One thing I noticed at the conference at Hofstra University the past three days: the coming World Cup in Brazil is going to provide the biggest spotlight ever pointed at the soccer establishment.
Between the rampant scandals at FIFA and the protests in Brazil, the world is going to be watching in a different way than at all previous World Cups.
Now the journalists and academics and fans are asking, is this the right way to run a sport? Does soccer need to impose such harsh demands about expensive stadiums and infrastructure on people who have been told they really need this party?
There were already demonstrations in Brazil in 2013, and the favelas, the neighborhoods have been further disrupted for a six-week frolic for outsiders.
That conflict seemed to be the common theme among the mix of former professional players, journalists, academics and fans who mixed in esoteric panels. This really is the world’s sport. Yet it has gone ever further into the control of the corporations and networks and the murky home office of FIFA, the world soccer body.
Maybe the most telling sign was raised by David Goldblatt from the University of Bristol, U.K., who noted that the organizers in Brazil are banning musical instruments in the stands. (He’s a fan of the South African vuvuzela that terrorized eardrums in 2010.) Imagine a soccer game in the land of Jobim and de Moraes, Veloso and Gilberto, Gil and Costa, Ana & Jorge and Morelenbaum2Sakomoto, without a few drums and horns and guitars? But FIFA is tone deaf as well as opaque.
The restive state of Brazil was noted by Peter Alegi of Michigan State University, who recalled how home fans spontaneously sang the second stanza of the national anthem during the Confederations Cup – a sign of further independence, perhaps.
Every panel reminded me of the deep hold this sport has everywhere, including my alma mater of Hofstra, where the new version of the Cosmos is currently playing. Hofstra bestowed an honorary doctorate on Pelé, the greatest of the Cosmos. He lit up the place. He is Pelé.
The links between soccer success and national image were stressed by Alexander Kitroeff of Haverford College, who noted how his homeland of Greece was stirred by the surprising victory at the 2004 European championship. Greeks were also aware that the squad had been given shape by a German coach, Otto Rehhagel.
One of the nicest parts of the conference was the papers delivered by young people coming along as the United States matures as a soccer nation.
Christopher Davis of Florida International University gave a paper on “The New Germans: How the 2010 World Cup Showed the Evolution of Germany’s Immigration Policy” – the Turkish, African and Polish influence on the German squad.
And Lisa Quach, about to graduate from Hofstra and looking for a job in publishing, delivered a knowing paper on “Black, Blanc, Bleu: National Identity in French Football,” recalling how players from the vast diaspora of France played together in the glorious home championship of 1998.
One of the great spontaneous dialogues between true believers took place during the Q&A section of a panel. In the audience, Arnie Ramirez, the great former coach of Long Island University, said he preferred the short-pass offense; he wiggled his hand like a trout. Greg Lalas, former M.L.S. player and editor of MLSsoccer.com, responded, what about the laser long ball that lands on a striker’s chest near the goal? They debated for a few minutes. It was wonderful.
A defiant note was sounded at the final plenary session by Charlie Stillitano, Princeton star, World Cup 1994 official and first general manager of the MetroStars. Charlie said he doesn’t want to hear any more bleats that America is not a soccer country. There are now five major sports in the United States, Charlie said. Get over it.
I thank Stanislao Pugliese and Brenda Elsey of Hofstra who ran this conference, and all the other nice people who make Hofstra work. And I thank all the true believers who reminded us that, good and bad, the World Cup is almost here.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.