Not-on-your-own Goal: Just You, 3 Billion Others and One World Cup

In the fragmented world of television, live sports broadcasts remain the only events that retain the aura of turning the whole world into one global village, watching the same thing at the same time.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Netherlands’ Robin van Persie.Credit: Reuters
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Last weekend was supposed to be the first of a consecutive four in which soccer aficionados all over the world would be glued to their screens, following the 2014 World Cup games in Brazil. However, in Israel grim reality interfered, with all broadcast channels switching to a continuous breaking news mode after the kidnapping of three Israeli youngsters in the West Bank.

That story is far from over as of this writing, and there is nothing I can say about it aside from the usual platitudes, and voice the hope that the three return safe and sound. The reporters and commentators don’t seem to differ from me in that respect, not that it stops them from repeating again and again that there are no leads or clues and therefore no news. The adage claims that “no news is good news,” but our TV screens are visible proof that “no news does not mean no newscast.”

The news division of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (TV’s Channel 1), which is about to be disbanded and reorganized soon, was lucky in a way, compared with the news divisions of the commercial channels 2 and 10. The IBA had acquired the rights to broadcasting the World Cup games and was therefore obliged to run them live and to be in sync with a sizable portion of the world. In 2010, 3,200,000,000 people watched the games, 46.4 percent of the world’s population; more than 1 billion viewers are expected to watch this year’s final. That is how Channel 1 was able to make do with news flashes between games.

I am not your usual TV sports fan, but I do try to follow the events and be in the know, so I have found myself following the results, if not all the games, live. And here is a point about the nature of sports TV. In the fragmented world of television, where we can watch whatever program we desire when and how we choose, live sports broadcasts remain the only events that retain the aura of turning the whole world (or almost half of it, based on 2010 World Cup ratings) into one global village, where people all over the world can watch the same thing at the same time.

You could say the same thing happens whenever a major event of worldwide significance takes place. The whole world watches with bated breath the many wars, revolutions, earthquakes or tsunamis that are broadcast live by courageous newsmen and women with hand-held TV cameras or smartphones. But unlike the newscasts, where each media outlet has its own reporters and editors and each offers a slightly different view of the event, in the case of the World Cup, all viewers all over the world get the same picture, down to camera angles, replay shots, etc. Only the commentators differ, with each country having its own, and I advise listening to them discriminately and relying on your own eyes.

Even if you decide to be one of the three billion or so people who do not follow the games on TV, you will still be aware of the live TV everyone else is watching. In a way, during the World Cup soccer tournament you are somehow constantly aware of it, even, or especially, if you are not watching it.

The intriguing thing about live TV sports coverage worldwide is that compared to “real life” events like wars, revolutions and so on, the games themselves and the scores do not really matter. True, there have been soccer wars and soccer-related disasters in which emotions run high and billions follow the story, but watching sports on TV, World Cup soccer included, is an escapist activity at its purest.

Unless, of course, you have a vested interest, i.e. you are rooting for a team. The World Cup being an event for national teams, each viewer is expected to root for his or her nation’s team. Luckily, Israel’s team did not qualify, (one of the 170- odd national teams that didn’t), so I am spared the tension of watching it trying to win or draw and the heartache of seeing it lose. The same goes for the country of my birth, Poland. That leaves the Dutch team, as I have a son who lives in the Netherlands, so I’ve felt obliged to watch them, “WhatsApping” with my son and his family and exchanging “wow!!!s” with every kick, pass, dribble and save.

And though I might seem a bit jaded, skeptical and mildly uninterested in sports TV in general (athletics, and possibly tennis excepted) and soccer in particular, I have to admit that I have enjoyed, on purely aesthetic grounds, two of the goals (out of five; one should have been disqualified) scored by the Dutch team on Friday night against the Spaniards, in a timely revenge for their loss at the final in 2010, and a delayed one for the Inquisition: Robin van Persie soaring in the air to tie the score with his head, and Arjen Robben dribbling right and then swerving sharply left, turning on a dime and kicking the ball in with his left foot.

I’m usually a very prosaic man of letters who is rarely moved by sports, but those two moments on the green field were pure poetry in motion. I found myself “WhatsApping” my enthusiasm to my Dutch-born wife, who was watching the game (for familial-national reasons) in the bed, next to me. And there are still about four weeks of world soccer on TV, to watch or not to watch.