In his preview of Belgium, Mark discussed ‘those teams that seem to always be there but whose only role seems to be to offer the desired cushy second round tie’. Among them he numbered ‘the Scandinavians, Switzerland, an occasional Balkan state, Japan, South Korea’. While this is usually the case with all of these teams, it’s worth noting that Sweden, Croatia and South Korea have played semi-finals in recent memory, whether as a result of developing the once-in-a-lifetime teams Belgium may well have at the moment, an agreeable draw or, arguably, sympathetic officials. This aside, he is absolutely right to posit a particular kind of tournament team who are neither good enough to expect to challenge nor poor enough to be memorably bad in the style of, say, El Salvador in 1982 or China twenty years later. From Europe, Switzerland are a good shout for this role, as are Greece and Ireland, and Mexico and the United States tend to fulfill this function from the CONCACAF teams.
However, all of these teams seem to be narratable, even if the narrative to which they are imparted is not entirely football-specific. Switzerland have their ‘reconciliation of identities’ thing, Greece the Olympian κῦδος, while Ireland’s World Cups have been characterised by memorable underdog triumphs and, the last time they made it, one of the tournament’s enduring controversies. Mexico are characterised as ever-present underachievers, while the States are framed as the team who will one day, once the soccer-playing demographic achieves critical mass, win the tournament. This is to say that all these teams are already objects of mythology with definable places in the imaginative make-up of the competition. By contrast, to constantly compete while somehow remaining un-narratable would be to possess some strange purity of World Cup being.
The teams who might be best said to lay claim to this are the ‘last best’ qualifiers from South America,a duty which in my football-watching life has been shared between Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador. While Paraguay did reach the quarter-finals in South Africa, giving a cagey Spain a tough test, these are nations that feel oddly unusable as what the great Russian narratologist Vladimir Propp called ‘spheres of action’: they are there, but we struggle to glorify them, to villainise them, to romanticise them in any way at all. They remind me, in a roundabout sort of way, of German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger’s well-known discussion of a hammer, which you can try and make sense of here in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s relatively accessible précis. Heidegger’s discussion seeks to distinguish between different ‘modes of encounter’ with objects (in this case a hammer), and notes how when an object is in use, being ‘skilfully manipulated’, it is characterised by its readiness-to-hand, its zuhandenheit. The ‘handy’ object is,as the SEP puts it, ‘phenomenologically transparent’, which is to say that it is not really conceived of or encountered as an object in itself but as a technological extension of the working body.
The opposite of zuhandenheit is most powerfully experienced not in a frippery, something playful and superfluous, but in a broken piece of technology. A broken tool is not quite phenomenologically ‘thick’ or present-to-itself – it is still contemplated in its ‘equipmental context’ – but it would seem to carry the threat of becoming so (think of that laptop you’re always about to get round to fixing). When a hammer breaks, it is no longer ‘handy’, and threatens us with its uselessness: what is a hammer if it cannot be used for hammering? It clearly exists, but it has been evacuated of its technological purpose and is, whether temporarily or permanently, no longer an extension of subjectivity.
The South American ‘presences’ are perhaps less zuhanden than any other team who go to the World Cup in as much as they are made into extensions of the competition but, for the most part, lack narrative potential. They imply narrative usability – that is, they have an ‘equipmental context’ – simply by dint of their qualification, but also seem to bring to light a failure of usability. Theirs is a gathering phenomenological opacity, an unsettling just-being-there like the objects fleeing equipmentality in a painting by de Chirico (see above) or Magritte. In this way, Ecuador might be said to ‘be’ the World Cup more than Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Marco Tardelli screaming with joy, Gazza crying, Roy Keane storming away from Saipan, whatever happened to Ronaldo before the ’98 final, the Battle of Santiago, Sepp Herberger’s half-time team-talk in Berne or that dog that found the Jules Rimet trophy on some wasteland in Norwood.
This year, however, there is narrative, and it’s an unhappy one. Striker Christian Benitez, who would have led the Ecuadorean line in Brazil, died suddenly last year shortly after joining Qatari club El Jaish. Unsurprisingly, the loss has traumatised the squad, leading to some reorganisation with Manchester United’s workhorse winger Antonio Valencia promoted to captain to, in the words of World Soccer, ‘help the squad react positively’. As they often seem to, Ecuador have a doable group, with only France representing quality which is, at least in theory, out of their league. Switzerland – and it’s admittedly a better Swiss side than we’re used to – and Honduras will provide the other oppositon, and Reinaldo Rueda’s men will at least fancy their chances. Undoubtedly, a desire to do justice to the popular Benitez’s memory will act as a spur for the team to try and reach the knockout stages, where one suspects they’ll probably find their level.
So, it’s in tragic circumstances that Ecuador arrive at a World Cup with ‘legend’ for the footballing commentariat to put to use. This brings up wider discussions about the instrumentality of life in football, something which is, as I noted in my piece on Diego Costa, typically overlooked as we go on blithely conceiving of players as being ‘for’ something. Historically, Ecuador have not been recuperable by tournament narrative, and there’s perhaps something in that resistance to narrativisation that should encourage us to take a step back, to estrange ourselves from the media’s reifying gestures and ask what is really happening in football beyond all the abstract eulogisations of victory and defeat.
Posted by Joe Kennedy