caught Washington and the world by surprise, Islamic militiamen have begun waging smaller battles—cultural, not military ones—in and around Somalia's shellshocked capital.

"A week ago, when Mexico and Iran were still playing the first half of their World Cup soccer match, gunmen allied with the Islamic courts burst into a tiny theater in the Hiliwaa neighborhood, condemned the place as ungodly and angrily switched off the television set."

It's all very well for us pampered Westerners to spend the Cup taking the piss out of each other and agonizing over Rooney's match fitness. These two unrelated pieces reminded me why football matters in the first place, beyond the fun and aesthetic qualities of the game itself. It's a lingua franca—a chance for utterly unlike people to share, albeit briefly and imperfectly, some communication.

For the Iranians, it's a chance to act like a normal nation and have a good time (and to the regime, no doubt, it's an unwelcome reminder that normal nations exist). For the Somalis, it's respite from mindbogglingly awful history—a chance, in a way, to indulge in cosmopolitan, worldly pleasures of the flesh.

No wonder fundamentalists and absolutists—when they're not exploiting football to gain more power—distrust or hate the game. It can provide, at its best, a vision of a freewheeling, unfettered humanity that competes fiercely, but only over something that doesn't really matter. It's a deliriously impure melting pot of styles, languages, body types, racial backgrounds, cultures, haircuts. And no wonder the self-parodying righteousness of those Somali Islamists finds a faint echo in the gaseous xenophobia and self-satisfaction of American soccer-bashers. They may not have anything else in common, but they share a fear of (or disinterest in) The World Out There. And football is nothing if not The World Out There.

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