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Losses, and the Losing Losers Who Hate Them
Losses, and the Losing Losers Who Hate Them
By MICHAEL J. AGOVINO
Published: June 18, 2006
MINNOW and superpower alike last week could still dream of hoisting the World Cup on July 9 in Berlin, but by Tuesday, some teams will be boarding planes home, wondering what went wrong. It won't be too long, though, before the losing players might be found on a quiet beach in the Maldives, their misery consigned to memory.
Not so the losing fans. It has been said that losses are more devastating, and lasting, for them.
Famous upsets in sports abound — the accomplished Soviets losing the 1980 "miracle on ice" Olympic hockey game to the college-age Americans; the United States "dream teams" being beat in basketball — but it is still soccer, by far the most popular sport, whose results are so entangled with a nation's history and sense of identity.
If it's tempting to suggest a link between national character and the ways nations have coped with defeat, the slim catalog of responses — especially to humiliating losses, or those at the hands of geopolitical rivals — probably says more about how similar people are. They blame themselves. They blame the other guy. They weep. They stew. They act stoic. They act up.
One favorite response is scapegoating. In 1950, Brazil, the host and favorite, lost in the final to Uruguay. The author Alex Bellos, in his book "Futebol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way," writes that the goalkeeper, Barbosa, "became the personification of the national tragedy." He died 50 years later, apparently unforgiven by his countrymen.
Although Brazil has suffered cataclysmic defeats in addition to 1950's, it has won a record five World Cups.
"Brazilians, to generalize awfully, are emotionally bipolar," Mr. Bellos, who divides his time between England and Brazil, said in an interview. "Everything is either the best in the world or the worst in the world. They have a superiority complex in terms of football, yet the flipside is a developing nation's crushing insecurity complex. When they win they forget their problems. They are the happy, party-loving. When they lose it reinforces a sense that they are useless and predestined towards failure — not just in football but in everything."
The Dutch are not known for public displays of emotion, but Holland's loss to West Germany in the 1974 World Cup Final is "burned into the Dutch psyche in the way that Dallas, 22 November, 1963 haunts America," David Winner writes in "Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football." There was open weeping. Mr. Winner cites a study of that loss that concluded, "The defeat of 1974 is the biggest trauma that happened to Holland in the 20th century apart from the floods of 1953 and World War II." He quotes a Dutch psychoanalyst: "There is still a deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It's a very living pain, like an unpunished crime."
Since then, the Dutch, still steeped in Calvinist ethos, albeit secular, have had an unusual string of bitter defeats, but according to Mr. Winner, they "go numb and pretend it doesn't matter. They shrug and don't talk."
The Italians, who like the Dutch have had a series of improbable last-minute implosions, turn not so much operatic, as per stereotype, but somewhat paranoic, according to the new book "Calcio: A History of Italian Football" by John Foot of University College in London. The referees punished Italy to favor the host South Korea — that was the chorus heard from Palermo to Milan in 2002. In 2004, the Danes colluded with those evil Swedes and played to a deliberate 2-2 draw that ousted the Italians, the dark thinking went.
The English, says the novelist Nick Hornby, author of the soccer memoir "Fever Pitch," would rather pin blame on an individual on their own team, either a manager or player (David Beckham in 1998 for committing a silly foul in front of the referee; the goalie David Seaman in 2002 for misjudging Ronaldinho's blooping shot — or was that a pass?). But in an interview Mr. Hornby said, "It's been so long since England have won anything in soccer that it feels as though real contenders come from a parallel universe England can't seem to break their way in to."
William W. Kelly, an anthropologist at Yale who teaches a course called "Sport, Society and Culture," said he is "leery of national character as an explanation for anything, including sports behavior."
He added: "The Brazilians, the Germans, the Italians and the English, among other national teams, have all had shocking early exits in modern World Cup play, followed by fans behaving badly and media and politicians pointing fingers. I'm not sure that there has been enough difference in their reactions to attribute them to a collective personality."
Sam Mchombo, a linguistics professor at Berkeley who has lectured on soccer in identity formation, is similarly reluctant to impute reaction to collective personality, but he does note that many of the African nations, given their meager resources, are just happy to have qualified for the cup, and the reactions to the losses, he said, "have not been irritable or violent but rather with a degree of stoicism or grace."
Few reactions to loss on the pitch could be more starkly bleak than the one Ryszard Kapuscinski describes in his book "The Soccer War," about the cup qualifying games between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, and the ensuing madness.
"Eighteen-year-old Amelia Bolanios was sitting in front of the television in El Salvador when the Honduran striker Roberto Cardona scored the winning goal in the final minute," he writes. "She got up and ran to the desk which contained her father's pistol in a drawer. She then shot herself in the heart. 'The young girl could not bear to see her fatherland brought to its knees,' wrote the Salvadoran newspaper El Nacional the next day. The whole capital took part in the televised funeral of Amelia Bolanios."
Losing in the World Cup isn't the only way to pummel self-esteem. Not qualifying, like the two-time champion Uruguay, who inexplicably lost to Australia in a playoff, can be painful too. Eduardo Galeano, whose aphoristic book "Soccer in Sun and Shadow" is often quoted, said in an e-mail interview, "When we Uruguayans suffer a humiliating defeat, we confirm that we are no more than a fiction in history, a mistake on the map, a bad joke of God or Devil."