Tuesday, 22 June 2010

We Was Robbed

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.


  1. Giovanni, first let me say that I agree broadly that New Zealanders need to get over it and celebrate their achievement rather than stay bitter. It's football, this kind of thing happens. Both goals were dodgy, and it's how things go. Personally I feel like we won the World Cup twice in the space of a week.

    But I think you need to put the de Rossi penalty in the context of the broader pattern of Italian behaviour during the match. They were diving, or at least over-exaggerating the effects of contact so much that the ESPN commentator who isn't Ally Mccoist was moved to describe their behaviour as 'deeply pathetic'. Mccoist described it as 'embarrassing to watch'. Yes, Fallon was using his elbows too much, but the Italian players were making the most of it (and it was The Guardian Minute By Minute coverage that was the first I saw to link to de Rossi's red card against the USA in 2006, not any Australasian media). They were also at one point remonstrating with the ref to get a New Zealand player (Smeltz, I think) sent off after the smallest bit of contact, which is deeply unprofessional.

    Again, Fallon needed to keep his elbows down, but 'uninhibited expression' notwithstanding, it seemed like the Italians had a pretty clear strategy to neutralise him on the high ball by exaggerating any contact and get him carded, and frankly when you need to resort to those kinds of tactics to beat a team that is so clearly outclassed you start to look like passive aggressive bullies. I understand your argument for cultural relativism, but if you're going to argue that then you'll have to accept that, for cultural reasons, others see it very differently.

    The other part of it, which is probably more important in the ongoing discussion, is that Australasia doesn't have much of a footballing culture. Unlike societies where football is the dominant sport, we don't have much practice at talking about it either in the media or the pub, and thus the vocabulary isn't all that well developed. There are probably only a few hundred people in New Zealand that could have a proper discussion about the decisions that Ricki Herbert took before the tournament and the implications for the onfield strategy, whereas everyone can moan about a penalty decision. The 'we was robbed' narrative is the only one that's going to lead to sustained discussion in the absence of a deeper understanding of the game, because it's exciting, invokes a sense of justice, and it allows us to entertain the unimaginable possibility that we could have just about qualified for the next stage, without having to talk about things in a way that we aren't really able to. Which is a failing, of course, but an understandable one given that, as you say, there are only 25 professional footballers from New Zealand.

    So no, we wasn't robbed. But we were subjected to a display of very poor sportsmanship that wasn't contained to a single penalty decision, and we don't have to like that. And seeing de Rossi awarded man f the match was bizarre and a little bit insulting. Unfortunately, we have a very difficult time talking about anything else but the most obvious, so it just seems to revert to this admittedly monotonous, vuvuzela-like indignant drone.

  2. Again, Fallon needed to keep his elbows down, but 'uninhibited expression' notwithstanding, it seemed like the Italians had a pretty clear strategy to neutralise him on the high ball by exaggerating any contact and get him carded, and frankly when you need to resort to those kinds of tactics to beat a team that is so clearly outclassed you start to look like passive aggressive bullies.

    Have you ever had the experience of being whacked on the neck by an arm or elbow while jumping for a high ball? One time as a teenager I'm pretty sure I stayed down for five minutes. Accusing Cannavaro or Chiellini of having exaggerated the effects of those two fouls is a bloody big call, it seems to me - they would have hurt. Fallon wasn't sent off after the second one - which I agree with, it would have been harsh, but hey, you're the one who brought up De Rossi in 2006, and he didn't get a second chance, let alone a third one, did he? - and at that point the Italians targeted him. Which, frankly, was the smart thing to do. You can call it passive aggression, or you can call it recognising that when you're playing against opponents that are far bigger than you are, there isn't a lot to be gained by staying on your feet in your average challenge. Nor is very easy, I might add. And perhaps I had my deeply unsportsmanlike glasses on, but I only recall an episode with Criscito that made me go "come on, get up lad". The rest was pretty ordinary. You can criticise the ordinariness of it, I suppose, but how do you make it the story? Wouldn't it be like the Italian press spending the day after a draw against the All Blacks (never.gonna.happen) dissecting the tactics at the breakdown of Ritchie McCaw, and rehashing the life and work in the ruck of Colin Meads?

    What made the coverage dissonant, to me, is that the game didn't hinge on it at all. The penalty was a penalty more than the goal was a goal, if you have to be honest, and apart from that were there any fouls called that shouldn't have been? Any yellow cards handed out (only three, all to the All Whites) that shouldn't have been? Was any New Zealand player sent off? If it all comes down to "Rory Fallon had to be more cautious than he ordinarily would have in the second half", it seems like a pretty thin basis to claim that anybody was robbed of anything.

    (All that said, I'm fine with Nelsen's comments, but guess what - they had nothing to do with the game. He was trying to play the ref for the game against Paraguay. Because that's what you do.)