Naomi Chazan
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The quadrennial frenzy

Whether you relish -- or suffer through -- the Mondial, the World Soccer Cup affects every aspect of life

For the next month, every single major event, both in Israel and throughout the globe, will be colored by the omnipresent, round-the-clock, almost inescapable, media-induced preoccupation with the World Cup in Brazil. Seismic shifts in the balance of power in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, earthshaking financial moves, kidnappings and terrorist acts — as well as other critical occurrences — will all be viewed through (and in many cases dimmed by) the prism of the hastily-constructed soccer pits in the world’s sixth largest economy.

Those who evince no interest in the shenanigans on the football field, those who express disdain for the collective mania that began last Thursday and will continue until July 13th, those who have held their breath for the past four years in anticipation, those who are heartily cheering their favorite teams, those who couldn’t care less, along with all those who are slowly being drawn into the current frenzy are — whether they like it or not — affected by the Mondial.

What is it in this ritual that takes place every four years that turns the minds of so many? Is it an advanced form of international escapism? Is it a relief from the drudgery of daily life? Is it an often-unacknowledged yet deep-seated desire for entertainment? Or is it perhaps an opportunity for the articulation of nationalist fervor or for the evocation of intra-state rivalry on the playing fields? It could, alternatively, be one of the most important instruments of globalization. Maybe the World Cup is a form of collective stupor. On the other hand, it may simply be either a concentrated dose of high energy or, in stark contrast, a long-awaited and cutting-edge brand of valium.

What is clear is that the games (played, Israel time, mostly during the wee hours of the night) are, almost by definition, political. They are constructed on a national basis, with the 32 participating teams garnering support in over 160 other countries throughout the world. They have an intriguing bearing on the global balance of power (even in the United States, where soccer is a relative newcomer) and on sensitive ideological matters (vide the substance of the Adidas-Nike brouhaha). And, in individual countries, political fortunes are being made (or destroyed) in the pitches of Recife, Sao Paolo, Salvador or Brasilia. Inevitably, the Mondial affects economic trends, responses to national emergencies and broad political currents.

Israel, like many countries, has been caught up for some time in the World Cup fever, which will likely intensify during the coming weeks despite the exacerbation of security concerns and a growing domestic malaise. Anyone who took the trouble to look at the local press recently has found the papers replete with ads designed to enhance the viewing pleasure of millions. Everything from coffee machines (without which no self-respecting aficionado will come by to watch a game at your home) and armchairs designed to enhance spectator comfort, to the most monstrous television contraptions (trumpeting 50 inch screens, high-definition capacity, 3-D technology and what-not) and even air-conditioners to supply some respite during the highly-charged action are being pedaled as essential investments for every self-respecting citizen. These items — along with the food and drink that goes with hours on the couch — will likely burn a deep hole in the already slim pockets of many wage-earners throughout the country.

The build-up to the opening of the games has included not only special issues of all the major and local newspapers, but almost constant coverage of the preparations. The media is continuously bombarding even the most indifferent with sports analyses, political commentary on the host country and learned socioeconomic interpretations of the causes, manifestations, consequences and implications of the global football addiction.

The timing of the games has coincided in Israel with a governmental move to implement a major structural overhaul of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which includes the dismissal of some 2,000 employees. The screens were almost darkened on the eve of the games. Now every match is accompanied by stark reminders that “today it is us, the workers of the IBA; tomorrow it will be you.” Not surprisingly, here — as in many other countries — leading political commentators also serve as prime-time sportscasters (or does it work the other way round?).

For the next thirty days, symposia, conferences, public events and even weddings, births and funerals are being timed not to clash with critical games. The schedule of key political debates in the Knesset, as well as their duration and depth, will likely be guided by the round ball. Just three days into the matches, dark circles are already appearing beneath the eyes of avid fans. As time progresses, productivity will decline as red-eyes employees (and policy-makers) will totter to work to discuss the night’s events with those who slept soundly — oblivious to the unfolding suspense. Eventually, the country will divide into two main categories: sleep-walkers and those who, by default, have to contend with the mental detachment and physical exhaustion of their colleagues, friends and relatives.

The considerable research on the effects of prolonged popular sporting events — and especially on the repercussions of the World Cup — highlights the strains imposed by their intensity not only in the workplace, but on family relations as well. In many respects, productions like the Mondial tend to be intrinsically gendered, with long-suffering women pitted against their diehard male companions. A closer look, however, may defy this dichotomy. Many women join the fray, acting as enthusiastic cheerleaders while their partners evince disinterest if not downright distaste. The roller-coaster of emotions will range from ecstasy to despair, from mania to depression, from amazing heights to sheer and utter numbness. In effect, the real division for the near-future will be between increasingly fanatic football fans and those who wish that the World Cup and all that goes with it will just disappear as soon as possible.

The contagion that is a by-product of soccer fever is limited in time. For some it is the epitome of pure nirvana, for others simply incomprehensible. Perhaps the best way to survive this period and all that it entails is just to flow with the stream and, if possible, to enjoy the excitement and the orchestrated yet harmless tension it breeds.

The World Cup, however, should never be underestimated nor summarily dismissed. It is serious business in every sense and consequently demands respect. Yet even though it is full of surprises and upsets — shaping legends, producing tragedies and crowning super-heroes — it is nevertheless still remote from the exigencies of real life.

As the hot days of summer continue and the World Cup moves towards its apex in mid-July, it might be useful to remember that it is but a passing — albeit predictably repetitive — occurrence. Life goes on, real problems continue and new ones emerge — as evidenced by the shocking events of the past few days. No issue will go away or resolve itself while attention is diverted elsewhere. So either thoroughly enjoy — or suffer through — the organized hiatus of the Mondial for the next thirty days. It will end and only return in four years’ time.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.