Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Relevant and Irrelevant Histories

An interesting thought as we approach the end of this World Cup: although Uruguay have won World Cups in the past, and Spain and the Netherlands have not, Uruguay winning this year would be a 'newer' thing - more of an Event.

Spain finally lifting the trophy is a narrative that already carries a sense of inevitability - it's a triumph that has already been written, and held back from general release for two years. Now that Brazil have no longer already won the tournament, there's a case for saying that Spain have already won it. The same narrative can be quickly adapted and refitted for the Dutch - 'the long wait is finally over'. There is no comparably comfortable frame in which to fit a Uruguayan victory.

Granted, Uruguay's glories were a long time ago. But when has that ever been relevant to the expectations placed on football teams? Brazilian players are still being feted for what their team did forty years ago; England are judged (and judge themselves) every four years by the standards of 1966; African teams are still labelled as naive and impetuous based on the performance of Zaire in 1970. German teams and Spanish teams are just about still viewed in the context of their past representatives as villainous mecha-men and talented bottlers respectively, although these two seem to be finally losing their grip this summer. In the group stages, the BBC wheeled out an excruciating montage showing clips of past German triumphs interspersed with footage of pistons and machinery - but even they have since realised that this German team represents something different. These three-time World Cup winners would be fresher faces on the podium than the Spanish or Dutch.

Putting aside the two unfolding exceptions above - and progress on these fronts will be immediately undone if either team reverts back to historical type for even one game - these images seem impervious to the passage of time, and are held to remain true no matter how much contradictory evidence amasses. The fact that Uruguay have underachieved since 1950 doesn't explain the strange discrepancy about them; they are the only World Cup winners whose achievements have been definitively consigned to the history books, and deemed not relevant to modern analysis. You can never write off the Germans because of their past wins - but I don't believe I've ever heard a pundit say 'Well, I'll tell you what... I think Uruguay might be dark horses to win back their title this year. End the sixty years of hurt.'

In this country, the cutoff point for the relevance of sporting historical precedent is 1966. To us, tournaments before that period are quaint, sepia-tinted, and faintly comical. Two reasons - firstly because the World Cup only became a serious matter after we validated the tournament by going out and winning it. Secondly, the images teams made for themselves in the sixties and seventies have endured because those were the formative years of the people who have run, broadcasted, and commented on football in this country, certainly since the late eighties. Their ideas have bled into the minds of the population through sheer unchallenged repetition (and, lately, nostalgic replaying of said repetition - twice removed from new thought). Uruguay themselves are represented by a construction of this period - as temperamental foulers and cynics - and this seems to have replaced their earlier status as heroic two-time champions, leaving no trace of the older idea behind.

The relevant half-life of historical events must vary between countries. Uruguayan players surely don't go to tournaments still feeling burdened by the achievements of their predecessors, but Brazilian football fans still believe in a Uruguay hoodoo that dates back to 1950. Speaking to a Bosnian friend recently, I tried to draw out his opinion of the Stojkovic-inspired Yugoslavia team of 1990, but he was far more keen on regaling me with his admiration for the overachieving all-Serbian team at the first World Cup in 1930...

...who, it turns out, have been the subject of a recent film.

I doubt that a hypothetical English team sent upriver in 1930 would be the subject of such strong, enduring identification.


  1. Here's another narrative. The past 10 finals, since 1966 as it happens, have featured only six teams: Brazil, (West) Germany, Italy, France, Holland & Argentina. Brazil and Germany dominate while Italy have had some recent success. All of which points to Germany beating Holland in the final.

    Maybe we also hark back to the great teams of the past because we haven't seen a great team since...France doing the World/Euro double? Were they really that good? I remember 2006 as having the poorest quality of football in living memory and Jabulanis notwithstanding I'm not sure this one has been much better.

    The relevance of current histories may depend on whether or not the Germans repeat history, or whether Spain or Holland prove themselves less mediocre than the rest...

  2. I kept waiting for either commentator (on ESPN USA broadcast) to mention, at any point during today's match, Uruguay's previous two World Cup wins. Didn't happen. Oh yes, many references to the Dutch of '74, but nothing about the country that had actually won it twice already. This post helps to illuminate that strange historical amnesia. Thanks.

  3. Chuck

    Six teams in ten finals...I wonder actually if that's so surprising. Once you discount the superpowers whose populations and resources you might expect would get them there... It's never been a high priority for the US or China. The USSR underperformed then fragmented. No African country has yet had the resources to maximize the obvious talent that's there. (In fact, I wonder if the first African team to reach a final will be dominated by players picked up at 11 by hungry first-world academies...)

    In South America, everyone but Argentina and Brazil lag far behind in population and resources.

    Those European countries are also among the largest. Holland are pretty small, but they're essentially a sporting monoculture - what else do they play? And that brings up cultural continuity: Italian and German kids play because in their childhoods they see their teams win trophies etc, so a large pool of available players self-perpetuates.

    There's also team continuity: ie a team which reaches one final can easily be largely intact 4 years later. Holland 74 & 78. West Germany 78 and 82. France reached the final in 98 and then in 06 with a hardcore of 98 veterans.

    And that's without considering the kind of psychological pressures that Mark talks about in his Hoodoo post...