Watching the World Cup Final: Of Loss and Longing

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Hua's note: The end of the World Cup is upon us. Perhaps it's finally time to get back to work on that long-overdue manuscript, or house-train the dog, or take up swimming. Or maybe the World Cup has only whetted your appetite for the resumption of club football, with its promise of splashy new transfers, Bruce Lee-like teenage forwards learning to speak Dutch, miserably cold, early-Saturday trips to the bar to watch your team battle Grimsby Town in some inconsequential cup. We know Snoop is excited.

A far less world-uniting version of global soccer, but the one that awaits. In the meantime, guest blogger Pete L'Official offers his thoughts on how to enjoy those last few minutes, and how to cope with those impending feelings of loss. By the end of today's match, either Spain or the Netherlands will win the World Cup for the first time. The other will be devastated. Some might move on, downplaying the result as the loss of a mere trophy, one that isn't even as valuable as its replica. For others, it will mark the day they lost their faith.


Regarding the Pain of Others
By Pete L'Official

The World Cup Final can't help but be a solemn occasion. Sure, if you're Spanish, Dutch, or wish that you were one of the two, you're no doubt excited, nervous, or terrified about Sunday. But even if you are lucky enough to have a favorite team (and let's be honest, your least favorites serve just as well for rooting purposes) or simply a favorite player playing in the final, it is the Final after all. The life of the tournament, the "extraordinary festival of joy" will be over, finished, whistled to an end. What do we do then?

The "sad feeling of diffusion, mixed with an odd-short term nostalgia" that Zachary Roth speaks of in his TNR post "Is the World Cup Too Long?" -- a feeling that he'd like to avoid -- is a fine articulation of the particular sense of impending loss that we feel at the end of a month-long tourney such as this. Nations have lived lifetimes in less time, seemingly; people have aged, some significantly.  And even those still with sides to support have lost something along the way: national team players to injury, domestic club teammates to defeat, vaunted ideals to unfortunate ignominy, unrepentant playboys to fatherhood, steady work, or -- for a brief moment -- the right to play for one's country. Of course, those whose teams and talismans have fallen by the wayside have lost all of these things and much more.

Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano -- a man who certainly knows of loss, and not merely because of forlorn Diego Forlan's despair, describes that same feeling as "that irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the game" in his wonderful Football in Sun and Shadow. To be deprived of the inscrutable, uncanny fascination that the face (or faces, as some may have it) of Germany's Mesut Ozil holds for even the next few weeks seems like an injustice. That he is a fantastic footballer who may ply his trade in England or elsewhere from Werder Bremen in the coming season makes this, his international introduction, feel rather incomplete. And to return to Forlan for a moment, that such continually heroic performances which sought to return a trophy to a nation that has been waiting, yes, longer than the English should go unrewarded seems mildly tragic. We could, of course, go on: Ghana's penalty drama, the host nation's sadness at not advancing past the first round, the fact that we might no longer hear Maradona pontificate about nothing and everything as Argentina's manager -- loss is felt either deeply or fleetingly upon the moment, but once it's all over, we have nothing but time to feel it all the more.

Sure, footballers themselves will no doubt be distraught at their exit from the tournament, but once they arrive home and realize that, yes, they are approaching-obscenely rich, have a more than likely beautiful and/or somewhat talented partner, and have about a month to fly wherever it is they would like in order to forget the previous month's heartbreak...let's just say that their coping process is not one after which to pattern our own.

So: whither the football fan? Even those who still have a chance at WC glory will soon ache for more football 2 weeks past their country's triumph. And what if the "wrong" team wins? Whether you think the Spanish are self-important, sanctimonious stranglers of the normal ebb-and-flow of a match (Barney Ronay of the Guardian provides more alliteration, deeming part of their game "sterile") or the saviors of some ineffable essence of grace will go far in determining how enjoyable the rest of your summer will be. The fact that the Dutch play like Calvinists -- "with economy and with profit on their minds" -- may trouble you or put you at ease; a Dutch win in South Africa would certainly exorcise the Oranje's unfulfilled promise of the Cruyff years while others are given a moment's pause at the thought of Dutchmen celebrating triumph in their former colony. Maybe you don't care about any of that and just want to watch Ruud Gullit and Steve McManaman in the studio after the match; both have been wildly entertaining, proving extremely relaxed yet incisive, critical yet self-effacing -- just a pleasure to watch, especially after Dutch wins and even English losses. We will miss them too.

What does the fan who has everything -- a World Cup win -- or nothing -- a loss, at any stage -- have to console him or herself in the meantime except the uncertain promise of a new domestic season? A return to the glories of a more mercenary football, perhaps. We know how we occupy ourselves (and they themselves) between games, but what do we do between seasons? The answer, apart from consuming tedious transfer talk spun from the mouths of agents and tabloid journalists filling newsprint pages and online gossip columns as is their wont, is nothing. And, well, that's simply part of being a soccer fan.

As if waiting 89 minutes of a nil-nil match (or a 1-0 match where Spain is winning for that matter, given their penchant for perfectly narcotizing football) for the sweet release of a goal weren't perfect training for this type of studied anticipation. We'll wait because until the final whistle, the game offers eternal promise. We accept the melancholy of loss not only because we have no choice, but also because we know there's beauty in redemption and even in noble defeat. We suffer the nil-nil draws because we've felt the ecstasy of an injury time breakthrough. We learn, like Galeano, to accept ourselves for who we are: "beggars for good football," going "about the world, hand outstretched...in the stadiums...plead[ing] 'A pretty move, for the love of God.'" Perhaps the main consolation of this particular philosophy of loss and seasonal redemption is that this has been a World Cup summer. Imagine the next: not even a European tournament to get us through! Oh, right, there's Copa America 2011...


Pete L'Official is currently a student in the History of American Civilization program at Harvard. His interests in modern American literature and culture, American art, and the urban built environment do not preclude him from waking up at ungodly hours on the weekends to watch the English Premier League and the heartwarming, hilarious friendship between Patrice Evra, Park Ji-Sung, and Carlos Tevez. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, Salon, the Believer, and elsewhere. He previously wrote about the Louis Vuitton World Cup trophy case, "authenticity" and the notion of the footballing "talisman" (see below).

Elsewhere on this blog: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, the vuvuzela-as-zeitgeist and the North Korean national squad. Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa and R. Kelly's allegiances, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. On the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, Anmol meditated on Mandela and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA. Pete, on a quest for "authenticity," reported from up in the air. Bethelem Shoals dissected American rooting politics. Last week, I discussed boredom and webcams, what it means to have "heart," and the racial politics of France's early exit. Most recently, Chris Ryan crunched the numbers on Chile's run-and-shoot attack, Pete L'Official deconstructed football's iconic "talisman," I stared deeply into the lavender-orange glow of Nike's new boots and Anmol revisited the possibilities of Pan-Africanism.

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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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