Poor Little Heartbreakers: On World Cup Passion

ESPN commentator Alexi Lala distinguishes between the "human heart" and the "soccer heart." Does that make any sense?

Heart-Shaped Box (Inside: Another Heart)
By Hua Hsu

I'm watching ESPN and Alexi Lalas, whose velvety scolds must surely count among the World Cup's lowlights, just invoked a distinction between his "human heart" and his "soccer heart." A true Jeffersonian, that dude. The former American defender and rocker inna Toad the Wet Sprocket stylee was commenting on this morning's matches, which could have seen South Africa go through at Mexico's expense. South Africa may have been the people's choice, Lalas' proper, heart-shaped heart admitted, but that Jabulani in his chest, slowly inflating and deflating, wanted to see just what this talented Mexico side could do in the knockout stages.

In the end, Mexico is moving on, which is probably just about right. But Bafana Bafana proved today that their dour showing against Uruguay was an aberration: this was a team with skill (at least when Steven Pienaar was properly deployed...), a bit of creativity and heart. How far can this last, intangible quality take you? How does this passion serve you in a sport that occasionally resembles geometry? It might seem a ridiculous underestimation to those weaned on American sports, where spirit alone seems to summon teams from the edge of abyss, or so we're told. When described by experts, the raw materials for footballing success all seem so tangible by comparison. A successful team is well-trained; it has good organization in the back, width on the pitch, pace; it maintains its shape; a manager obsesses over tactics and squad selection; etc. (In contrast, I was amused when match commentator Ian Darke observed that the French team resembled "characters in search of a plot." Of course they did.)

There is always a pleasingly rational explanation for what happens on the pitch. It's been interesting, then, to hear the praise for the Americans after our stirring comeback draw last week. On a recent episode of the Guardian's pun-happy (and generally ironic, so...) Football Weekly podcast, those assembled began using "American" as an adjective of praise, a mark of vigor and spirit, a discursive battering ram against their own drab English side, as in, Owen Hargreaves--technically an English footballer--was the only one playing like an American. (Sadly, this was in 2006.)

Chemistry and "intangibles," we've been told, are overrated qualities. There is only one heart, and it shares its vowels with TEAM! But as we approach the knockout rounds, it's refreshing to see things get a little messy and emotional. Hierarchy and reason don't equate success--just ask France and England. A little indignation might help, as the underdogs-in-their-own-minds American squad and the weirdly underestimated (?) Diego Maradona have shown. And now Brazilian boss Dunga, who took a fairly flair-free squad to South Africa, is beginning to show some of the swagger lacking in his famously awful (but in the end heartwarming) outfits:

I suppose it's what makes Lalas so unusual and unpredictable on those ESPN broadcasts, his inability to stop talking before his emotions get the best of him. (Wasn't a problem here...) Just watch him after someone within earshot utters the name "Cristiano Ronaldo." But it's also why I'm excited to see how the Americans do tomorrow against a similarly feisty Algerian squad. And it's why I'll definitely be monitoring the fractious (because of a fracture, ironically enough) relationship between brothers Jerome and Kevin Prince Boateng brothers during tomorrow's potentially rough match between Germany and Ghana, when they'll be representing opposing nations.

Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion, as they say in these parts.

Especially when reforming the band Oasis, true believers in the whole heart thing, is at stake.

Failing that, consider the beating of another organ.


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. Yesterday, I discussed boredom and webcams.