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Bread and Circuses

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My sympathies were with the Dutch. Rather endearingly, the Dutch team only booked its hotel accommodation for the World Cup to last until 5 July and thus had to find themselves a new hotel once they did better than they expected. The Sunnyside Park Hotel, to which they moved, is an extremely pleasant but middle market establishment which almost certainly never expected to house any of the overpaid footballers in South Africa for the tournament. All the other teams, and the celebrities, stayed in Sandton, Johannesburg’s most affluent and whitest suburb. The Dutch alone moved out of Sandton. I know their hotel well, and hotels well known to me are not usually the sort of places frequented by celebrities and could, indeed, be termed WAG-free zones.

It was sad for the Dutch to lose their third World Cup final. The miracle is that they have got to three finals. It’s not just that the Netherlands has a population of only 16 million. Traditionally they were always a football backwater. Until 1940 all their national coaches were English, with the sole exception of Billy Hunter, a Scot, in 1914 – and, to be coarsely frank, we’d remember it better if his name had been Billy Bunter, because the Dutch tended not to attract front-rankers. For soccer in Holland bore the same country cousin relationship to English soccer as Dutch cricket did to English cricket. After 1945 at least the coaches were homegrown but no results worth speaking of came until the remarkable Rinus Michels, who in the early 1970s guided Ajax to the national league championship and cup, the European Cup, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. And it was Michels who then became national manager and took the Netherlands to the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978. Even today Dutch soccer is a place you have to leave if you become famous. Of the present team Robben plays for Bayern Munich, Sneijder for Inter, Kuyt for Liverpool, Van Persie for Arsenal, Van der Vaart for Real Madrid and Huntelaar for AC Milan.

Spain’s footballers are quite the opposite. Right back in the 1950s Spanish football in the shape of Real Madrid bestrode world football – has there ever been a more brilliant front line than Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento and Raymond Kopa? They won the European Cup five times in a row, an unrepeatable feat. More recently Real have been joined at the summit of world football by Barcelona, a club to which many of the current Spanish team belong. The real anomaly is that Spain had not won a World Cup before now, for their players are soccer aristocracy through and through.

There is an inverse relationship in Europe between having prosperous soccer and a well-run national economy, with the real soccer money in England, Spain and Italy, on whose economic problems one need not dwell, while the best-run economies – Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia – spend less on soccer. The TV cameras here showed a delirious crowd of 350,000 mainly young people in Madrid. It was not a happy thought to remember that Spanish unemployment stands at 19.7 per cent and that among those young people stripping off their shirts to celebrate, unemployment stands at 40 per cent. At least they’re happy for a night. Indeed, of the world’s top 42 economies that the Economist surveys every week, only South Africa has a higher unemployment rate than Spain. So while it’s all been fun, it’s sensible to remember that what we’ve been watching was the circus part of bread and circuses. The next World Cup will be in Brazil. Brazil and South Africa vie for the unfortunate title of the world’s most unequal country, with South Africa currently nosing ahead. The morality of spending billions on a huge party in such circumstances is not easy to defend. By contrast the Dutch rate of unemployment is 5.6 per cent, it is a far more equal society and I do not think it will be bidding to stage the World Cup any time soon. South Africa’s ruling elite, on the other hand, is so carried away by the fun of it all (hundreds of millions of rands of state money were spent on buying them all tickets to the World Cup) that it is now talking happily of staging the Olympics next. This is either wonderful or deplorable, depending on one’s point of view.

This is my last World Cup post. It’s been fun. And thanks to all those who wrote in.

Comments on “Bread and Circuses”

  1. Martin says:

    My sympathies were most definitely not with the Dutch. I only watch football during the World Cup, so confess to having little understanding of the game. But I believe it is called ‘the beautiful game’. What I saw was some exquisite pinpoint passing and skilful play by the Spanish, which unfortunately ended in poor finishing. And on the other side I saw thuggery. De Jong launched a brutal Kung Fu-style kick at Xabi’s ribs and there was one yellow card after another. De Jong would have been red-carded in any other game and some of the other cynical fouls came perilously close to red cards too.
    Then there was the outburst at the line judge and ref after Spain’s goal. And finally, a march past the dignitaries of the sorest losers imaginable. More sour faces I’ve seldom seen. Poor sportsmanship all round.

    • blue bayou says:

      Football being what it is, De Jong’s planting of his boot into an opponent’s chest might not even have earned him a yellow card. In a game between Chelsea and Manchester United last autumn one “Jonny” Evans carried out a similar assault on Didier Drogba, resulting in a yellow card not for the “planter” Evans but the “plantee” Drogba. Clips of the incident are available at the usual outlets.

  2. Nick says:

    Nice conclusion to an interesting series of posts. But I believe Holland has a joint bid with Belgium to host the 2022 World Cup.

  3. imeni says:

    Odd. I must have clicked the wrong link: I thought this was the LRB blog, but instead what I got on this page is masked rightwing gloating over the unemployed and snide derision of real social and political problems; at least the poor must’ve been “happy for a night” — but RJW, never! That’s the true intellectual stance. (plus you gotta understand he’s still sore over the Dutch loss in front of a million-plus street crowds in Amsterdam… talk about bread & circuses in a “well-run national economy”!)

    Someone should tell the webmaster about the obvious mixup: this isn’t the LRB.

  4. bilejones says:

    It think it might be interesting to analyze the correlation between those leagues composed mainly of their own citizenry and national success.

    It seems to me that an awful lot of the superstars of the premier league can’t play for England, an awful lot of the LA Liga stars can and do.

    Didn’t Inter Milan perform amazing feats with no plays who were Italian? Didn’t Italy do well?

  5. Abraham Esau says:

    Usually RW Johnson’s rants about South Africa pass without much comment. So did his World Cup posts. Even his “baboons, bananas and black”s post. Then he got bold. He was now going to blog about Italian football. Oops. His elementary mistakes has certainly brought the Lazio fans out.

    This is not cricket old boy.

  6. semitone says:

    I think the lrb is the best magazine of its kind in the world. It deserves a better blog. Maybe, given it’s not the London Review of Sports, we could have more blog posts about books? Or other things that people who read books might be interested in?

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