Whatever you think about the World Cup, the tournament is nothing without upsets. If all the big favourites keep winning we start to switch off. We desperately need giant-killers. We need the minnows to beat the sharks, the underdogs to crush the titans. It seems to be part of our nature, an inner urge or desire that stretches back to great archetypes in Western culture.
One of the first versions of giant-killing has to be David and Goliath, the story of a boy and his home-made catapult who knocks down a great ogre. Then Shakespeare gets in on the act, of course, with Henry V, the English King who shouted “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” before crushing the mighty French army at Agincourt. Literature loves the underdog: think of Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre and that unforgettable fairy tale The Tortoise and the Hare – all stories of the poor, weak and humble who triumph against all odds.
So far in this World Cup we have seen at least three giant-killing performances: Costa Rica stunning Uruguay 3:1 and then beating Italy, and Chile knocking the cup-holders Spain clean out of the competition with a convincing 2:0 victory. But we need more, and without them even the most dyed-in-the-wool football fans will start to get bored. Come to think of it, FIFA itself is a kind of giant that could do with knocking down a peg or two.
I suffered at the hands of the mighty institution just the other day as I tried to get into the stadium here in Porto Alegre to see Australia vs Holland with a ham and cheese sandwich. The woman at the gate searched my bag and told me I would have to throw the offending butty away or eat it right there in front of her. “But why?”, I pleaded. “FIFA doesn’t allow any food to be taken inside”, I was told. So I asked for an explanation. I got one. FIFA wants you to spend your money only on its selected, sponsored, over-priced food and drink products inside the ground. Here I recognised the ugly face of commercial sport where profit always comes before any other consideration. My wholewheat sandwich was made with love and had just the right amount of butter and mustard. The pricey hot-dog inside the ground was a sorry, soggy mass of junk. Only Oliver Twist would have eaten it with relish.
There are other problems of being an England fan in Brazil. Embarrassment is one of them as the national team keep losing and I feel less like sporting my St George’s Cross floppy hat. One Brazilian TV pundit made an interesting point after The Three Lions lost again – this time to Uruguay. The United Kingdom looks quite big on the map, he explained, but England is only a little country. And some of the best players in the UK happen to be Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish – players who wouldn’t dream of switching allegiance. What he failed to mention was that England is a nation of amateurs. From their inept enthusiasm for DIY (Do It Yourself), fixing the car, putting on a play or setting up a business, “professional” sounds way too serious to English ears. We like nothing more than a botched job that saves a few quid.
This jerry-built mentality also affects sport. You see, English people are too bloated with irony to take anything seriously, including professional football. The English Football Association (FA) is a good example. Imagine FIFA run by boy scouts high on cider and you won’t be far off the mark. But though deep down I love this reckless, have-a-go English approach to everything, I am living in Brazil now. And there is a World Cup on…I need a team to support. England have bombed, so how about getting behind the Brazilian boys?
The dilemma is, Brazil is one of the favourites, so it wouldn’t be right to shout for a giant, would it? Probably not, though Brazil is a young country with serious social problems, stark inequality and dire poverty, so it doesn’t feel so bad wanting them to win. Actually, I really want to see a certain team lose. Germany, of course. Isn’t that horrid of me? It’s not so much the war that sticks in my craw, it’s just that the Germans are so efficient, serious and professional – all the things the English are not. One of my favourite philosophers was German: Friedrich Nietzsche. He said when you meet someone who is obviously superior to you in every way, the only pure feeling you can have towards them is love. L-O-V-E. But loving the Germans? Hmm.
No – I will get behind any team whose players are humble, a touch amateurish even, yet full of fight and with a lovable sense of humour. Pity the Irish aren’t playing…