A Celebration Of The Wurst

My dear readers,

I am very sorry that I have been absent these past few weeks.  While abroad I have missed much, the judicial decisions in Arkansas and Idaho, the oral arguments before the 4th Circuit, the goings on in Oregon, where a decision is expected to be handed down in a matter of hours from the time of this writing.  And, as warned, I missed my Eurovision recap.

Nevertheless, I do want to write a little about things on my mind related to the Eurovision Song Contest.  Being in the audience is a completely different experience than being at a party.  It is a little like Plato’s cave.  If watching online is the shadows, and a Eurovision party is the fire, then actually attending is like seeing the light of the sun.  Everyone should do it at least once.  Most of the acts are actually designed for the stage, and television obscures all the goings on–Azerbaijan’s act with the acrobat is a good example.  The cameras can show the woman or the acrobat, but not both.  Or at least not often.   In the audience however, you can see it all.  (On the other hand, the excellent Dutch entry benefited from television because the song was free of gimmicks, and the cameras could focus on a specific musician and nothing was lost.  That however, was a rarity.)  Television also cannot show the stagecraft so well, such as the interesting way lights were used (Sweden).

But the best part of the show is the audience and watching the way the performers feed of the audience excitement.  Being in Copenhagen, Denmark’s entry got a very warm reception (as did neighbors Norway and Sweden).  But the real story of course was Conchita Wurst, the bearded Austrian drag queen who won the competition.  The largest applause of the night was for her.  You can sort of hear in the television feed the audience singing along Conchita whenever she get to the chorus, particularly the “Riiiiiiiiiiise like a phoenix” line.  I can assure you that it was much louder in the hall.  When the song ended, the cheering was so boisterous and the excitement so palpable, my partner turned to me and said, “We have a winner.”

It should come as no surprise that the live Eurovision audience is comprised largely, perhaps mostly, of gay men.  In the run up to the competition, Eurovision and Copenhagen had been doing everything possible to make gay men feel welcome (the amount of emails I got telling me to get gay-married in Copenhagen would make a Jewish mother blush).  There were practically as many pride flags at Eurovision as national flags.  This embrace was a sharp contrast to the homophobia coming out of Eastern Europe in the past year, particularly the Russian government.  After watching Russia pass laws designed to demean gay people and tear about their families, gays had the further humiliation of witnessing the world not care.  The Sochi Olympics proved exactly how little regard we are actually held in when money and diplomacy are on the line.  When members of the Russian government (and from Russia’s annoying little sibling Belarus) started attacking Conchita, a gay man when in not in drag, she became the symbol of the LGBT community’s resistance to Russia.  In Eurovision terms, Conchita won the all-important gay bloc vote, a bloc that had not come together in such solidarity since 1998 for Dana International’s win.  (The animosity toward Russia also extended to the Russian entry, the Tolmachevy twins, who received loud boos after their performance and even louder one every time they were awarded 8, 10, 0r 12 points during the voting.  They themselves did not deserve such treatment, but it underscored the anger at Russia.)  That Russian government officials completely flipped out afterwards, combined with the knowledge that Conchita came in third in the Russian televote (and that her song went to the top of Russia’s iTunes chart), only made her win that much sweeter.  Conchita has before and since been an eloquent and elegant spokesperson for the LGBT community, which is another reason for the rallying behind her.  She fended off the ugliest homophobia with grace and panache.

2014 may well  the year of the European drag queen.  Earlier this year, the Irish gay rights activist and drag queen Panti Bliss (real name Rory O’Neill) discussed homophobia in Ireland and called out certain journalists and institutions for their homophobic actions and writings.  Those who were named threatened to sue O’Neill and the broadcast network for libel.  (Ireland, like Britain, has ridiculous libel laws.)  The network settled, and in response, O’Neill, as Panti, gave a speech in response at the Abbey Theater in Dublin.  It is a remarkable speech about the events and about homophobia that deserves to be watched in its entirety.  The video has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

So to date, an Irish drag queen gave one of the best speeches in that nation’s history and an Austrian drag queen won the world’s biggest music contest.  And the year is not even half over.

Euro Day 9: Greek Lightning

They did it again! For those of you who have nightmares about the 2004 tournament, expect a very unwelcome relapse as Greece beat Russia to advance at the 2012 Euro.

