Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On joga bonita

Is Osama Bin Laden watching the World Cup? If he is, was he saddened by the thrashing Saudi Arabia got yesterday? Or does he think football is a homosexual abomination? Did the Taleban ban football? I am pretty sure there is no Tradition of the Prophet or his Companions playing football.

I was curious enough to google ‘fatwa on football’.

I found a Saudi fatwa that says it’s okay to play football in order to ‘prepare the body for when it is called to jihad’, after the game is modified slightly. Some of the prescribed changes probably will improve the game — penalty shoot outs are a terrible way to decide who wins the World Cup! Other rules are not so sensible. My favourite: Do not play in two halves. Rather, play in one half or three halves in order to completely differentiate yourselves from the heretics, the corrupted and the disobedient.

Just in case you think the Saudis are monopolizing the latest in Islamic thinking, Muqtada Al Sadr also has a fatwa against football: we find that the West and especially Israel, habeebi the Jews, did you see them playing soccer? Did you see them playing games like Arabs play? They let us keep busy with soccer and other things and they've left it. Have you heard that the Israeli team, curse them, got the World Cup?

This led me to think whether it would be better to google ‘fatwa on soccer’. Soccer or football, what is the proper term in English?

See, where I live, football means a weird game that involves an elongated object being kicked or thrown across the field by men who are then jumped upon or thrown around by other men. In fact, this is the case in most of the English speaking world — although in other Anglophone countries football means different games than what they play in my neighborhood. Even in the Old Blighty, where football means soccer, other football codes still fill stadiums. In fact, England already won a football World Cup in 2003.

Why is it that no single football code has dominated the entire Anglophone world the way football (that is, soccer) has come to dominate Europe and its former colonies? One argument is that the association football was the first to professionalize, and therefore take the full advantage of capitalism.

But if capitalism is behind football’s success in Europe, then how does one explain its failure in the United States? Years ago, I heard David Landes say that the multitude of football codes in Anglophone countries is a result of the deeply ingrained liberalism of these societies. You see, countries where a single football code came to dominate, typically by the second quarter of the last century, were also countries that flirted with establishing a strong totalitarian state based on a dominant ethnic group or ideology or religion.

Whether Landes is right or not, economics of football is an interesting subject matter in its own right. Perhaps I’ll explore it some other time. Meanwhile, England may have won a world cup, but it has not won the World Cup in four decades. Franklin Foer of The New Republic — the most read magazine in the Clinton Air Force One — asks what kind of political system is best at producing the best football teams?

He finds that: fascist countries beat communist teams; military juntas beat fascists; and social democracies beat military juntas (unfortunately, no liberal democracy has ever won the World Cup). In addition to this general finding, he notes that: European Union members are likely to do well; former communist countries do better now than they did under red flags; colonizers tend to do better than the colonized (Senegal vs France 2002 notwithstanding); oil rich countries don’t do well (Saudis were thrashed yesterday); and neo-liberal economic reform doesn’t help (Argentina hasn’t won in two decades).

Foer also has a caveat: The political reality most likely to produce a Jules Rimet trophy (sic) at any given moment in history: whatever form of government has taken up residence in Brasilia that week.

Not to be outdone, beancounters at the Goldman Sachs have cranked their model to get the following probabilities for the World Cup champion: Brazil 12.4%, England 8.6%, Spain and France 8.3% and the Netherlands 8%. Being a very successful Wall Street firm, GS hedge their bet, saying their pick for the semi-finalists are: Brazil, Germany, Italy and England.

GS folks also note that no nation with less than 30 million people have won the World Cup in recent decades. GS is big on predicting the rise of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China; they are also pretty positive about Bangladesh). But even they’re not likely to predict a Desi team to qualify, let alone win, the World Cup any time soon.

This need not have been the case. Football has a rich history in Desh. Beating a bunch of Angrez imperialist scum made for a good show in Lagaan, but Mohan Baghan’s victory over English teams in 1911 was a real milestone in Desh’s struggle for freedom. India qualified for the World Cup in 1950. And as late as the 1980s, football matches far outsold cricket in Kolkata and Dhaka.
But wait, these are Bengali cities. Is there a Landesque explanation here? Dear reader, A-A-A have been accused of Bengalophobia for this and this, so I dare not pursue this line of thought. Instead, I return to the iterative prediction. After each team has played twice, the predictions are:

Semi-final 1: Germany vs Ghana.

Semi-final 2: Netherlands vs Brazil.