The 2010 World Cup, recently concluded with Spain’s victory, is the greatest sporting event in the world. Even deniers of American exceptionalism must admit that longstanding American indifference is quite exceptional. (And given this indifference, I’ll use the proper term for the sport, not soccer but football.)

For me, the competition’s main interest was sociological. For example, I was in France when the French team lost. The manner in which it lost was more traumatic than the fact that it lost. The team, mainly of African and Arab origin, refused to sing the national anthem. Though all its members were multimillionaires, it went on strike (that is, the players refused to attend a training session) when the manager dismissed a player who insulted him in the most vulgar possible way after he upbraided the team for its poor performance—as objective a fact as possible. There were even rumors of racial conflict on the team.

All of this was traumatic because the French team’s victory in the 1998 World Cup had provoked euphoria over the success of France’s multiculturalism.

The English lost, too. The English crowd has a way of dealing with opponents. When England plays France, they shout “If it weren’t for us, you’d all be speaking Kraut.” When England plays Germany, they shout “Two world wars, one World Cup [in 1966 England beat Germany in the final], so f. . . off!” Truly, sport is the promoter of international brotherhood and understanding.

This year, Germany beat England. Though the Germans cheated, pretending that a goal scored by England was not a goal, even the most xenophobic Englishman had to admit that the Germans were miles better than the English, who were no good at all.

For me, the most intriguing comparison between the two teams was in the way that they spoke English. It goes without saying that the Germans spoke it much better, though none had ever lived in an English-speaking country. This, of course, is a commentary upon cultural conditions in the social stratum from which English football players are mostly drawn.

There is also an interesting contrast between the way the professional sport is practiced in Germany and in England.

The English football league generates far more money than the German, and most observers deem it the best in the world, at least in terms of attracting hundreds of millions of television viewers. Players in the English league are much better paid than those in the German league (though the Germans are hardly impoverished). However, most of the players in the top echelon of the English league are foreign. Many of the best clubs have only two or three English players, and some have none. English clubs import players; German clubs foster and train German players. English clubs are largely owned by foreigners, such as Russian oligarchs of the most dubious reputation; German clubs are owned by Germans. English clubs lose money and are highly indebted; German clubs make a profit and have monetary reserves. And as I have already mentioned, the German national team plays incomparably better than the English national team.

Whether this is of any wider significance I cannot quite decide. After all, football is only a game: though the late Bill Shankly, manager of the Liverpool Football Club, once said that football wasn’t a matter of life and death—it was far more important than that.


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