The World Cup is the Greatest Serial Drama of All-Time

On July 8th, 2014, Brazil lost by six points to Germany in a World Cup semi-final. At the same time, The International (a prestigious DOTA 2 tournament) began. One day prior, I read a very interesting article (that I will discuss later) and the day after, I read another one (ditto) which covered another aspect of competition. The GER v BRA game was the catalyst for this article, because it made me realize what the World Cup (and indeed all sports) really are: improvised drama. They’re TV dramas, they’re stage plays, and the difference between sport, e-sport, serial drama, even film and suddenly seemed non-existent. The World Cup is the Breaking Bad or Mad Men of sport. It is the top-tier entertainment that, if you’re not watching it, you at least know a dozen people who are.

Couple that with nationalistic pride, narrative through mechanics, and being a Canadian watching it all and I had to write something on this beautiful tournament.

>>> The World Stage

It’s Thursday, June 12th 2014 and the World Cup is upon us. Brazil begins its opening match against Croatia, and promptly scores on its own net*. At which point a match happened that was so true to other drama, that it may have been scripted. But who cares about that when we’ve got football titans like England, Italy, and above all Spain (the reigning kings of the sport) who have yet to pla- the Dutch beat the Spanish 5-1? Spain’s out in groups? Holy shit!

*Six weeks after scoring on their own net, Brazil will wish that was the worst fuck-up they had.

As Brian Phillips writes in his stellar review of the World Cup the following three weeks were a “descent into anarchy.” No one was safe. Costa Rica beat Italy, Uruguay, and Greece, before tying England and forcing the Netherlands into penalty kicks before finally going down. The established order collapsed, then Ghana tied Germany.

What I’m trying to say is: This was some damn good entertainment! We saw stars rise and fall, players came from nowhere to gain massive fanbases, and everyone was kept guessing as to what would happen next. That’s a goddamn serial drama, right there, and that’s the point. The World Cup is a serial drama, played out over a month and a half every four years. Imagine if TV serials worked that way, you’d lose your shit too if House of Cards’ new season started after a four-year hiatus.

I find it interesting that people look down on professional wrestling “because it’s fake”, while eagerly waiting on the next episode of Game of Thrones. I find it interesting that people who love theater, view going to watch a football match a waste of time. What’s the difference between these things? I don’t know anything about pro-wrestling, but I have friends who do, and to hear them talk about the epic storylines that have gone on for years… It was really quite illuminating. Sport is played on a field in front of a live audience, it has players who practice for hours on end and build careers out of performing: that’s theater. Maybe a little louder, but it’s improvised and the cheering is part of the package. At least you can drink at times other than intermission.

It might not be your thing, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

So now we arrive at Germany v Brazil, with a whole month and a half of drama behind it. Brazil lost their star players, had pissed off Colombia with its fouls and Costa Rica off with its “we can’t be sure, but we’re pretty sure” paid-off ref. The Germans were vying for a cup that has eluded them for years, despite always coming so close. Meeting on Brazil’s home turf, a stadium flooded with canary yellow shirts, two continents to clash, with everything on the line. It was going to be a rough, drag-down, beat ’em up match between FIFA’s second and third ranked team (number one having gone out in the group stage). This was going to be a helluva match!

And then it was… but not in a way anyone saw coming. What followed is being called one of the most brutal humiliations in the entire history of sport.

Yet when Brazil conceded 7 goals to the Germans, it lit us up. While the World Cup itself is a massive event, to witness a game that we’ll be talking about fifty years from now was something special. Unless you decided to go to the bathroom around minute 22, in which case I hope karma repays you in your next life because that’s a raw deal. The German attack broke through, and Klose hammered in a ball that not only put Germany up 2-0, but saw him become the all-time greatest scorer of any World Cup player. We cheered, wept, hugged each other, the crowd mostly did the second of those, and sports history was made before our very eyes! Afterwards we analyzed each play, people wrote endlessly on it, Reddit, Imgur and Tumblr did what those three do, etc.

