The 2010 FIFA World Cup starts on Friday, which means that football fans across the world have a difficult task this week: determining who to support.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be a difficult task – contrarians aside, we support our national sides. But that’s not much help if your nation didn’t qualify… unless, like Ireland, you didn’t qualify in a way that gives you a team to root against throughout the tournament. And even if you have ties to one or more nations who’ll be competing, there are dozens of qualifying matches where you’ve got no direct rooting interest. Assuming you’re neither South African or Mexican, who do you pull for in the opener Friday afternoon?
A Wikipedia map of countries competing in the 2010 Cup. Countries in green will be competing. Countries in red failed to qualify. Laos and the Philippines, in purple, are members of FIFA, but did not compete in this year’s qualifiers. And Western Sahara and Greenland (along with smaller states like San Marino and the Vatican City) aren’t FIFA members.
Poking around on various football discussion boards and on friends’ blogs, I’ve seen several strategies proposed.
Strategic support If the goal of the World Cup is for your national team, – or the team you’re most passionate about – to win, the key is for the rest of the most talented nations to lose. If I’m supporting Ghana (and I am, as well as the US), I’m not just pulling for Ghana to get past Serbia and Australia, I’m supporting Algeria to get through in group C rather than England, in the hopes that I get an easier round of 16 match. Carry this method to its logical extent and you find yourself pulling for New Zealand and North Korea in the hopes for a cakewalk of a final. Not necessarily the prettiest of methods.
Support through spite An excellent strategy for supporters of nations who really should have made it into the tournament. I suspect many Irish fans will support any team playing France in any match… which is likely to give them someone to support through at least the quarterfinals. You can combine this method with strategic support and support teams most likely to defeat the team you most loathe… Still, is it really satisfying to support Germany in the hopes that they’ll smash the hated French/Italians/pick your nemesis?
Non-FIFA support If you support a Champions League club, there’s a good chance you can coast through the tournament supporting national teams that feature your club players. As such, many Barça fans are supporting Spain (a surprise to me, given Catalan nationalism) and Argentina, as a chance to support the sublime Messi. This strategy has obvious flaws, though, when players on your club side are on both sides of a WC match.
Aesthetic considerations Certain teams are just more fun to watch than others. Watching Dutch total football is more enjoyable, in my opinion, than Italian total gridlock. Add in the joy of watching certain players perform and you can add Argentina and Cameroon to aesthetically pleasing teams like Brazil and Spain. The risk of this method? Becoming one of those smug football fans who says, “Oh, I don’t care who wins – I just want to see the most beautiful game possible.” Yeah, right. The most beautiful game is the one in which the team I support unexpectedly trounces an aesthetically superior team.
Outside considerations I suspect this is the method most of us use to decide who to support in matches like Paraguay/Slovakia – are there outside associations with either nation that lead to a rooting interest? If you can’t come up with any associations with either Paraguay or Slovakia, MetroUK has a charming “neutrals” guide that offers largely irrelevant reasons you can use to support or oppose any of the 32 teams. And if you’re an NFL football fan with no connections to global football, there are at least two guides helpfully aligning World Cup teams with NFL teams. Of course, if you’re rooting for South Korea because some blogger thinks their speed and precision parallel the Green Bay Packers, you’ve probably got other problems.
Algorithmic support I’ve always admired systematic thinkers, so I have a certain respect for anyone who’s able to put together a set of rules that allow them to make a decision for who to support in any match. Next Left offers a simple version of an algorithmic strategy – support the teams whose nations have democratic left governments – but realizes that this leads to first round conflicts like Brazil versus Portugal. More sophisticated algorithms have multiple tiers – my friend Alaa once outlined a strategy that involved supporting his native Egypt, then Arab nations, then African nations, then supporting colonies over the colonizers. (Indeed, I’m writing this post in part in the hopes that I can provoke him to outline his full algorithm.)
As for me, I’m an algorithmic sort of guy, with flashes of nationalism and aesthetic concerns. So my football strategy looks something like this:
– Sub-Saharan African teams get my support, especially Ghana, recognizing that it’s looking like a tough tournament for the African sides.
– Developing world over developed.
– Pretty football over ugly – Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Netherlands over Italy, Germany, England.
– Places I’ve been to over those I’ve never visited, with quality of national cuisine as a tiebreaker.
– Bonus points for truly unlikely teams, including NZ and North Korea.
– I’ll root for the US until they face Ghana. At that point, I’ll probably support Ghana, if only so there’s some conflict when watching with US friends.
In other words, I see your arbitrary and raise you ludicrous and illogical. And yes, I’ll be supporting South Africa over Mexico, despite my love for bistec encebollada and distaste for sadza.
If you’re inclined, I’d love to hear how you’re strategizing about who to support, especially if you’d blogged about your personal algorithms. I’m hoping to write a piece for Global Voices on this strategy, so I’m especially interested if you’ve already posted something I can link to…
Nigerian-American blogger/photographer/author Teju Cole was responsible for one of my favorite portraits of the 2006 World Cup – he watched each match, selecting a different restaurant or bar in New York City or New Jersey affiliated with one of the competing sides. This year, he’s repeating the experiment along with blogger Siddhartha Mitter. If you’ve read Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief, you know the wit, insight and poetry you’re in for. I look forward to seeing “the Mundial” through his eyes, and to learning from him where I can find Paraguayan food in the greater New York area.