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Defying all odds, logic, and common sense, the Greeks beat Russia to advance to the quarterfinals of the Euro.  Russia had been the favorite to advance, and ran riot over the Czech Republic on Day 1.  Greece barely held on for a draw against a superior Poland.

Now Czech Republic qualified first from Group A and Greece squeaked out a 1-0 victory in a way that only Greece can.  Russia and (host) Poland are done and dusted.  God help us all if Greece win the tournament again.  I think Germany may declare war.

A Eurovision Guide For The Perplexed American Part IV

The Contestants (Continued)

Russia and the Other Former Soviet States: First we have to deal with Russia, because Russia is big, and the center of the former Soviet bloc (both in Eurovision and politics.)  Russia first entered in 1994, and every time Russia did not win, the Russians cried foul.  This is a very Russian reaction to pretty much everything.  In 1997, Alla Pugacheva entered the contest and only placed 15th.  Now, dear reader you probably have no idea who Alla Pugacheva is, but she is a legend in the former Soviet Union.  Forget Dusty Springfield, this was like Judy Garland entering Eurovision–and only placing 15th . . . to Katrina & the Waves (please, please, please stop laughing.)  That Alla Pugacheva is also a huge icon for Russian gays makes the Judy Garland connection even more appropriate.  At some point Russia decided it really wanted to win Eurovision, probably after it saw that Estonia and Latvia had already won.  In 2003, Russia sent in the big guns with t.a.T.u., the pretend-lesbian teenagers who had hit albums all over the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States.  Everyone thought t.a.T.u. was going to win.  They came in third.  Russia was pissed (in the American sense, not the British.)  A few years later (2006) Russia sent Dima Bilan, who I believe is physically incapable of performing a song without gimmicks coming out the yin-yang.  He played a white piano and midway through a ballerina rose out of it. He only placed second (the one good thing about Lordi’s victory), and again the Russians were pissed.  By this time though, Ukraine had also won the competition.  Two years later, Russia sent Dima Bilan back with even more gimmicks (such as 2006 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko skating in the background) and a lousy song that Russia marketed the hell out of to its neighbors.  You want to know how badly the Russians wanted to win Eurovision?  The entries were performed in English.  Once Russia won, the nation collectively lost interest and sent in more lousy entries, but this time without the Moscow marketing machine behind them.

As I mentioned before Estonia and Latvia had won in 2001 and 2002 respectively.  Their entries are forgettable.  In fact, pretty much every entry from the Baltic states has been forgettable except for one entry from Latvia called Wolves of the Sea, which has to be seen to be believed and one entry from Lithuanian that was so bad, I wished pain on the performers LT United.  The entire “song” was a mock-football chant: “We are the winners… of Eurovision!”  They lost.  (They were also jeered by the crowd, which never happens.)

Moldova has yet to do anything memorable, and the same would be said for Belarus if not for the spectacular bomb that is My Galileo.  Me, I love the song.  Once you understand the lyrics (admittedly no small feat even though the song is completely in English), you get that it’s actually a pretty clever pop song.  However, it is near impossible to understand on a first hearing (or second or third), so alas, the larger European audience missed out.

Ukraine, unlike every other former Soviet state, has had exceptionally memorable performances, none more so than its 2004 winner Wild Dances, sung by Xena the Warrior Princess Ruslana.  My words cannot do it justice.  Go ahead, and watch.  I can wait.  See what I mean?  In 2007 and 2008, Ukraine finished second.  Neither song was particularly good.  The 2008 one was a fairly innocuous and mediocre pop song called Shady Lady.  The 2007 song on the other hand, nearly caused an international incident.  It was performed by Andriy Danylko in his drag(?) alter-ego Verka Serduchka (it’s a little hard to tell, Verka does not look like a woman), and the song(?) was called Dancing Lasha Tumbai, which is gibberish.  The Russians heard a supposedly anti-Russsian message in the song, and (as always) they were pissed.

Switzerland: Switzerland was the first winner.  Lys Assia won with the song Refrain in 1956.  She then singlehandedly began another Eurovision tradition of former top-performers returning for a second (or third) bite at the apple when she returned in 1957 (8th place) and 1958 (2nd place).  For the next three decades Switzerland had almost no success, but then in 1988 in Dublin a French song c0-written by a Turkish songwriter (and a Swiss composer) was sung by a Canadian from Quebec wearing a ridiculous outfit apparently from Mars.  The song, Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi, won.  The singer was Céline Dion.

