Metaphysical Club: Soccer's Talismanic Heroes

So brief, the glory of advancing past the group stages. As things suddenly get really real for the 16 teams still playing (update: 14 ... sorry South Korea), Pete returns with his thoughts on the metaphysics of football, specifically, the "talisman," that most mystical of footballing archetypes/commentator shorthands ...

By Pete L'Official

How's your nerve? As the group stage of this 2010 World Cup draws to a close and teams, nations, and cultures have by now discovered newly (are they though?) magnificent ways of disgracing themselves while others find themselves draped in unexpected glory, I can't help but think of how much of the drama of the international soccer tournament writ-large is built into its very structure. Its opening round of games, wherein teams betray equal parts of naivete and diffidence, never wanting to make the first move, lest they be embarrassingly rebuffed; the second match, perhaps more full of confidence and willing to offer themselves forward in search of the reward of the next round; and the final matches, played simultaneously so as to prevent collusion, a directive which also has the alluring effect of intensifying the instantaneous drama of elimination and advance. Each match begins pregnant with possibility and it is only after, say, 75 minutes have ticked off when the fan feels the freedom of a multiplicity of outcomes dwindle to the only three that were ever truly on offer: win, lose, or draw. And now come the single-elimination rounds, which themselves eliminate in their structure one of those outcomes with, of course, the dreaded "spectre" of penalties.

"Spectre" because: 1) it looks just that bit lovelier spelled in the British fashion; 2) lest you confuse the word with a certain second-string American defender; 3) because, let's face it, whatever phantasmagoric spirit may indeed descend upon matches that remain tied at full time is one that haunts mainly the English; and 4) finally, because it is the language of British commentators that is most familiar to most English-speaking American soccer fans. And whether they are describing how a forward player either "spurned a gilt-edged chance," or "finished with aplomb," chances are you've smiled to yourself sometime over the past few weeks at a particularly neat and indubitably British turn of phrase. (It's part-and-parcel of what drew me to the game first: the language, which, in actuality is just as rife with cliché as American sports talk is--just not to the American ear.)

And now that this different form of finality--and indeed, fatalism--enters the tournament, you will no doubt hear another term bandied about: that of a team's "talisman." It is a marvelously indefinite and even enigmatic term, used to describe players that, by turn, lead with the head and not the heart (and vice versa), those who shoulder the entire attacking (or defending) burden for a side, those who either rise highest for late, late headers on target or slide hardest into the tackle, and of course for those so cool, so unflappable, so nerveless on the penalty spot. Who might these all-singing and all-dancing jacks-of-all-talismanic abilities be? But perhaps more importantly, given how many of the following personalities have performed over the past weeks, who needs or even wants one anymore?

To get all OED for the briefest of moments, a talisman is defined by those hallowed lexicographers (the talismans of the dictionary world, perhaps) as "A stone, ring, or other object engraven with figures or characters, to which are attributed the occult powers of the planetary influences and celestial configurations under which it was made; usually worn as an amulet to avert evil from or bring fortune to the wearer; also medicinally used to impart healing virtue; hence, any object held to be endowed with magic virtue; a charm." Generally what you thought it was, if you thought about it at all: essentially, a mystical good luck charm. But it seems that in this World Cup, when it all goes pear-shaped, you'd best not have one of them hanging from your damn chain.

First, the absent: Essien, Ballack, Ronaldinho. Through injury or indolence, these three have had to watch their fellow countrymen play on through the early rounds without them. And play on they did: Ghana, Germany, and Brazil have all qualified for the round of 16. Essien, the truest star among the Black Stars and a sort of heroic, spectacularly-coiffed-and-sinewed everyman for his employers Chelsea, was to be the engine that drove Ghana forward. Ballack would have performed a similar role for Germany, though he is decidedly more a pantomime villain than hero. Ronaldinho is ... Ronaldinho. (@ 5 mins.) He used to be the sharpest tool in the shed; apparently his lust for life has dulled his footballing prowess significantly (either that or his youthful indiscretions cut one absurdly-nicknamed coach a little too deeply). Talismanic effect: Zero.

Then, the fallen: Drogba, Henry, Pirlo. Inspirational was what Didier Drogba's presence was supposed to be for Cote d'Ivoire, fractured elbow and all. One could argue that presence was a distraction rather than a rallying point. Henry? He might as well have shown up to play (or ride the bench, rather) in a one-of-one BAPE tee and Futura-designed Dunks; he's actually quite good in those. Ribery? Come on, son!

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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