Football and the Decline of Man


Where can I hide until they think it’s all over? There must be somewhere where I can be sheltered from the shouting, insulated from inarticulate punditry, blissfully unaware of other people’s metatarsals and the progress of a leather sphere moving between 22 men about whom I know nothing and care rather less. But even if I decide, Trappistically, not to look at TV, listen to radio, surf the web, or open a newspaper between now and whenever the pestiferous thing limps to its inevitably inglorious end, sadly I will be unable entirely to ignore the World Cup.

The year-round football season is bad enough, with its 24/7 coverage of some of the world’s least interesting and least attractive people (and their harridan WAGs) interfering with important matters. But whenever World Cups come round (and the gaps between them feel like they’re getting shorter), most of the few remaining outposts of rationality succumb straightaway to footie frenzy -- gossiping, groaning, marveling, moaning, diagnosing and deciding how some Italian bloke should deploy 11 other blokes on a soccer pitch thousands of miles away, as if it mattered.

England is suddenly abloom with men, too often shirtless, who feel constrained to brandish Chinese-made St. George’s flags (the only kind of “patriotism” these helots are permitted) while they glug Danish lager and periodically arise from Chinese-made, popcorn-plastered DFS sofas to do Mexican waves -- that is, when they are not apostrophizing the blind ref, or the mistakes of Rooney or Ferdinand or somebody else who has spent much of his life musing on his metatarsals and endeavoring to remember the salient fact that he is engaged in a game of two halves.

This time, to add to all the usual drivel, there is a new annoying ingredient -- this is “Africa’s World Cup,” a chance for Africa to show what it can do, a time for stereotypes to be confounded, for a divided nation to come together and face down the apartheid legacy, vibrant continent, diverse, colorful, etc., etc.

This weeklong sermonizing is accompanied by winsome imagery -- townshippers with names like Precious dancing the toyi-toyi while waving plastic assegais -- gap-toothed, grinning, barefoot, ebullient boys bending it like Beckham on fields fashioned apparently from broken glass and landmines -- multiracial (though actually almost entirely black) crowds swaying and harmonizing below the outsized, fluttering Y-Front symbols of the “Rainbow Nation.”

Behind all this, of course, lie stubborn shabby realities -- of a country slipping rapidly from the Second World into the Third, rampant crime, soaring debt, abysmal public health and education, political corruption and extremism, effective expulsion of whites, intertribal divisions, and violent tension against immigrants from even worse-off countries pressing down from the overpeopled north.

Then there is the legacy the World Cup will leave behind in the (Once) Beloved Country -- vast, empty stadia rising up amongst shacks and AIDS clinics, white elephants of wishful thinking, the troubled land and its hapless peoples abandoned as quickly as they have been adopted by the tacky merchandizers and political grandstanders.

As SA, so the UK -- for even as the England soccer team is going down to defeat in the Southern Hemisphere, east London is raising up white elephants of its own, as Olympics 2012 organizers emit phalanxes of fumes to excite the easily excited.

At a time of alleged austerity, an alliance of politicians, sad sportaholics, leotard manufacturers, construction firms and others are expending £12 billion to replace historic suburbs with hectares of horse-jumps, sandpits, changing rooms, super-mosques, places to purchase leotards, and other vital structures. Special mention must be made of the branding consultants, who have brainstormed into being a 2012 logo combining those classic Games motifs, breakdancers and power station warning signs.

But there is a yet greater achievement -- the world’s worst Olympic mascots, whose very names, Wenlock and Mandeville, convey their copper-bottomed crapness, their committee-chosen, bland blend of mobile-phone-meets-manga-meets-squid, the meaningless mush cobbled cursorily together by the lamest “story concept” devisable by man. Unfortunately, the concept was never developed into a story. The viewer is left in suspense at the climax, when the metallic chums jump out of a window and run away along a conveniently passing rainbow, because “Wenlock and Mandeville knew it was time to go.”

Faced as I am with the prospect of the World Cup, followed by a long hot summer of European-Cup-FA-Cup-Cup-Winners’-Cup-Formula-1-tennis-darts-golf-‘live’-snooker-and-probably-more, sometimes I know exactly how poor Wenlock and Mandeville feel.