About a Ball

brazucaThe star of this World Cup is called Brazuca. Who’s he? It’s the ball. It got its name in a poll of Brazilians in 2012: according to FIFA they chose it because the word ‘captures national pride in the Brazilian way of life’ (the second choice was the Bossa Nova, which would have been overegging it a little). The ball was designed by Adidas with the aim of avoiding the flaws of its predecessor, the Jabulani, whose erratic performance marred the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Football designers often have a not-so-secret agenda to build something that will lead to more goals. The Jabulani was smooth and light, in the expectation that it would fly into the net. Unfortunately its aerodynamic features, combined with the high altitude at many South African grounds, meant it was more likely to fly away. The players didn’t trust their ability to control it over long distances, which contributed to the general ugliness of a tetchy, finickety tournament. Too many games ended up being played at close quarters. More »

A Tale of Two Cities

Down and out in Paris and London? At least make sure you’ve got plenty to read. This summer you can take out a year’s joint subscription to the Paris Review and London Review of Books. Subscribe to both magazines together here.

In Thimphu

Bhutan rock

A map of Bhutan, painted in the colours of the national flag, on a rock beside a path to a monastery.

At the Junction bookshop in Thimphu the manager is reading Sartre’s Age of Reason. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of Nausea for months,’ she says, ‘but the Indian distributors won’t send it up.’ On a stand in the centre of the shop there are glossy photo books: cute, scruffy waifs; austere Himalayan panoramas; a coffee-table celebration of carved wooden phalluses (the Bhutanese strain of Buddhism employs phallic symbolism with zeal). These are the books laid out for souvenir shoppers. On the shelves, there’s a section dedicated to Ancient Greek drama, another to 19th-century Russian novelists (all in English translation). There’s a volume of Elizabeth Bishop, and some Freud. She has sold her last copy of Infinite Jest but still has a copy of The Pale King. More »

Teething Troubles

On the subject of the Suárez bite, the World Cup pundits (David Runciman aside) were in agreement for once: ‘He’s sick’; ‘He’s obviously got a problem’; ‘He needs to get help.’ But in a kind of casual-wear version of ‘political correctness gone mad’ not a single one of them mentioned what’s staring us all in the face – the Suárez overbite. No one thought to mention those outrageously present teeth. But isn’t it possible that the back story is right here, hidden in plain sight? It’s not hard to imagine him receiving real grief for those teeth in his earliest years: children can be devastatingly cruel. If Suárez goes into analysis now, what chance his therapist will discover that on some deep unconscious level football was but a detour to his real goal – the revenge of those outsize teeth? That lurking somewhere in the backyard soul of Luis Alberto Suárez Díaz is still a hurt and resentful little boy? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’ always struck me as one of the more misconceived bits of popular wisdom. Broken bones are nothing, a detail, a cinch to mend. But cruel and blithely repeated nicknames can haunt the soul for decades. A kiss on the wrist when he scores; a bite out of the old, jeering world when it stands in his way. More »

Continental Home Advantage

People with a passing interest in football often ask two questions about the World Cup. When will an African team win it? When will the United States win it? Both good questions. It’s long been clear that some of the world’s most talented footballers come from Africa and they often emerge in clusters from particular places (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast). But as yet this hasn’t translated into any world-beating teams. In the US the appeal of soccer has been on the rise for a while now, leading to the suspicion that when the Americans put their mind to it they could translate their enormous global clout into on-field dominance. But again, it hasn’t happened yet. More »

Ten Years after D-Day

Over ten days in June 1954, a decade after the D-Day landings, the CIA sent twelve planes to drop bombs and propaganda on towns in Guatemala in support of a coup against the elected government of Jácobo Arbenz. They did only minor damage at first: one plane bombed the wrong radio station, another ran out of fuel and was forced to crash land in Mexico. A plane was dispatched to make a ‘hostile’ attack on Honduras with the aim of provoking a military response, but the Hondurans could not even agree on which airfield it had hit.

In the last raid on 27 June, the SS Springfjord, a British merchant ship that had survived capture by the Nazis in 1940, was attacked in the port of San Jose. It was alleged to be unloading arms. After a warning pass – the ship’s captain gave the pilot a friendly wave – a 500lb bomb was dropped down its chimney. It turned out to be loading coffee and cotton. More »

‘South Riding’ Redux

As a well-behaved only child I spent time arranging, and rearranging, a set of woodblock buildings, mostly houses, red roofed, white walled: a little German village that I suspect the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood would give their eye teeth for, had I still got it. A lot of grown-ups have been arranging garden cities on the carpet recently. Following Ebbsfleet’s green light, come the five proposals shortlisted for the Wolfson Economics Prize (in answer to the question: ‘How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable and popular?’). The proposals touch on complex variations of sites, strung out necklace-like, or attached barnacle-like to existing conurbations, and follow various planning and financial models, more or less interventionist. Shelter’s adapts Ebenezer Howard’s original Garden City ideals, according to which the increased value of the developed site accrues to the town and its residents. More »

The Bite

This is the day after the incident that will no doubt be the one for which this World Cup is best remembered (it will take something pretty tasty in the remaining games to dislodge it). The tournament now divides into pre-bite and post-bite. The world is already awash with virtual newsprint expressing various shades of bemusement, amusement or (most often) outrage at Luis Suárez and his ravenous teeth. I hesitate to add to the surfeit of noise. But really, why is one footballer biting another so uniquely shocking? More »

Goneness is everywhere

After years working as a subeditor on the Grauniad – where, as the joke went, his job was to put in the typos – my brother Adam now bakes sourdough loaves for a living in his flat in New Cross Gate. He delivers the bread to the residents of Telegraph Hill in the pannier of a cream-coloured converted 125cc Taiwanese scooter. He also owns a small hand-operated lever-press made by Adana of Twickenham, and uses it to print poems that he encloses with each loaf. A spindled roller passes over a revolving disc painted with ink and passes it onto the set type, which is then clamped against the platen holding the paper as the lever is depressed. Typesetting is time-consuming – setting a poem (his preferred font is Garamond 12-point) can take several hours – and the composited formes use up most of his type, so he keeps a poem, once typeset, for a month at a time. More »

Ghosts at the Feast

At every World Cup there are ghosts at the feast: teams who ought to be there but aren’t. Some of these sides do actually show up but turn out to be shadows of their former selves, like poor old Spain, dead men walking after just a couple of games (there will be a certain ghoulish fascination to seeing how they perform in their final zombie match-up with the Australians). But there are also the teams that you would expect to be watching who have somehow failed to qualify. During the 1970s the ghosts were England, who went from being one of the best teams in the world to no-shows at both the 1974 and 1978 finals. In this tournament part of an entire continent is missing. Europe remains notably over-represented in what is supposed to be a global competition. But it’s not the whole of Europe that is in Brazil. It’s the south and the east. The far north and the east are more or less absent. You could walk (or swim) from Turkey to Norway through an arc of countries with a proud World Cup heritage that have failed to make the cut this time: Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland all missed out. This is the first World Cup since 1982 with no Scandinavian representation, and in that tournament there were plenty of sides from the old Soviet bloc to make up the numbers (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were there). More »

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