Malta: If you only casually watch Eurovision, you may be excused for thinking that Malta only has two pop singers, and the nation just recycles them.  If you watch Eurovision more than casually, you would know that Malta has far more than two pop singers, but they fall into two paradigms: (1) Chiara and (2) Not-Chiara.  Malta has placed second twice and third twice.  Chiara was only responsible for one of the second place finishes and one third place finishes, but for all intents and purposes there is no one else.  Without having met her or knowing anything about her life, I can say with absolute certainty Chiara is the best friend every gay man wants to have.  The 2005 edition was the first time I actually watched Eurovision and for the most part, I got exactly what I expected.  But then Chiara came on stage, in an elegant red dress and started singing Angel.  It was a beautiful song and a very simple performance.  It is a crime against nature that Chiara came in second to Greece’s generic Shake-It song.  2005 was actually Chiara’s second Eurovision; she had previously come in third in 1998 behind Dana International and the UK entry Imaani.  Chiara blessed Eurovision again in 2009 with a new song What if We.  However, in a year when both Chiara and Patricia Kaas brought their luminosity to the competition, the winner was Alexander Rybak.  It was almost enough to make me swear of Eurovision forever.  Why doesn’t Chiara do better?  Malta has no neighbors.

Portugal: Portugal is quite possibly the most mediocre country in Eurovision history.  There are no highs and few lows, but by and large Portuguese entries have in no way distinguished themselves ever.  Which is not to say they have all been bad or even mediocre.  I loved the 2008 entry and I have a fondness in my heart for the 2009 song too.  Otherwise I cannot remember any other Portuguese entry.  The strangest thing about Portugal though is that thus far the Portuguese has not formed a bloc with their neighbor/frenemy Spain.  Although Spain always got support from Andorra, they have never gotten (nor given) full support from Portugal.  This is why neither Spain nor Portugal will ever win the competition from hence forward.  What is most tragic about Portugal’s tepid songs is that the Portuguese gave the world fado, one of the finest and most dramatic musical traditions in recorded history.  Yet, as far as I can tell, Portugal has never sent a fado song to Eurovision.  If I were in charge, I would send a fadista, dressed all in black with only a Portuguese guitar for accompaniment as he or she sang (voice dripping with saudade) as though shouting headlong into the winds of fate.  The audience would be transfixed, the competition would be elevated to a level previously undreamed of, and some crap from Eastern Europe would win.

The Balkans (minus Greece) and Central Europe: I honestly have nothing to say here.  Serbia won (deservingly) in 2007 with an ethno-ballad, Hungary had a fabulous entries in 2007, and Slovenia sent in strong entries in 2001 and 2007.  The highlights of 2007 aside, this is far and away the worse region for Eurovision songs, particularly Macedonia (or as it is referred to at Eurovision, F.Y.R. Macedonia.)  It’s also the strongest bloc.

Israel: The last nation I am going to talk about, and one that I have a special fondness for.  When I went to Hebrew school, I learned songs that I always thought were Israeli folk songs.  It turns out that they were Eurovision entries that placed well.  My favorite of these songs was Gali Atari & Milk and Honey’s song Hallelujah, which won the 1979 competition.  It is a song that is so cute and sweet that it makes you want to (metaphorically) hug it and pat it on the head–all the more so after you see the performance.  Seriously, it’s cute.  This was actually Israel’s second win at Eurovision, a repeat victory.  The year before Izhar Cohen & Alphabeta won with A-Ba-Ni-Bi. It’s a nifty little song with aspirations of disco, but not nearly in the same class as Hallelujah.  A-Ba-Ni-Bi continues the strain of silly titles that runs throughout Eurovision; it is an Israeli Pig-Latin equivalent (the Bet Language) and the title is part of the song’s chorus, which translated from both Hebrew and the Bet Language to “I love you.”   A-Ba-Ni-Bi is “I”.    After the joint victories of 1978 and 79, Israel did not win again until 1998 with Dana International which I talked about in a previous post.

