Tuesday, 22 June 2010
In New Zealand, the aftermath of the game between Italy and the All Whites was an interesting study in how sporting events come to be recycled into the mass-mediated folklore. The game was played at 2am, local time, and the country woke up to a sense of euphoria and footballing achievement. A gritty draw against the world champions! An unfancied, often openly ridiculed side, routinely labeled as the worst, less deserving team in the tournament, is unthinkably in the running to advance to the round of sixteen. Well done the boys in white! But you can only stretch a Cinderella story so far, and so around mid-morning came a sudden and most sullen change of narrative. Okay, we know that this draw was as good as a win, but how is it that we did not actually win win? Daniele De Rossi and Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres were the obvious choice as villains, and so faced with two available storylines - Gritty All Whites Defence holds off Italy and Referee duped by Italian theatrics - almost every single media outlet and local Internet forum decided to all but drop the former and enthusiastically run with the latter.
I have a couple of problems with this. The first one is factual: if you only had one shot on goal, and it was from an offside position, then you cannot rewrite the game into a victory if you are in fact a stickler for the rules. Writing for Fairfax, Tony Smith got out of that particular conundrum by claiming that whilst the offside ruling was a honest mistake, De Rossi's penalty was won by guile, therefore it's a moral failing, which makes the All Whites the moral winners. And that's where my second problem is: the All Whites were already the moral winners, by virtue of having drawn a game against the World Champions. Think about it: the team includes four amateurs and at least one player who's currently unemployed. Its total combined payroll doesn't reach Gianluigi Buffon's salary. Ricky Herbert earns EUR 25,000 a year to coach the national team, versus Lippi's 5.3 million. Surely there is enough there to suggest that Italy - by virtue of its superior training and all the material advantages that come from enjoying better employment conditions and consistently playing at a much higher level - had the closest thing you can get in sport to a moral obligation to win the game (the Italian press certainly saw it that way). But that clearly wasn't enough, which is a shame in itself: because much more deserved to be said and written about Herbert's coaching decisions - including some key selections that preceded the start of the tournament, let alone the game - and the heroics of the likes of Messrs Vicelich, Nelsen, Paston, Reid and Smeltz on the day.
Once the 'we was robbed' narrative took hold - and I think the reporting of Ryan Nelsen's press-conference comments might have been the tipping point - there was no going back, but it's interesting to observe how the Web contributed to its almost feverish spread. It was the social media at its best, as on The New Zealand Herald and elsewhere - including a string of very enthusiastic Australian outlets apparently still smarting from 2006 - the comments sections and a string of online polls helped to increase the tempo of the story, whilst relieving the journalists from having to do much actual writing. The single most notable moment of brilliance belongs to the Sydney Morning Herald (h/t Martin Lindberg), which asked its readers to democratically determine whether the New Zealand goal should have been ruled out for offside (for the record, 83% answered 'No').
Before the morning was out, people started exchanging stories of past Italian crimes, or using the stereotype as it had already entered the folklore as evidence for the transgression. It was like watching one of those appalling and borderline racist columns that Stephen Jones routinely writes about the All Blacks being crowdsourced to an army of pundits, but the irony in that went lamentably unnoticed.
Posted by Giovanni Tiso at 11:02