And you know, I had more fun with that than I did watching the match. I can’t be the only one who often finds people’s reactions to an event, more interesting than the event itself. For hours afterwards people were sharing jokes, making shit, writing stuff down, and scrambling to research WWII so that they could come up with the most creative holocaust joke.*

At time of writing, the frontrunner is: “This won’t be the first time that thousands of Germans will have to lie low in Brazil for a while for their own safety.” – Ricky Gervais.

The point is that for two hours, and some time past, literally hundreds of millions of people were reacting to a single event, and that’s why the World Cup is the greatest drama of all time.

And this, even more than neuron-blowing games or unbelievable outcomes, is the magic of the World Cup. Over the next 10 days, a substantial portion of the living population of the Earth will have its feelings altered simultaneously by the actions of 22 men chasing a ball around a field in Brazil. Whether you watch alone or in a group or at a stadium, you will know that what you are seeing is being seen by hundreds of millions of people on every corner of the globe, and that your joy, despair, or disbelief is being echoed in incomprehensibly many consciousnesses. Is there anything more ridiculous than this? There is nothing more ridiculous than this, but it’s an extraordinary feeling, too. When something incredible happens — Messi curls a ball around three defenders; Zidane head-butts Materazzi — it’s not just an exciting moment. It’s a bright line connecting you with the human race.

– Brian Phillips, Grantland.com

We’re days away from a final that will likely be seen by 1 in 7 people currently breathing, and whatever alien life picks up our satellite transmissions (it would be fucking awesome if it turns out they follow this shit too, and there’s a squid-monster out there wearing a jersey). Something is going to happen, and hundreds of millions of people will all react to it in a heartbeat.

There’s something romantic and enrapturing about this, and it’s why there’s some special energy in the air that comes once but every four years.

* Aside regarding Germany and the WWII jokes: I have been struggling to write an article on how we deal with the darker side of human nature (particularly through media), and while my attempts have focused on rape-fantasies and the like, this may be relevant. There’s something in how we joke about something as awful as the Holocaust (among other tragedies). I honestly think that it’s healthy, because humour is necessary to process things at times. Even if we likely weren’t even alive at the time of the holocaust, we can still feel that impact, and have to deal with it. Sometimes the only way to cope with knowing the worst of humanity is to laugh in its face, to yield a little to the wind so that we don’t snap and break. There’s something worth saying on both topics here, but I don’t feel like this website has been around long enough for me to gain the credibility and understanding to discuss them yet.

>>> Nationalism and Pride

Watching Brazil lament their greatest loss since 1920, and seeing the footage of sad fans and crying children, people burning a Brazilian flag- all of that gave the impression that this is a deeply wounded nation in mourning. Now, I’m about to talk about Brazilian politics, and I know -nothing- about Brazilian politics other than it likely takes place within a sovereign nation in Latin America, but… There’s talk about how this defeat might impact an Presidential election which is coming up, because when you spend $12 Billion and several human lives to play your favourite sport on your home turf, you better win that tournament. Or at least, not exit that tournament having suffered a defeat so embarrassing that it gets its own name. That might have an legitimate impact how people view the federal government.

Brazil suffered such a loss, that you can be forgiven for waking up the following morning expecting to see the nation in ruins. Except it’s not. In fact, even during the match life elsewhere was going on pretty much as usual. It’s easy to forget when you’re just watching the game that while millions of Brazilians were watching that game, millions more didn’t care (or even wanted Brazil to exit so that people would shut up about it).

It is always sensible to resist the urge to extrapolate too much from sport, which most of the time simply mimics the shapes and storylines of real human drama. A complete sporting collapse is not a real collapse. This is mimesis, entertainment, operetta. Not that this will stop people trying, and books will duly be commissioned and cinematic reproductions cast of the Mineiraoazo, the Allemãonacion, the Belo-Blow, the Horror-zonte. How exactly do you lose a World Cup semi-final 7-1?

– Barney Ronay, The Guardian

We are tribal by nature, and it often feels like human history is a progression of us forming into larger and larger groups. Individual tribes become clans, clans become states, states become nations, nations from alliances, and when we make alien contact it’ll be Humans vs Them. Sport, not only has us wearing uniforms (which psychologically brings humans together like nothing else), but cheering for our countries (even if most of the players weren’t born there), and pitting us against other tribes/ nations we may have some history with.