In the 19 years between victories, Israel had two consecutive second place finishes in 1982 and 1983, both songs I learned before I already knew before I learned they were in Eurovision.  The first was Avi Toledano’s Hora which is a good enough song.  The second was Ofra Haza’s Chai, which is fantastic, not least because of Ofra Haza’s perfect voice (although if it sounds a little like Hora, that is because Avi Toledano composed both songs.)  Chai means “alive” and the song–which was performed in Munich, Germany–is about how she and the people of Israel (which can be translated as either the State of Israel or the Jewish people) are still alive.  It came in second, but it should have won.  Ofra Haza was one of Israel’s greatest talents, and very deserving of her international fame.  Sadly, she died of AIDS in 2000.

Of all the competing nations, I do not think any have sent either the number of well-regarded pop stars or as much overall talent as Israel has.  Looking over a list of Israeli entries, I see a bunch of names that would be familiar to me even if I knew nothing about Eurovision.  The list includes Ofra Haza, Shlomo Artzi, Avi Toledano, Rita, David D’Or, and Achinoam Nini (Noa).  In 2009, Noa entered the competition with Mira Awad, a gifted Israeli Arab singer.   They sang a well-meaning but ultimately very bland “message” song.

Final Thoughts

Thus ends the Eurovision Guide for the Perplexed American.  Watching the contest is a fun way to spend half a day, and allegedly alcohol makes it better, although I have yet to test that theory.  I suggest watching it with a group of friends who are very critical and catty, but who also love camp.

There are always rumors that some American variation of Eurovision will come to these shores, but nothing ever comes of it.  There are two reasons for that: the first is that states don’t have the intense history and competition with one another that European nations do.  The second is that Eurovision is completely commercial free, which is wonderful from a viewer’s point of view and awful from a network’s point of view.  Commercials would make an already long and drawn out competition even longer and more drawn out.  Therefore it is probably for the best that we leave Eurovision to the Europeans (and company) and just watch it once a year so that we may mock that most gaudy and delightful spectacle that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

FInally, my fellow Americans, if you have any questions or comments either about Eurovision or the videos that I linked to, please leave some comments, and I will do what I can.

Great Moments in FIFA History

If you, like me, are incredibly disappointed (but not surprised) that the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 went to a kleptocracy and an oil dictatorship respectively–two countries that have a horrific history of oppression, racism (Russia), sexism (Qatar), and homophobia (both)–let us remember that FIFA has a track record for this kind of thing.  Off the top of my head:

1.  The 1934 World Cup went to Mussolini’s Italy.  To be fair, holding the World Cup in Italy in 1934 is not the same as the IOC holding the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympics in Germany (or even Italy in 1936).  Nevertheless, Italy in 1934 was still a Fascist totalitarian state whose policies and rhetoric was downright scary.

2.  Perhaps the most horrible thing FIFA has ever done (publicly) was during the qualification for the 1974 World Cup.  The Soviet Union and Chile had to play each other for qualification.  Chile’s legitimate government had recently been usurped by a brutal military junta.  The new government tortured and executed political prisoners (left-wing political prisoners) in the football stadium in Santiago.  These actions were well known.  After a 0-0 draw in Moscow, the return leg was to played in the Santiago stadium.  The Soviets refused to play there  because of the atrocities.  Rather than take action against Chile, FIFA disqualified the Soviet Union.  Chile went to the World Cup.  For once, the FIFA leadership suffered for their actions.  Stanley Rous, the head of FIFA was successfully overthrown by Joao Havelange, who ushered in a whole new era of FIFA corruption and greed.

3.  In 1978, Argentina (like Chile) was ruled by a military junta whose cruelty was well known around the world.  Despite public outcry both within and outside of Argentina, FIFA saw absolutely no problem with Argentina as host (and eventual winners.)

4.  In 2010 it was reported that the North Korean government had taken retribution against its national team and their manager after a poor World Cup performance.  FIFA buried its head in the sand until public outcry became too great.  They launched an “official investigation” which, to the surprise of no one, found out that no wrongdoing had taken place.

5.  Time after time FIFA refuses to acknowledge that technology can be used to correct refereeing mistakes and ensure a fairer tournament.  During the 2010 World Cup when Argentina played Mexico.  Argentina’s Carlos Tevez scored a goal that was clearly off-side.  The referee and his assistant missed the off-side at the time, but saw it on the instant replay in the stadium.  Because of FIFA rules, the referee could not overrule the earlier decision and the goal stood (let me repeat that, he saw the mistake, but could not change it because it happened after the fact.)  Mexico imploded, and Argentina won.  The poor referee was unfairly maligned for a mistake that could have been easily corrected.  What was FIFA’s response?  They stopped showing replays during the match.  (The United States was robbed a win against Slovakia after the referee in that match also made a horrific call.  Fortunately, the United States still won the group.)

