All the World's a Ball

Article excerpt

EVERY SIN OF MODERN SPORTS IS COMMITTED AGAINST SOCCER, BUT STILL IS SURPRISES.

Thanks to World Cup 1998, we learned or confirmed a few things:

[sections] MasterCard is a muscle toner, and a good athlete needs plenty of Coca-Cola and McDonald's hamburgers.

[sections] In the final, France shocked Brazil, and Adidas beat Nike. A lover of Brazilian soccer, Nike shelled out a reported $400 million to the team plus another fortune to its star Ronaldo. Well-placed sources say Nike insisted that Ronaldo play the final match even though he was seriously ill. Yanked out of the hospital, he played but he didn't play.

[sections] The winning side was a team of immigrants. Opinion polls say half of France would like to toss out such interlopers, but all of France celebrated as if these victorious blacks and Arabs were the sons of Joan of Arc.

[sections] Soccer miraculously retains its capacity for surprise. Nobody gave 2 cents for Croatia, but their grit took them to third place.

[sections] Miraculously, soccer retains its capacity for beauty. I saw every match and don't regret it. Defensive and calculating, end-of-the-century soccer is chary with its splendor, but splendor there was.

St. Denis reminded us, once again, that today the stadium is a gigantic TV studio. The game is played for television so you can watch it at home. And television rules.

Twelve years ago, at the 1986 World Cup, Valdano, Maradona and other players protested because the big matches were played at noon under a sun that fried everything it touched. Noon in Mexico, nightfall in Europe, the best time for European television. The German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher, told the story: "I sweat. My throat is dry. The grass is like dried shit: hard, strange, hostile. The sun shines straight down on the stadium and strikes us right on the head, We cast no shadows. They say this is good for television."

Was the sale of the spectacle more important than the quality of play? The players are there to kick, not to cry, and Jean Marie Faustin de Godefroid Havelange, head of FIFA, the International Federation of Football Associations, put an end to that maddening business: "They should play and shut their traps," he decreed.

Who ran the `86 World Cup? The Mexican Soccer Federation? No, please, no more intermediaries: It was run by Guillermo Canedo, vice president of Televisa and president of the company's international network. That World Cup belonged to Televise, the monopoly that owns the free time of all Mexicans and also owns Mexican soccer. When a Mexican journalist had the insolence to ask about the costs and profits of the World Cup, Canedo cut him off cold: "This is a private company and we don't have to report to anybody."

Throughout the world, by direct and indirect means, television decides where, when and how soccer will be played. The game has sold out to the small screen in body and soul--and clothing, too. Players are now TV stars. The program that had the largest audience in France and Italy in 1993 was the final of the European Champions Cup between Olympique de Marseille and Milan. Milan, as we all know, belongs to Silvio Berlusconi, the czar of Italian television. Bernard Tapie was not the owner of French TV, but his club, Olympique, received from the small screen that year 300 times more money than in 1980.

Now millions of people can watch matches, not only the thousands who fit into stadiums. But unlike baseball and basketball, soccer is a game of continuous play that offers few interruptions for showing ads. A half-time isn't sufficient. American television has proposed to correct this unpleasant defect by dividing matches into four twenty-minute periods--and Havelange agrees...

Who are the players? Monkeys in a circus? They may dress in silk, but aren't they all still monkeys? They are never consulted when it comes to deciding when, where and how they play. …