I watch the Animal Planet channel on television. I have told you before, I watch a lot of television. I don’t have to make excuses for it, like the guys who read Playboy for the stories. Besides, I think some of the HBO productions are on a level with Shakespeare. But I also take in the low-brow stuff. I even think television is good for children’s intellectual development. Of course, you have to make them split logs in the backyard several hours a week to make up for the lack of physical exercise.
Anyway, my favorite story from Animal Planet concerns a bunch of young male elephants transplanted a long way from the preserve of their birth. Soon after the transplants, rare rhinoceroses began turning up dead. It seems the young bulls were killing them for fun. The managers of the preserve then transplant, import some old, physically imposing males to whip the young bulls into shape. That was the end of the rhinoceros murder spree.
I don’t pay much attention to professional sport because I can’t remember which are the rapists, which the drunks, which the drug addicts, among the spoilt young athletes left without adult supervision. Young male mobs are despicable, the epitome of savagery. Young men playing at collective game with self-discipline are an icon of civilization.
I sometimes follow Rugby – which I used to play. It’s not a professional sport but a game for self-disciplined hoodlums. Soccer is another game I follow, intermittently and only during World Cup events. I regret that this sport, popular in most of the rest of the world remains largely ignored by the greater American public. It requires personal agility, strength and intuition. It seems to me world-class soccer players are the best all-around athletes of all. There is more. Soccer is a player’s game (like basket-ball, unlike football). It rewards group initiative and much self-abnegation on the field. You see it all the time: A collection of individually superb athletes who can’t score because their search for stardom prevents them from jelling. Generally, I hold in scorn fan patriotism but I make an exception for soccer. I suspect international soccer fates say something about nations but only for a short time. And, of course, since scores rarely exceed two or three on each side, soccer encourages not tedious statistics like some other sports I could name.
The US victory over Algeria yesterday ( 623/10) told a rare tale of gallantry. The American team played deftly and valiantly for ninety minutes without being able to break through the Algerian defense. The Americans dominated the game throughout. They missed many goals that “should” have gone through. A referee disavowed a goal that looked perfectly legitimate in the replay ( not allowed in soccer). Much of it looked like sheer bad luck. I don’t think it was. Though it was obvious to all and to themselves, that they were outclassed from the get-go, the Algerians resisted fiercely and with great personal courage. The US players never gave up. Their perseverance was rewarded in the last three minutes with a goal insuring they would move up to the next level.
The Algerian display of grits contains another story worth telling. About half of them are actually Frenchmen, born in France of Algerian immigrants and who enjoy dual nationality as a result of agreements between France and its former colonial dependency. They play for French clubs. The fact is that the French national team was sent packing before the Algerian team with its French-trained players. This tells you something about the relative importance of individual skills in the game of soccer: They matter, but they are not enough, morale matters more and, I am tempted to say, collective morality. Members of the French team often behave like mean little teenagers. Members of the Algerian team played like adults. The ones went home with their silly little tails between their legs, like young bull elephants chastised by adults. The others went home (wherever home is) with their heads held high.
After the game, pretty Algerian girls were crying openly in the bleachers. Like many Arab women, they were black kohl eyeliners. It makes their despair astonishingly dramatic. I loved it!
Yesterday also, Slovakia sent Italy packing. Italy is a four-time World Cup winner, always a runner-up, a soccer superpower, historically second only to Brazil, or maybe not. I said “Slovakia,” not “Slovenia” It’s another small, obscure country in Eastern Europe that did not even exist independently a few years ago ( 17). The rout of European soccer continues as I announced previously. Believe it or not, I suspect this has to do with the debilitating effects of the nanny-state on courage and self-discipline.
UPdate 6/25/10 Finally, the US team lost to Ghana in a perfectly respectable game for both sides. The American team has nothing to be ashamed of. In many or most sports, the likelihood to producing world-class players depends on the number playing, total. (There is a pyramid effect.) Losing to a small country like Ghana is not embarrassing because there may be more boys playing soccer in Ghana than in the whole US. I don’t know this for a fact, just speculating plausibly!