The late, great sports writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam once said “I am a fan of World Cup soccer, but not of soccer itself… I like checking out national characteristics as reflected by playing styles – the great truth about national cliches, that is, the easy broad judgments we make about the national characteristics of other countries (if not our own), is that they are all unfair, and they are all generalizations, but they are also more often than not true. The Brazilian team is likely to be more expansive and athletic; the German team more stolid. The Germans are less likely to make mistakes, but they are also less likely to play with flair. The Italians will play like, well, Italians.”
The first time I payed attention to the World Cup was in 1990, and for a month I was obsessed. It wasn’t that I was obsessed with watching the matches, mind, although I did find it fascinating that such a relatively simple game was played in such contrasting ways by various countries. Rather, it was more that the competition was so exotic. There was Cameroon, with Roger Milla and Omam Biyik, and there was Colombia, with the big hair of Valderrama and the bizarre exploits of goalie Rene Higuita. And even better, there was a lengthy and intricate qualification process between exotic countries from every continent. Turning a blind-eye to the nil-all-draws, it was fascinating.
Twenty years later, I am still not a soccer fan, but I still find the World Cup interesting. My sense of the players being exotic has lessened, especially as athletes from a wider variety of countries have infiltrated basketball and tennis, along with the nightly Champions League highlights that make the news. However, I still love the way that a country like Ghana can have knocked out a country like the USA in two consecutive competitions. And I still maintain a Halberstam-esque interest in the contrasting styles of play, and what commentators read into such styles.
One of the most enduring memories of South Africa 2010 will be the way that so many cards have been shown and fouls have been called in response to players “diving”, “exaggerating” or “simulating”. Take the penalty the guy from Italy drew against New Zealand. Or the bloke from Chile who left Switzerland with 10 men. Or the worst culprit: the guy from the Ivory Coast who went down, leading to Kaka’s red card. Brazil were fuming, clearly forgetting Rivaldo’s infamous effort of 8 years prior.
At some stage, watching all of this from afar, I was struck by one simple fact: this isn’t just something we Aussies laugh at once every four years. Instead, it’s an intricate part of “The Beautiful Game”…and it’s not in Australia’s nature to be any good at it.
While Brazillians are known for flair and Germans for their stoic nature, Aussies are known for their toughness. We are the country known for Aussie Rules, the rugby codes, and the unwritten rule that you can’t blame an injury: if you’re on the field, you’re fair game.
In Australia, “diving”, “staging” or “simulating” are reviled. It is widely condemned as a despicable approach to sport. This is so ingrained in the Australian way that the AFL has brought in fines for players who are caught staging. Technically, a player can be fined after a match even if the umpire has fallen for their dive and awarded them a free kick during the game itself. It’s a clear message: we don’t dive here, and if you do, we’ll throw your name across the back page of the newspaper and your reputation will come crashing down around you.
Yes, in Australia, Real Men don’t dive. Similarly, Real Men don’t show pain (at all, let along rolling around on the ground), and Real Men do everything in their power to avoid being put on a stretcher.
Yet a month’s worth of World Cup viewing ensures that all sports fans realise that these approaches are inherent traits in many successful countries’ approaches to soccer.
Many famous footballing countries often go through periods when their traditional style conflicts with the style in which their team’s current roster is best suited to if they are to win games. Indeed, the Dutch and Brazilian teams at this World Cup have been criticised in some circles for not playing with their usual flair and extravagance throughout the Cup thus far. The coaches of both sides, of course, simply respond to such criticism by saying that they are only in South Africa to win, whatever style works.
If we’ve learnt nothing else from South Africa 2010, it’s that crucial advantages can be gained in soccer by those willing to “act”, to fall and flail, and to fool a referee in the process. Until Australians are willing to partake in such simulation in future, we’re simply not giving ourselves as good a chance at victory as we could.
So, it’s time for Australia and our Socceroos to make a decision. Do we want to give ourselves the best chance to win, or do we want to play this game the way we believe it should be played?