Who doesn’t get involved with that? It’s awesome! It’s genetically hardwired to be awesome! Especially when your team wins, and for a moment the global spotlight is on your people (even if it’s not looking at anything historical or cultural). However, when we join these massive groups, mob mentality tends to take over a bit which is why police will escort a group of fans out of a stadium if their team happened to massacre the one they’re visiting.

I always think of it as this catharsis, often manifesting in anger, or passion and fury more like. It’s a fire that takes you when you watch your clan battle another (even if it’s only for a ball). However like all fire it must be directed very specifically, or else it can easily get out of control and lead to an actual resentment of another nation cheering on their people. And you have to remember that this is but one aspect of our society, and while that fire is burning bright now it will die down.

As much fun as it is to make jokes, gifs, tumblrs, and reference the Blitzkrieg (partially because it’s a fun word to say), like any drama it has an end and a point where you go back to reality. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get excited, or wave flags, or make jokes at other team’s expense, or yell ‘Das Manschaft!’ when entering your lecture hall after the match in a wildly out of character display of extroversion- because I sorta did all of those things, and it’s fun. It’s great to take part in that, like all great drama.

Because we’re all just folk in the end.

Whichever nation (Germany) wins the World Cup, it’s going to be a strange resonance of both pride, extreme jubilation, and then like an explosion, a rapid return to normalcy. That aspect of nationalistic pride in caring so much, about something that will affect so little, but wanting it so hard and following it for hours for six weeks, it really is silly, and awesome, and fun, and weird, or at the very least interesting.

>>> On Being Canadian during the World Cup

After Germany beat the USA by a margin 5 goals fewer than Brazil allowed, I was in IRC talking about the match with a few friends. At which point one of them (a USA supporter) asked me, “How’s Canada’s team doing?”. To almost any other nationality, that may have invoked some slight remorse about not seeing your home nation even qualify, but it feels different when you’re Canadian. I told her what I’ve observed: “Even if there was a Canadian team, we wouldn’t be cheering for them.”

Canada is a weird country, and similar to the USA in that we’re really a confederation of colonies that over time decided to form what is now Canada (technically one was pulled in kicking and screaming, and hasn’t shut up about it since). We are a gigantic country, not in terms of population (35 million, approximately), but in geographic size, and more importantly: in culture. Our world might be very small, and getting smaller (until the next economic catastrophe which will likely bring a backlash against globalization and interdependent economies, but that’s not important right now), but Canada remains gigantic. We have people in Quebec with their culture, the Maritimes with their respective cultures, British Colombia with its history and increasing Asian influenced culture, Albertan America-lite culture… You get the idea. The point is that, I never thought of us as a nation in anything but name.

It was recently Canada Day, and it simply feels weird to me that we’re breaking out the Canadian flags and celebrating this confederation, when what we have in common with each other is so different, and the distance between us is so vast that you could sooner travel from London to Moscow than Toronto to Vancouver (a few times over). Is there a Canadian identity? For all of our jokes about beavers and maple syrup, what’s binding us together past the federal government?

I’ll admit that living in Toronto might colour my perception of a Canadian identity, because there sure as hell isn’t one here, but that’s what I like about it. Toronto is a hodgepodge of about a hundred different nationalities, and that is never clearer than when the World Cup arrives. Walking down the street, cars with flags from each of the 32 teams are likely to pass you. Walk through several neighbourhoods, and you’ll see how the flags on people’s porches change depending on which one you’re in.

Living in Toronto means that you’re surprised when you overhear a conversation that’s spoken in English on the TTC (public transit).

Living in Toronto during the World Cup means that even if you don’t watch the games, you have to be aware of who’s playing, because a major victory for one nation can shut down its corresponding area of the city. I remember being in the middle of little Italy when the Italians had a decisive victory, and that added a good 45 minutes to my trip as people spill into the streets. I know of people who go to bars in areas which support a team which is playing, and enjoy the atmosphere because they’re surrounding by die-hard fans. Traffic’s bad enough already, imagine having major roads shut off seemingly at random.

