‘Football is my favorite game,’ Deng Xiaoping said in the 1950s. ‘But when I watch China play, I feel like I’m suffocating.’ –“Missing from the World Cup? China.” Los Angeles Times June 19, 2010
None of the countries I am so far planning to visit sent teams to the 2010 World Cup. For all the foolish talk last summer about the “inherent socialism of soccer,” only one of the five remaining socialist republics, North Korea, sent a team to South Africa, and it suffered consecutive losses to Brazil, Portugal and Côte d’Ivoire. (Reports that the North Korean coach and players were treated on their return to a six-hour public excoriation, dubiously sourced to the US-funded Radio Free Asia, were brushed aside by the DPRK).
Don DeLillo, a baseball fan, plays with this in his short story “Hammer and Sickle” in the December 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Narrator Jerold Bradway, sentenced to white-collar prison for insider trading, watches his daughters on television daily read financial news suggesting the imminent collapse of world economic systems. The increasingly apocalyptic tone of the broadcasts, which appear on a children’s network, is scripted by Bradway’s estranged wife. The show is popular with Bradway’s fellow inmates, all serving sentences for financial crimes. Some openly root for Armageddon.
As an aside, Jerold addresses the matter of fútbol as he watches the other inmates play:
I thought about soccer in history,the inspiration for wars, truces, rampaging mobs. The game was a global passion, spherical ball, grass or turf, entire nations in spasms of elation or lament. But what kind of sport is it that disallows the use of players’ hands, except for the goalkeepers’? Hands are essential human tools, the things that grasp and hold, that make, take, carry, create. If soccer were an American invention, wouldn’t some European intellectual maintain that our historically puritanical nature has compelled us to invent a game structured on antimasturbatory principles?
This is one of the things I think about that I never had to think about before.
DeLillo’s “Pafko at the Wall,” first published in 1992 as a short story in Harper’s, became the prologue to the novel Underworld, under the title “The Triumph of Death.” “Hammer and Sickle” stands on its own but, similarly, reads like part of a broader work.