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No Matter How Many Regiments the Pope Has, How's The Soccer Team?

Everywhere, the state of a nation's soccer teams is revelatory

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 09, 2014.

There is nothing quite like the World's Cup to unsettle America. It is an international event - far and away the most popular team sport - devoted to one game in which we do not yet excel. You know that, of course, but there are aspects to the game not mentioned that ought to be.

First, though, let's give Germany a round of applause for handing the sport's most devoted soccer nation - Brazil - a hammering yesterday that nobody will forget. Germany scored a 7-1 victory over the host nation's team that was nowhere near as close at that score suggests. Watching Brazil's spoiled elite athletes move sluggishly if at all and be humiliated before the world in a semi final game was something long overdue and well deserved. Losing 5-0 at half time, the host nation's supposed fans deserted the stadium in droves and spent the rest of the day throwing temper tantrums and weeping. No hyperbole there.

Not only is Brazil full of fair weather fans, it was yet another fiasco in front of a world generally appalled by Brazil's bombastic promises before the Cup, and the current grim, humiliating reality of barely completed venues, lousy transportation coupled with strikes by transit workers and a deplorable state of national hygiene and basic public safety. Things do not look to on line for the Olympics in two years, either, which involved even bigger promises nowhere supported by finances, organizational competence, or national will. People checking out the sites of Brazil's Olympic water events this year left a paper trail of remarks that describe Brazil as a disaster. Not like a disaster, an actual disaster.

Brasil has had many deficiencies and had only recently started to leave the Third World behind, but so it had always taken comfort in its soccer teams and players as harbingers of national greatness. Watching Pele in his prime was a joy equal to watching any great athlete so dominate a sport you didn't have to understand the game to appreciate the excellence before you. And Pele left a tone of excellent players in his wake all over the world, but mostly in his home country. Gone, apparently.

Soccer in its present form is only about 125 years old. It's impact and mass absorption into the lives of people around the world was near instantaneous, because all the was really needed to play was a ball. It demanded individual skill and excellence, iron lungs and durability, and most importantly a team ethos and sense of self as a unit. One great player did not make a team, and one bad did not kill it. It demanded of teams the qualities that make good citizens, soldiers, workers, students, and neighbors. Early on, very early on, a strong connection was made between a nation's soccer team and the nation itself. Winning teams bespoke a winning people on the way up or already there.

Germany's victory over Brazil fits in that description, perhaps too well, but people forget that exactly a hundred years ago Germany had just discovered the game and its teams weren't very good. For many reasons but this deficiency as fact or metaphor being high among them, Germany didn't command the respect and affection that France did, or Italy, and especially England seemed to expect and receive. Germany before the Great War was not much liked anywhere around the world, and its diplomacy's inability to win itself any friends contrasted with its diplomacy's talent for making many near or actual enemies. When World War One started, Italy deserted Germany and Austria Hungary's condition revealed itself as a national corpse unable to do much at all.

Britain filled its propaganda and morale boosting effort with comparison to soccer, and described how this inability to play the game revealed German unworthiness. In 1916, after a week of shelling German trenches, the British attacked on July 1 kicking soccer balls towards the German lines, illustrating they took the template of being a superior soccer nation seriously. It was the bloodiest known day in the history of warfare, and when the Battle of the Somme ended months later, over two million casualties could easily be ascribed to it. The British gained little or nothing for 20k dead that day alone. The soccer balls used are in museums today.

Germany is deservedly the most powerful nation in Europe with a female leader and the best soccer team on the planet. Perhaps the British were right after all.