World Cup Fever #2

06/13/2006 06:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yeah, I should be working, but...

How nice to forget Rove, Coulter and Dobson et al, even just for a few (ok, a lot of) hours!

Some soccer books, as a break from rereading Thomas Frank and Chris Hedges:

The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. Just published, 32 writers, from Dave Eggers to Geoff Dyer etc, write about each country in the Cup. Some stories all soccer, some only glancingly. Cameo portraits of this world we share (if we can keep it).

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano. A classic history of the World Cup, told year to year, in compact lyrically acute prose, by this great Uruguayan marxist prose poet. A darn glorious book.

Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World's Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revoltuions and Keeps Dictators in Power by Simon Kuper. Another classic, of a different sort. In his early twenties in the early 90's (?), Kuper, who writes for the Financial Times, trundled himself around the world to check out how each country's soccer reflected its political culture. I haven't read Franklin Foer's book about soccer and globalization, but Kuper's book seems like the model.

Also see the article on Brazilian football in the NY Times Mag (6/04) by John Carlin. Carlin is bilingual journalist living in Spain. He wrote a book about Beckham's move to Real Madrid. But he's also a foreign political correspondent of long repute. He did important and influential reporting from South Africa on apartheid and Mandela. We met in Spain a few years ago. American journalism and Bush filled him with rage. (He was El Pais''s Washington correspondent at one time.) He told me of dining in New York with two old friends from the NY Times. He asked them how many people at the paper considered Bush a dangerous idiot. Times man One, a Pulitzer Prize winner, said 100% of the staff. Times man Two, an editor, said 90%.

"Then how come that doesn't come across loud and clear in the paper's reporting!!" Carlin bellowed.

Ah, that ole question.

To the action today: Brazil's carnival time looked a little sluggish against Croatia. And had the Balkan team some proper finishers, the score could have been "interesting," as they say. Brazil looked lackadaisical, lethargic at times. Is Ronaldo ready to play? ("Is he fat?" the Brazilian president apparently asked in concern). It's hard to gauge a Brazilian team, though, because one's always distracted by the sheer brilliance and audacity of ballhandling. But one wonders how laughing Ronaldhino and company could handle Czech Republic or Italy. Or Holland or Argentina? All of whom can put the ball in the net, with gusto. "I'd love to see Brazil play an African team!" say my girlfriend Anya. That would be a show, Brazil versus Ghana.

Gusto was sorely lacking for France earlier. What are they, the retirement-community team? Grizzled Zidane looks like he should be lounging at a pastis bar with Jean Reno and Robert Niro, discussing the sequel of Ronin. Not playing midfield. The Swiss are dullness itself but the French seemed to have rien de idees. Thierry Henry, so scintillating in the English league (he'll be teamed at Arsenal next season with the Czech Rosicky, whoo-whee) looked his usual lost self come World Cup time. France hasn't scored in the last four World Cup games. Dispiriting. Dreadful.

The Korea Togo game, on the other hand, was a corker. So how can one be expected to get any work done, I ask, when these marginal games work up so much drama and excitement?

And yesterday, Italy-Ghana was rollicking red-blooded entertainment. Can this really be ole ankle-bashing Italia of yore, with its hard men and its scavenging forwards pouncing rodent-like on the counter attack? Heck no: Italy 2006, shadowed by betting scandals at home, is fast-flowing and creative, with Totti wheeling around in midfield and Toni flashing and lashing in the penalty box. Mebbe scandal suits em. The US plays them on Saturday. No wonder Bruce Arena is a man of woeful countenance.

Ghana looked good too, dangerous if disorganized, but athletic and vibrant. Michael Essien, the most expensive football player in African history (he plays now for Chelsea, where else?) was something of a dynamo, a much more vivid presence--hammering shots--than I've seen him for Chelsea, where his role appears more conservative.

Excellent talent, Ghana, though Italy the stronger side clearly. Ghana and Ivory Coast are exciting clubs. But they've both drawn brutal groups, and it doesn't appear any African team will survive this opening stage (although Tunisia, the other decent African side, have yet to play). None of the usual footballing powers of Africa qualified for this Cup. There was a lot of nervous gulping that Africa would not show itself well, and so lose an allotted place for 2010's competition, which awkwardly is in South Africa. Alas, seems nerves were justified.

A concern for Italy was a possible re-injury to Totti, who had to leave the game after being trampled. Totti is a great player, famed though for diving, and for being sent off in the last Eurocup for spitting at an opponent (and he's country captain). Also, for this game his usually flowing locks have been chopped into a truly awful haircut. Alessandro del Piero, another Italian great (who's always underperformed on this stage, like Henry), also got a gruesome scalp job. The Italians are such glamor boys usually; what gives?

The head of FIFA called Italy's performance the best so far. For myself, I'd rate Italy with Czech Republic, Argentina, and Holland. Germany looks strong too. Too bad, again, Ghana is in such a tough group. Brazil begins slowly...