emergent strategy in the world cup

i am not generally a futbol (or any other kind of sports) watcher.

i read and saw a lot about the racial and class dynamics of the world cup, and what brazil did to ‘clean up’ for FIFA. a lot of those dynamics, which follow athletic competition around the world and show up most prominently in world cup and olympics years, reminded me why i can’t deeply engage in sports as a regular outlet. it is so oriented around competitive and capitalist indulgence, uplifting heroes and gathering faceless erasable masses to cheer them on.

but i am beginning to suspect that nothing operates outside the realm of emergent strategy.

being in amsterdam, it made a lot of sense to watch the world cup. it was part of being immersed in this place, sitting at coffeshops and watching the game with an international spread of locals.

i didn’t have a particular team i was rooting for, and really only engaged around the quarter finals. but once i got hooked i couldn’t stop watching. and rather than rooting for particular teams or players, i was fascinated by the patterns and rhythms, the art of the game. so i want to offer some analysis from my non-expert vantage point.

lynnee and i were watching the semi-final match when germany scored seven points on brazil, most of those points within an 18-minute free for all in the first half. it was brutal to see.

i had the humbling opportunity, during my dad’s last assignment in germany, to be a fairly useless part of my high school soccer team. we were invited to play a friendly international match against a team of german third graders. they scored like 30 goals on us while barely seeming to move or break a sweat. over and over they took the ball away while we ran in circles, gasped for air and tried not to cry.

i didn’t understand why brazil looked like my high school team. in the semi-finals of the world cup! i needed it explained to me. i was reaching out to people, because the commentary was in dutch and i needed to know where the gorgeous warrior dancing magicians i’d witnessed in the quarter-final against colombia had disappeared to.

my sister autumn reminded me that in that very breathtaking match, neymar was injured, and silva was carded. she broke down how much neymar and silva were the center-captain-irreplaceable aspects of offense and defense, respectively.

the night before last, lynnee and i were in rotterdam at an incredible outkast 20-year anniversary show at the north sea jazz festival. and we snuck out to sit on the floor with a bunch of mostly germans and watch the end of the world cup. we caught the only goal of the final match as germany bested argentina.

it occurred to me, first as i found myself hoping for a mercy ruling in the brazil-germany match, and then again while watching germany seem to easily work together to defend and score on argentina in the final, that this was a perfect example of emergent strategy in action.

emergent strategy includes being intentional, which, at a basic level, i think all of the teams were. they each intended to win number one, period. but it also includes being intentional even in a fractal sense, at the smallest level. watching the way germany had one to two people in pursuit of the ball even when the opposing goalie was trying to figure out where to kick it, there was a hungry focus on possession of the ball that presenced their intention to win in even the smallest moments.

emergent strategy includes being resilient through decentralization. brazil’s team was oriented around key stars who embody certain skill sets. when those players are in and on, it is the most beautiful playing i have ever seen. for germany’s team, even after watching them play several games, i couldn’t point out anyone irreplaceable on their team, any superstars or best players. based on my limited viewing, they seemed to easily interchange players and fluidly move together to defend their goal – not as dazzling, but consistent, effective, beautiful in its collectivity.

emergent strategy is adaptive and interdependent. when neymar and silva were taken out, brazil didn’t have the capacity or depth on their team to adapt. the lack of cohesion from their team felt loud. germany moved like a flock of birds over and around the field. they worked as one body to take possession of the ball and move it. any time brazil or argentina got the ball, germany suddenly had four players around them. it didn’t feel like a formation, it felt like interdependent murmuration towards a shared intention – they flew towards the ball. the sheer number of team members attending to the ball at any given point meant that germany was consistently creating more possibilities for itself to have the ball, to have choice over what happened next, to get the chance to score.

one other element was transformative justice, which i didn’t see much of in the finals. i saw glimpses of it in algeria’s decision to give their world cup winnings to gaza. not because of the charitable aspect, but because of the use of their platform to raise awareness of the genocide happening in gaza while the world gave it’s attention to a game.

there is more to emergent strategy of course. just as there is so so much more to the world cup – contradictions, hypocrisies, tragedies, elations. what did you see?

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