has the world cup been that good?

national stereotypes

I’ve been thinking of writing a post like this pretty much since the tournament began, and now there’s something to inspire me to get it out there. People at Cambridge UP have sorted through an enormous database of online writing in English about the World Cup, and narrowed it all down to a chart that shows the three most often used words to describe each country’s team. Here they are:

Algeria: determined, pride, together

Argentina: confident, flair, unconvincing

Australia: positive, effort, spirited

Belgium: flair, dark horse, talent

Bosnia and Herzegovina: injustice, defensive, forceful

Brazil: emotional, popular, desperate

Cameroon: hapless, battle, chaotic

Chile: attacking, tactical, thrilling

Colombia: unpredictable, exciting, attacking

Costa Rica: dynamic, pace, battle

Croatia: dangerous, tactical, competitive

Ecuador: inconsistent, strong, potential

England: exciting, inexperienced, disappointing

France: organized, defensive, exciting

Germany: powerful, focused, committed

Ghana: money, strike, powerful

Greece: defensive, cautious, stubborn

Honduras: physical, spirit, robust

Iran: defend, hope, drought

Italy: slow, vulnerable, pessimism

Ivory Coast: pace, physical, struggle

Japan: possession, disappointing, frustrated

Mexico: determined, tactical, talented

Netherlands: rampaging, strategy, stunning

Nigeria: inexperienced, speed, tough

Portugal: frustration, ego, disappointing

Russia: drab, error, mediocre

South Korea: woeful, failure, embarrassing

Spain: defensive, poor, humiliation

Switzerland: pace, difficult, talented

United States: determined, heroic, courageous

Uruguay: bite, disgrace, do-or-die

I wrote one of my longer posts for this year’s Cup on my relationship to Greece. As you can see, much of the English-speaking world has a rather pointed view of the Greeks: “defensive, cautious, stubborn”. This image grew out of Euro 2004, which Greece won using what some saw as negative tactics. I think they have grown out of this a bit … a bit … but the perception of them hasn’t really changed in ten years. Meanwhile, there’s the Netherlands (“rampaging, strategy, stunning”), connected to a stereotype that began at least 40 years ago in the Total Football days. They scored 10 goals in the group stage and demolished defending champs Spain (which turned out to be less of an accomplishment than it seemed at the time). But their play in the knockout phase has been closer to the stereotypical Greek performance than to the Dutch. They didn’t manage to score against Mexico until the 88th minute, and then played two consecutive scoreless draws, a total of 240 minutes without a goal. Yet people still see the Orange and think of Johan Cruyff. Go back to Euro 2012: they scored two goals in three matches and were eliminated in the group stage. Or the 2010 World Cup, where they were shutout in one of the most dreadful finals ever.

That’s the thing about stereotypes. There is usually some good reason for their invention, but they become solidified even as their targets change. We end up thinking of people or groups or nations based on ideas that were formed long ago, and become blind to what is actually happening in front of our eyes.

So I always thought of the Germans as a boring, steadfast team that knew how to grind out one-goal victories. But in the 2006 World Cup, which they hosted, they scored four in their first match, and rolled along until the semi-finals, establishing a new look and feel for their play. People have noticed, but even there, the stereotype only changes in small stages … a team that has been enjoyable for many years has become “powerful, focused, committed” … adjectives you apply not to a team that inspires flights of fancy, but to a solid team that gets the job done, which is barely a change in stereotype at all.

The chart tells us who was seen as “tactical” (Chile, Croatia, Mexico), “exciting” (Colombia, England?, France), or “disappointing” (England, Japan, Portugal). The USA was “heroic” and “courageous”, attributes assigned to no other team. The final pits the powerful, focused, and committed Germans against confident Argentina, full of flair yet somehow unconvincing.

Finally, there are teams about which nothing good can be said. Cameroon battles, Iran has hope, even Uruguay has a do-or-die attitude. But what about Italy (“slow, vulnerable, pessimism”), Russia (“drab, error, mediocre”), South Korea (“woeful, failure, embarrassing”), and Spain (“defensive, poor, humiliation”)? Next to those nations, the determined, heroic, courageous United States looks pretty good. Stereotypically speaking, of course.

(It would be interesting to see the same study done with other languages, like Portuguese or Spanish.)