Jon Reed Goes Off On... July 2006
Monday, July, 10 2006
A Cup Full of Bad Sports
World Cup 2006 enjoyed unprecedented ratings in the U.S. As a result, more Americans than ever before got to take in a special convergence of corporate schmuckery and colossally bad sportsmanship. The World Cup Presented by Adidas was not as corporate as Nascar-Presented-by-Everbody, but the previously-mocked FIFA/Coca-Cola "Team Rankings" underscored the marketing problem: The World Cup is open for American business as long as Americans don't mind the losing. A nice ranking might puff the collective chest, but it doesn't get us past Ghana. Compared to the level of commercialism that has infected the major American sports, the World Cup is (thankfully) behind the times when it comes to maximizing sponsorships. Uninterrupted play poses a viewer-interruption-challenge that the multinationals have yet to solve, though solve it they will. In the meantime, we can focus on the more serious problem facing big-time soccer: piss-poor sportsmanship. The bulk of the problem is the power of the referees to severely impact the outcome of matches (well beyond anything Dallas Mavericks fans whine about). This in turn has led to the perfection of turf diving, shin-grabbing, and other shameless techniques. Those who watched Zidane headbutt his own legacy were treated to the spectacle of bad sports on the highest possible level. The Italians then draped themselves in the most ironic sort of victory: one which they had earned through a series of gritty performances, but one which they secured in a championship game where they were seriously outplayed and won through a parlor game. But if sporting outcomes are up to the Gods, whatever caused that headbutt was purely mortal. Much will be made of Zidane's disgraceful conduct, but as the Italians celebrate their victory, they should keep in mind that whatever Materazzi said to Zidane that caused him to implode in that manner was surely not the words of a champion. Seeking verbal advantage may be part of the game, but it's not part of the beautiful game. All this means is that the World Cup can be officially welcomed into the immense contradiction of big time money sports, where greed and mismanagement have forced the passion of the game to the sideline. And yet we still watch, because we know that moments of unscripted brilliance and selflessness are still worth their weight in sponsorships. We watch because we're no better than the flawed stars we root for.