6.  FIFA will suspend nations from participating in international competition if the nation’s government intervenes with the nation’s football association.  This is particularly galling in nations where the football association is so corrupt (Nigeria) that government intervention is the only way to clean it up.  On the other hand, an autocratic regime (North Korea) can get away with pretty much everything, because FIFA, like all bullies, is too frightened of taking real action against governments who not scared of them.

7.  FIFA has dragged its feet in responding to worldwide gambling syndicates.  One way they could help is by ensuring that national football associations, who have no oversight because of FIFA, pay their players so that said players–who are not stars and who do not make all that much money–are not tempted to throw matches.  This is a real problem in poorer nations.

These are just some of the things that FIFA has done.  This is all documented.  I am not even talking about the (probably true) allegations of bribery and corruption.  So, dear reader, if you are disappointed like me, at least let us understand that this is not the worst thing FIFA has ever done.  FIFA, like the IOC, is an international conglomerate that is solely around to ensure that its members get paid.  Russia and Qatar have money to pay those bills.

The Changing Football Map

Tomorrow, FIFA will decide which country will host the 2018 World Cup.  For good measure, FIFA will also decide the 2022 World Cup host too.  Like everything out of FIFA, the World Cup selection process is secretive, lacking oversight, devoid of accountability, and probably corrupt.

The 2018 edition will be going back to Europe, and why not?  Europe has not hosted the World Cup since 2006.  How can the continent possibly survive without the tournament for a full 12 years?*  Europe and FIFA successfully drove out all competitors once Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, made it clear that he wanted the 2018 tournament to be in Europe.  The finalists for 2018 are Russia, England, a joint bid by Spain and Portugal and a joint bid by the Netherlands and Belgium.  Russia is the bookmakers’ favorite with Spain/Portugal a close second.  England has fallen to a distant third because of the English press (which, horrors!, exposed FIFA corruption.)  The Netherlands/Belgium bid has no chance because (1) they did not play FIFA’s corruption game, and (2) the tournament would be far too socially conscious for FIFA to handle.  FIFA wants a legacy damn it, not the greenest tournament ever.  Besides, Russia has oil money.

Mercifully, the 2022 tournament will not be held in Europe.  The contenders are the United States, Australia, Qatar, South Korea, and Japan.  The United States and Australia are the frontrunners.  Both will give a great tournament; both have the stadia, the money, and the infrastructure.  Both also have a public that FIFA wants to win over (football in both countries refers to different and far more popular sports among the home crowds.)  Australia has some advantages: (1) Oceania has never hosted the World Cup while the United States hosted in 1994; and (2) the United States will not give FIFA carte blanche to do what it wants (Sepp Blatter even tried to convince Barack Obama to urge MLS to follow the international calendar–an ironic move coming from FIFA which wants all government out of football oversight.)  However, the United States is still the United States: it is rich, it could host the tournament tomorrow if need be, the crowds will be massive, and the tournament it hosts tomorrow will be spectacular from an organizational point of view.  Also, a United States tournament will be more convenient for European television audiences than an Australia tournament.  Qatar is the favorite according to the gambling in London, but it just seems so unlikely that a small state in Persian Gulf would get the tournament even with all the oil money involved.  The heat of the Middle East would present problems for players and fans alike.  Also, to the rest of the world it would look like FIFA was bought and sold.**

Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 edition and are desperate to get away from one another.  They did not want a joint bid last time, but were basically told  by FIFA it would be the only way to get the World Cup.  The South Koreans and the Japanese have a healthy hatred for each other (stemming, like so many things, from World War II and the Japanese refusal to recognize their war atrocities toward the South Koreas), and they are very big rivals in pretty much everything, sport and beyond.  South Korea virtually has no chance and Japan has only a slightly better one.   All three Asian countries will have absolutely no chance if China decides it wants to enter (win) the competition for the 2026 Olympics. China however, has said very little.

The impending announcement of the 2018 and 2026 World Cups is a good time to reflect on how the focus of power in football has shifted and will continue to shift.  Thursday’s announcements will most likely confirm that the old guard (i.e. Western Europe) has been swept aside in favor of football’s nouveau riche.

