The post-colonial World Cup

The World Cup usually offers some post-colonial story lines, but with three rounds yet to play this one has already been particularly rife with historical subthemes.

Some are obvious. In a matchup of two of the best sides in the entire tournament, Brazil and its former colonizer, Portugal, drew to a scoreless tie Friday in the final game of Group G. Both teams advanced to the final round of 16 and could meet again in the final.

The first match in Group C for the United States was a much-anticipated rematch 60 years in the making against none other than England. With a nod to our revolutionary forebears, we won that fateful 1950 match, 1-0, despite being an overwhelming underdog against our former colonizer. Convinced the transatlantic telegrams were transmitted in error, initially the British press reported England as 10-1 victors. (One wonders if London reacted similarly 175 years ago as news arrived across the Atlantic about the results from the match played at Lexington and Concord.)

This time, with help from a colossal goalkeeping blunder by England's Robert Green, we managed a 1-1 tie.

To advance to the elimination stage, the United States had to beat Algeria in its third and final group match. Algeria is not a former U.S. territory, but France's failed occupation four decades ago is often cited as historical analog to our current Iraq quagmire. U.S. captain Landon Donovan's late goal broke a scoreless deadlock and provided America with an escape route on the pitch far more riveting and less painful than the slow, bloody exit from Iraq that Washington politicians seem to be forever promising is just six months away.

And then on Saturday, the United States was eliminated 2-1 by a fast, gritty Ghana squad. The West African nation was never an American territory. (The British, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish all took their turns, however.) But in the 18th century the Elmina Castle in what today is Ghana served as a key point of embarkation for thousands of slaves sold and shipped to a "new" world still engaging in some very old and inhumane practices.

The tournament is international, but so are many teams' rosters. The surnames on the American roster reflect the success of our nation's noblest melting pot aspirations: Cherundolo and Torres, Onyewu and Edu. Even goalkeeper Tim Howard's seemingly Germanic name is a deceit: The New Jersey-born star is the mixed-race son of an African-American father and a Hungarian immigrant mother.

While players must be citizens, there's no such requirement for coaches; an Italian coached the Brits, a Swede shepherded the Nigerians, and a Serb is still leading the plucky Ghanaians. Germany, France and the Netherlands — all of which have witnessed ethnic or religious tensions between Christians and Muslims — have at least one Muslim player on their rosters.

And how about this for a strange personal twist with implications for international competition: Kevin Prince Boateng and Jerome Boateng are half brothers who share a Ghanaian-born father, but the former plays for Ghana and the latter for Germany. Right now, the two aren't on speaking terms because of an injury-causing foul Kevin Prince committed last month against Jerome's German countryman Michael Ballack in the Football Association Cup Final. (Their teams faced each other in the group round.)

Most obvious parallel between historical and sporting conquest? That's easy — the dominance of the Iberian Peninsula. Half of the teams that made the round of 16 were either Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking nations, including both principal countries. (Given recent immigration and birthing trends here in America, that total might better be counted as eight-plus.) Footballers across the globe wince when Americans call the sport "soccer," but increasingly the most accurate spelling for the game is "fútbol."

As for the Commonwealth states of the former British Empire, the performances were pretty good, save for England's. Neither Australia nor New Zealand advanced to the final 16, but each exceeded expectations. As expected, both we and the Tories were among the 16 — but both were also dispatched in the first elimination round. To be fair, our boys were cheated out of two goals during the group stage, while the Tories played miserably in their four matches.

Give us liberty or give us soccer! I mean, football.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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