- Slick and chunky as the inside of a turkey.
My favorite American World Cup tradition, other than the ritual Selecting of the Foreign Country to Root For (Hup Holland!), is the gathering of the nerds. Highbrow sports fans, formerly content to read Roger Angell twice a year (and now Ben McGrath more frequently) and discuss the gender dynamics of Super Bowl beer commercials, love the World Cup, for reasons perhaps previously alluded to. This year, New Republic editor and How Soccer Explains the World author Franklin Foer has teamed up with novelist Aleksandar Hemon to start a World Cup blog, the Paris Review will be covering it regularly on their own blog, as will the New Yorker, and Slate, in typical fashion, has joined in the highbrow soccer fun by rerunning a piece, from 2006, about the phenomenon of highbrow soccer fandom.
What do all these big-brained soccer fans have in common? They all hate Cristiano Ronaldo and his wet-look hair gel. With Portugal’s opening game against the Ivory Coast just wrapping up, let’s review the evidence.
Before the World Cup, we at the L wished that of all the injuries to key players leading up to the World Cup, that it was unfair of the gods to let Cristiano Ronaldo and his wet-look hair gel be among the last men standing.
Earlier this year at the New Republic, Hemon had acerbically noted the stumblings of Ronaldo’s club team, big-money all-stars Real Madrid: turns out, “hair care is vastly overrated.” And as the preferred publications of the intellectual class prepared their previews, the knives got sharper. Introducing World Cup fandom to America, the Paris Review’s Will Frears offered some advice about picking foreign teams to root for (as is absolutely essential to an emotionally heightened viewing experience since unlike the Olympics the TV coverage can’t pretend it’s only Americans in it):
you have to support someone. It doesn’t matter what you base it on—how the result will affect your team, your feelings about shirt styles, a holiday you’d like to take, a boy you once kissed on a study abroad in Paraguay, disliking an overelaborate use of hair gel—you must have a team and stick to it.
To soccer fans of longer standing, “overelaborate use of hair gel” is unmistakable, as you can see from Jeff Blum’s writingn+1 preview:
The Portuguese team includes several naturalized Brazilians who aren’t good enough to play for Brazil. They are led by Cristiano Ronaldo, a native of Portugal who wears too much hair gel. There are only two acceptable reasons for liking Ronaldo: either you find him sexually attractive, or you are Portuguese. He is the Alex Rodriguez of soccer. Paparazzi once snapped pictures of him making out with Paris Hilton in a nightclub. It was a tan, vapid match made in heaven. Do not root for Portugal.
Why all this vehemence? The rooting advice, in a broad sense from Frears and a specific sense from Blum, is a clue. The World Cup is soccer’s best, rarest chance to grab a toehold in the American consciousness, and hang on. It didn’t work in the 70s, it didn’t work in 90s, but it’s starting to work now. And Cristiano Ronaldo is, initially, a seductive presence, what with the grin and the underoos. But Christ please god, don’t let that jinking, winking, penalty-chipping self-aggrandizing high-end hooker-patronizing whinger be the ambassador who finally sells soccer to Americans. If that’s what everybody ends up being into, the highbrows’ll have to find a new niche sport to hide out with.