Football originated in Britain.  A lot of revisionist history says ancient China or the Aztecs, or the Romans, or some other ancient civilization.  But the sport we know as football (and also rugby, and American football, and probably Australian rules football and Gaelic football) originated in England.  The rules of Association Football*** were formalized in England in 1863 and spread to the rest of the United Kingdom (hence called the “Home Nations.”)  The first international football match took place in 1872 between England and Scotland (a 0-0 draw).  Through British citizens living abroad, football spread to the rest of the world.   For decades, the Home Nations (meaning England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were not so strong) were the top footballing nations, but the rest of the world caught up to the Home Nations without them noticing.  The Home Nations did much to help this along.  The English especially patronized the rest of the world with their arrogance and belief that football was their birthright, to the rest of the world’s annoyance.  This arrogance continues today, despite England’s utter failure to win anything since 1966.  England did not immediately join FIFA and then left in 1928 until 1946.  Therefore, England did not attend a World Cup until 1950, and Scotland first attended in 1954.  By 1950, the world had undeniably passed them by.  On November 25, 1953, after the great Hungarian Golden Team demolished England at Wembly and beat them even worse in Budapest, the English finally, reluctantly, figured it out.  Even today, the English hatred of Germany in football is less a reaction to World War II than to the fact that Germany always wins when it matters.  (Even more galling, the Germans think the Dutch are more their rivals, and the English are afterthought.)

Had the English (and Scottish) been paying attention, they would have seen that the world surpassed them as far back as the first World Cup.  At the 1924 and 1928 Olympics the Uruguayans dominated the Europeans (sans Great Britain, which withdrew.)  In 1930, the Uruguayans dominated again on home soil.  Although Uruguay was the first great South American team, its two far larger neighbors Argentina and Brazil soon surpassed it.  Decades later, Uruguay is an also-ran in South America who fights to qualify for the World Cup.  The 2010 World Cup brought Uruguay back into prominence: Uruguay finished 4th, the most successful of all the South American teams.  Uruguay, particularly Diego Forlan, were great fun to watch; whether you loved them or hated them, you must admit they produced some of the most entertaining matches in a largely dull tournament.  While one hopes that this is a new dawn for Uruguay, the truth is that Uruguay were blessed with an easy draw throughout the tournament.  Under different circumstances, would Uruguay have done as well?  I cannot say, although I suspect probably not.

In Central Europe. the great Austrian Wunderteam of the early 1930’s vied with Italy, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.  Each of these teams (except for Switzerland) had their moments in the sun.  Totalitarianism, or the end of totalitarianism ruined many of these teams: Austria was absorbed by Germany in the Anschluss in 1938.  When the two countries separated, Austria was never the same.  Hungary’s Golden Team of 1952-54 disbanded after the Hungarian uprising–many team members left their country (some, ironically, for Franco’s Spain.)  Hungary was never the same.  Yugoslavia exploded into civil war and terror.  Croatia has had spectacularly mixed results–either reaching the latter rounds of major tournaments or failing to qualify for them entirely.  Serbia has made the last two World Cups, but finished bottom of their group both times.  The other former Yugoslav republics have fared either the same or worse (Slovenia, the smallest nation population-wise in the 2010 World Cup, did a spectacular job eliminating Russia to qualify, but faltered in the group stages.) The two nations that were formerly Czechoslovakia have had similar mediocre records.  Only Germany and Italy have maintained consistent success.

In the 80 years since the first World Cup, only eight times have won: Uruguay, Italy, (West) Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina, France, and Spain.  Uruguay and England are no longer contenders (despite what the English fans and the English media think.)  At some point in the not-so-distant future Italy will may fall by the wayside, especially as the best teams in Serie A are made up of mostly foreign players.  Only time will tell.  Argentina is at a crisis point: they have not won an international tournament since 1993 despite waves of talented players.  The last time Argentina reached a World Cup final was 1990 (they lost).  Now they have the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi.  If not now, when?

