Monday, May 29, 2006

The Beautiful Game

Three posts in one day -- this is what happens when it's 90 degrees outside, I don't have to work, and I'm trying to avoid hitting the bars at 2 p.m. Yesterday, frequent co-conspirator Fidel and I planned to head over to the Atlanta Jazz Festival, but the relentless heat quashed that -- as a wise man once said, "you can't impress pretty girls with your subtle wit if you've just expired from heatstroke." So we went and played pool and drank beer instead.

Fidel had brought along a copy of the Financial Times, as an inducement, I suppose, for me to keep the level of conversation high. A prominently-placed article caught my eye -- "The Dutiful Game," by Simon Kuper.

I should mention, at this point, that I'm excited about the World Cup out of all proportion to my knowledge of the sport. I won't be writing much, if anything, about it -- I'll leave it to people who actually know something (here and here, for instance) -- but I'll follow it with far more interest than the NBA Finals or the World Series.

I've never become a big a soccer fan as I've expected. There's only a certain amount of sports my aging brain can consume, and hockey satisfies most of my appetite -- plus the various cups and leagues are a bit dizzying. That said, when I'm in an easy position to follow the sport -- during one of the big international tournaments, or visiting England -- I'll devour it. I'll freely admit that many of the sport's intricacies are lost on me, but a big game never fails to deliver high tension, at a level the Super Bowl can only dream of matching.

Back to Kuper. His article is interesting as a history of German soccer, but leaves me unconvinced of its subject: that reunification has led to a decline in the country's sporting fortunes. His proof for his hypothesis is that Westdeutschland last won in 1990, just before the merger. Perhaps he's right, but sorry, I need more. Why did German reunification cause this decline? England hasn't won since 1966 -- is that because Harold Wilson met with Ian Smith?

The only other contributing factor is "other countries got better" -- which would seem to have little to do with reunification. His theory is that foreign fear of Germany led to good German football -- but it needs more support.

An interesting aside brought me back to something I've often pondered. Kuper mentions Hungary's dominance in 1950s international play, and it struck me that I never hear about Hungary in international team sports, or even Hungarian players. My oft-pondered question, and it's a bit of a leap from that, is -- why do team sports put down such deep roots in some countries but not others? It's obviously applicable to my favorite sport; why is hockey such a big deal in the former Czechoslovakia, while Hungary and Poland, two neighboring countries with somewhat similar 20th-century histories, have no ingrained tradition of the sport? Why Sweden and Finland but not Denmark and Norway? Why Russia, Latvia and Lithuania but not Estonia? Why have Germany, Austria, and Switzerland produced only a handful of significant players?

I really don't have any solid ideas on this; at least in the Eastern European nations, I've wondered if it had anything to do with Communist state-sponsored athletic programs, but outside of the USSR and Czechoslovakia, I have no idea how those worked. Any of the hockey-fan readers have any ideas about this?


a said...

Great book (and also a documentary) on the evolution of hockey in strange places around the world is "Tropic of Hockey" by Bidini.

For info all member states of the IIHF, you can find all the national ice hockey associations listed here.

Some of the associations explain their history (although not always in English). I'm looking at it now... it's a great question.

gsdgsd13 said...

Somehow this passed me by. I've been meaning to read Bidini's book for a while now -- at one point Amazon was charging a ridiculous price for it, which put it out of my mind. Until now.

Unrelated anecdote: when I was "between jobs" after quitting the newspaper out in Colorado, I toyed with the idea of moving to Louisiana and writing a book on hockey in the bayou, or somesuch (at the time, Louisiana and Texas were the two states with the most minor league hockey teams, oddly). Obviously never happened. Another missed opportunity.