David Runciman: tired and emotional, they shriek and wail

July 7, 2006

This is the World Cup when the tournament stopped being simply a festival of football and became the festival of the fan. No longer was it enough merely to watch the matches on TV with a few friends; the only place to be was in front of one of the huge screens that sprung up all over England to register the highs and lows alongside thousands of others.

And for those still stuck at home the reactions of these vast crowds became an inescapable part of the TV coverage. As soon as England scored in their opening match against Paraguay the cameras cut to scenes of wild jubilation from across the country - Leeds, Hull, Manchester.

Even Cambridge got in on the act, although one or two disapproving commentators noted that the city's crowd was less raucous than elsewhere, as though the inhabitants of such a highbrow place hadn't grasped the degree of raw emotion that was expected of them. But this is unfair - Cambridge just didn't have the numbers to compete with the 40,000 people jumping up and down in Leeds. It was apparent that the key to generating the appropriate response to a World Cup goal was critical mass, as a million Koreans demonstrated in 2002 when they leapt into the air simultaneously at the moment their team scored a late winner against Italy, and the earth literally shook.

And this is the problem - the all-too-apparent ecstasies of being a fan have raised the expectations of what is involved for everyone. Gone are the days when some teams could turn up at the World Cup without any fans at all, for reasons of politics or economics. Now every team - from Ukraine to Togo and Australia to Iran - has thousands of supporters packed into the stadium and many tens of thousands more back at home, and everyone knows what is expected of them: to shriek with joy or to wail with despair. It became almost obligatory for the German TV directors to cut away from a game to scenes fit for a classical tragedy, as beautiful women and sweaty men painted head to toe in exotic colours histrionically celebrated or bemoaned their fate.

Yet even as the emotions have heightened, so the games have become more banal. Like the fans, the teams at this year's World Cup have become too alike, particularly in the knockout stages, where they played cagey, risk-averse football. It was almost as though they were all too aware of what their supporters were going through.

Back in England, Sven-Goran Eriksson felt obliged to apologise to the fans after his team's sordid and clumsy exit from the tournament. This is, after all, the fans' World Cup, and their feelings have become paramount. But the feelings of the fans are out of proportion with the reality of a competition where the results are increasingly arbitrary, and where anything - even an own goal against Paraguay - is treated as an occasion for wild celebration.

In some European capital on Sunday, these explosions of joy will reach their peak. Some 750,000 Germans have already taken to the streets of Berlin to celebrate a win over Sweden, and the French danced the night away after defeating Brazil, in a self-conscious recreation of the spirit of 1998. This has been the ersatz World Cup - too much emotion before there was enough worth emoting about.

David Runciman is a politics lecturer at Cambridge University.

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