It is unthinkable that only five teams (Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, and maybe Italy) are capable of winning the World Cup.  New nations have to take their place at some point.  The great Tim Vickery has said on numerous occasions that only Colombia has the population in South America to join Argentina and Brazil on the world stage.  Colombia however, has yet to pull itself together, and a great Colombian team is nowhere on the horizon despite a proud heritage.  It seems inevitable that Russia and Turkey, two nations with crazed football followings and plenty of resources, will join the European elite.  Yet after both did well at the 2008 European championships, they faltered in World Cup qualification.  This is not the first time.  The Netherlands alone is the one country that has not won the World Cup that creates talented players and consistently good national teams.  They deserve a World Cup victory sheerly for that.  However, their continued success depends on the financial stability of the club sides’ youth academies and the ability of once storied clubs to sell their rising stars.  In other words, the Netherlands is extremely dependent on a good financial market.

African teams are consistent disappointments.  They have neither the infrastructure nor apparently the competency to create good teams.  The players, unsurprisingly, appear to have more loyalty to the clubs that treat them well than to the national associations that exploit them.  Every once in a while there is a Cameroon, or a Senegal, or a Ghana who rise to the World Cup quarterfinals, but who cannot put it together.  On home soil, the African teams fell hardest.  South Africa alone has the ability to push through to the next level, but as 2010 showed, that is a very long road ahead.  While Africa has produced exceptionally talented players, it has yet to produce a star on the world stage.  Africa’s greatest player ever, the Mozambique-born Eusebio, played for Portugal.  (Like France, Portugal’s national football team benefits from colonialism and immigration.  In a Portugal side, it is not altogether rare to see a player who is too good for his native African side or not good enough to play for Brazil.)

Mexico, like the African teams, can never step up to the biggest stage when it matters most.  A Mexican self-destruction is par for the course.  One bad decision, like in this year’s World Cup match against Argentina and the house of cards falls apart.  If any national team needs a sports psychologist, it is Mexico.

Then there are countries that should be competing for World Cups titles but are not: the United States, Australia, India, China, South Korea, and Japan.  Some are easy to figure out why.  Indians barely notice football, they prefer cricket and field hockey.  The I-League is a relatively recent (but growing) phenomenon.  China’s football federation is so corrupt that it has set back the men’s team 20 years and practically eviscerated the women’s team.  Australia and the United States, like India, prefer other sports.  Unlike in India, football has established a toehold in Australia and the United States as a niche sport.  Both are years away from good results though.  It will come for Australia but slowly.  The Australians need the World Cup to speed up the process.  The United States has simply failed thus far: the United States Soccer Federation has been unable to push football into minority communities, which is shocking especially given the large Latino population in the United States.  This lack of successful outreach is harmful for long term prospects for an American team and a national league that is more than fringe.  Japan and South Korea, I think they will always be strong in Asia.  I cannot see them pushing through yet.  Both performed well at the 2010 World Cup, but not nearly well enough.  South Korea’s run to the 2002 semifinals was dubious to say the least.

Until then, the ancien regime will dominate the World Cup.  The football map has changed, but not in the way one might hope.  The faces are still the same, but there are fewer of them.

Footnotes:

*In contrast, South America–the other continent from which a winning national team could come from–last held the World Cup in 1978.  Providing everything goes okay (a major if) the next tournament to be held in South America will be the 2014 edition.  Therefore, South America has not hosted the tournament for 36 years.  Part of this is Colombia’s fault.  They were supposed to get it in 1986, but Colombia in 1986 was not a good host.  As a result the tournament went to Mexico.  Since 1978, the following continents have hosted the tournament: South American (1978); Europe (1982); North America (1986); Europe (1990); North America (1994); Europe (1998); Asia (2002); Europe (2006); Africa (2010); South America (2014); Europe (2018); Not Europe (2022).  Europe also hosted the tournament in 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, and 1974.  By 2022, Europe will have hosted 11 of the 22 World Cups.  Remember that the next time Europeans complain about Americans hogging the world’s spotlight.

** Not that appearances matter.  Another problem that no one I know has spoken about is what would happen if Israel qualifies?  Has the Qatari government given assurances that Israeli players and fans could enter the country?  There have been problems in the past with Gulf States and Israeli tennis players.

*** Dear fellow Americans, if a British person ever makes fun of you for calling the sport soccer instead of football, please remind them that soccer is British slang for “asSOCiation football.”  The game was called soccer because Association Football was too clunky a name, and it needed to be distinguished from Rugby Football (“rugger”), which separated into a distinct sport after the Football Association created the Laws of the Game.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Podcasts again, mostly football related.