Kudos to the Japanese team on winning its first World Cup! Apart from this unexpected outcome, the real winner has been a wonderful atmosphere of genuine competition and fierce contestation among the teams on the field, accompanied by a civility and congeniality among thousands of fans in the stands, Germany's railroad stations, its cities' streets and plazas, pubs, cafes and bars where television screens showed all the games.
This was a mega event on a global scale the likes of which has never come close to being approximated by any women's team sport. Thus, the world championship tournaments in women's basketball or team handball or volleyball are not in the same league as was this tournament. And even those marquee individual women events like figure skating and gymnastics that have clearly been global in stature have only attained such prominence in the framework of a much larger context like the Olympics. Possibly only the grand slam tennis tournaments have accorded women's competition anywhere close to the global stage that soccer has done via the World Cup.
But then again, tennis is not primarily a team sport thus confirming, yet again, that women have attained global stardom much more easily in individual as opposed to team sports -- with the recent exception of soccer and its World Cup venue.
As a veteran of five male world cup tournaments and many a soccer match in the most varied of competitions and leagues over the past five decades in many European countries, I was delighted to experience the games at this World Cup unencumbered by constant chants evoking the vilest of racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other expressions of hatred from the subway ride to the stadium, to the pre-game activities in its environs, not to mention in the stands during the games. Even in those rare instances where such abusive language does not occur in the men's game, the atmosphere is often fraught with tension, derision, and a certain danger that could erupt into some sort of violence -- verbal and/or physical -- at any moment.
Of course there were manifestations of nationalism at this event too, be it the frequent "USA, USA" chants or their "ALLEZ LES BLEUS" and "HEJA SVERIGE" counterparts, among others. Naturally, the German media extolled their team with nationalistic exuberance before its loss to the Japanese more or less claiming the title as if it were Germany's predetermined right, and then engaged in excessive despondency after the team's premature exit from the tournament on home turf.
But what I found happily absent were any kind of put downs of the other teams' and fans' nationality. Nobody invoked negative stereotypes or historical events such as battles or wars to enhance one's own team's presence to the detriment of its opponent's. It would have been unthinkable for any American fan to have invoked the disasters of Fukushima, Hiroshima or Nagasaki as taunts of their Japanese rivals just like the Japanese would never have referred to 9/11 or other painful events in American history to taunt the American players and fans as happens regularly when our men's team is on the field.
Yet the absence of hatred in no way diminished the intensity of the competition on the field. Anybody who witnessed the game between the United States and Brazil on that memorable Sunday in Dresden had to be impressed with the sheer battle that enveloped the contest for every ball throughout the 122 minutes of playing time. These were top-notch athletes giving their all for victory.
Obviously the hatreds and tensions accompanying the men's events bespeak a much deeper felt intensity that emanates from a much longer tradition and history of this sport (and team sports in general) on the men's side. After all, the men have played organized soccer since the last two decades of the 19th century and have participated in FIFA sanctioned official world cups since 1930, while the women in all these countries commenced to play the game in a meaningful manner in the early 1970s with their first FIFA world cup not occurring until 1991.
Maybe by the time the women will play their 20th World Cup, as the men will in Brazil in 2014, things will be edgier among their fans as well, but I somehow doubt it for the simple reason that to women no matter how competitive sports will become on the field, they will not likely assume the vicarious positions of other conflicts, tensions, enmities and hatreds that they, alas, have clearly attained for men.
Andrei S. Markovits teaches at the University of Michigan where he regularly offers a course on comparative sports cultures. His latest book on sports is Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture (Princeton University Press, 2010).
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