More often than not, we see ourselves more of the nationality of our heritage, than we see ourselves as Canadian. If you come here and ask someone what nationality they are, I guarantee you they’ll tell you something other than Canadian. There is a Scottish flag hanging in my apartment, and not a single Maple Leaf to be seen. It’s more about blood than anything else; I’ve only been to Scotland once, but I take more pride in that heritage than I do in having occupied space within Canada’s borders.

This is not to say that Canada’s not a nice place to live, it is. But is there any attachment to this idea of Canada? If we decided Confederation no longer serves our needs and broke off piece by piece, would it matter? Economically yes, but given how the economies in different part of the nation vary wildly quality of life might actually improve. Canada’s a great place to live, but they’ve got socialized health care elsewhere, the maple syrup trees won’t uproot and leave. This place is worth defending too, but doing so to preserve our liberty and quality life, and less to preserve the Canadian people and culture (which may or may not exist). And this is what makes nationalism so odd, because not all Brazilians are the same, not all Germans are. Yet we love our tribes, only sometimes it’s the tribes of our grandfather and not the one we reside in. Perhaps it’s my circumstance, perhaps it’s bored upper-middle class ennui, but the World Cup only emphasizes how much one’s genetic heritage matters more to Canadians than Canada does.

And I love that! Being in Toronto during the World Cup can be so much fun. I love that we’re this big mess of nationalities, it keeps things interesting. Hell, I’d wager that Toronto is more a cohesive nation than Canada is. We might be from all over the place, but we’re close neighbours and do rely on each other economically.

>>> e-Sports, Drama, and Narrative through Mechanics

I talked about DOTA 2 at the start of this, didn’t I? Why? Because if it wasn’t obvious before, right now there’s a bunch of guys in Seattle playing  DIGITAL SPORTS (listen to the whole thing, I don’t care if you don’t play DOTA. Just fucking listen to it). One of the reasons why I’ve been thinking so much about sport as entertainment and performance lately is because of this PC Gamer article by Chris Thursten.

Obviously I agree with his argument that DOTA is a legitimate sport as it has become a performance which transcends its base mechanics, and it is the players and their manipulation of those mechanics which creates drama and narrative. You can also see how this relates to “sports as legitimate as theater when it comes to entertainment” and discussing how much we really love our stories.

A ball is just a ball, until Mesut Özil uses it to make a precision cross to Miroslav Klose who takes that ball and together they make a hundred million people all jump out of their seats and cheer. Other people are currently manipulating computer code to make screens display graphics where a sequence shows a character “Puck” getting swarmed by enemies and a man named “Dendi” becomes upset (along with Na’Vi fans).

I’m discussing this mostly for the article, because it’s rather awesome. I do wonder about how technology affects e-sports still, though. While this is becoming more a part of our culture, technically The International is about DOTA 2, not DOTA. There is no Football 2, as while the rules get tweaked, it’s always about a ball and some nets and rioting. While DOTA 2 is very stylized, which help its graphics stave from looking dated, I still wonder how changing times will affect the longevity of e-sports as a whole. You can pass a baseball bat down generations, that’s harder to do with a CPU.

>>> To Conclude an Article where I Resisted Making any FFXIII References

To say that this is “just a game” (much like any media) does it a disservice, because if this had no value then people wouldn’t be so invested. A salute is simply raising your arm up in a certain way, but doing so in a certain context can be an immense sign of respect. It’s interesting how base acts take on great meaning.  You can’t argue something has no value when millions of people are strongly affected by it.

However, it’s a matter of how we integrate that media into our lives so that it has a positive impact. The World Cup, like a lot of drama, will be analyzed and talked about, but it exists as part of our cultural tapestry, and not its entirety. As this World Cup ends, it’s important to hold the great sentiments it has instilled in us, while vowing to stay our revenge-fueled bloodlust until 2018 where we’ll do this all over again.

– Jaydra

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