Last night, around 11, Xtina shook her head at the TV and in measured disgust let fly: "The poor Polish. Losing to Germany again." Yep, the hated Germans were once again making the Pols' lives miserable, this time beating them one-nil in extra time. It wasn't the heartbreaking fashion in which the Germans won that had me buzzing afterwards, it was Xtina's reaction. Why is it that World Cup matches -- even to Ph.Ds who believe football represents the irreversible decline of civilisation -- are always regarded in military terms. This is not 11 Polish guys verses 11 German guys. This is Germany verses Poland. Cue World War 2 references. The invastion of Poland, 2006.
In reality, the World Cup is bigger than war, religion and politics, because on the pitch anything can happen, and that gives us all faith. As the Economist put it so eloquently:
The World Cup has its own hierarchy, which is pleasingly divorced from the global pecking order. There is a sole superpower—Brazil. The Italians and French, apparently doomed to gentle decline in the real world, remain formidable competitors on the football field. And then there are the rising powers—which are more likely to hail from Africa than Asia. America will field a serious team at the World Cup, but nobody expects it to win. The Chinese, who have discovered a passion for football, failed to qualify for the tournament.
Because this is nation against nation in pitched combat, even the least patriotic among us can get swept up in the national mood. I am lucky. I hold two passports: US and Ireland. Sadly, the Irish didn't qualify this year. And the Americans once promising hopes seemed to crash and burn on Monday. As all World Cup fans know, if your team doesn't make it, you can adopt a squad. And so, with my Irish passport I'm adopting an African underdog. But which one?
There are two incredible stories at this year's World Cup: Togo and Cote d'Ivoire (or, Ivory Coast). After seeing the mighty mites of Togo, I am sold. But I am also intrigued by Cote d'Ivoire. Both countries are squarely in the bottom rung of the Developing World. Both teams' players come from countries destroyed by bloody coups and violent military regimes, high infant mortality rates, low average life spans and little economic prospects. Last year, Cote d'Ivoire was labelled the most dangerous country on the planet, racked as it is by a bloody civil war. The players don't want a trophy. They want peace, a return to normality. Their former colonial parents, the UN and the church won't be able to unify this country. But maybe a victory could, at least for a few hours.
Go Cote d'Ivoire!