Last Sunday, a couple of hours before the opening whistle of the World Cup final, I started to feel depressed. By midnight, after the effects of that international pain pill called the World Cup had faded, after Spain won, I felt the beginnings of a migraine prickling my temples. That feeling shows up after every World Cup, but this year I had the sense that it’d be even worse than usual.
As a veteran Israeli World Cup watcher, I can’t remember any previous international tournament that plunged the people around me into such fanaticism and ecstasy. Even the straitlaced mothers from my son’s kindergarten, who normally don’t even know the meaning of the word “offside” walked around our sleepy neighborhood these past weeks armed with vuvuzelas and draped in Argentinian or Brazilian flags—the more despondent they felt, the more they identified. And in this World Cup, I saw increasing numbers of despondent people who embraced this much-loved, sweaty, and extremely unrefined sport not out of deep affection but out of the profound fear of being stuck with the unpleasant alternative—the world we live in.
World Cup month is always unofficially considered a hiatus from the troubles served up around us, and it’s a hiatus that exists on two levels. The first is the personal level: We are free to avoid thinking about the unbearable July khamsins, the desert winds; our sweaty country’s isolation in the world after the attack on the Turkish flotilla; our foreign minister’s refusal to wipe the beads of sweat from his brow for ideological reasons (khamsins are nothing but an anti-Israel plot with only one purpose—to make us sweat), along with his reassurances that there’s no reason to worry about isolation now because everyone hated us before anyway; that same foreign minister’s fat-cat government, which last week rejected a proposed law to raise the minimum wage and provide a little help for the weakest economic sector of the population; and the depressing reports from the criminal trial of the man who stood at the head of the previous fat-cat government, Ehud Olmert. In short, everything.
The second level is that of reality itself, which also decided to take a short break in honor of the World Cup festivities: The IDF’s latest reports show that the number of attempted terrorist attacks by the Hamas and border clashes with the Palestinians in general has dropped drastically over the last few weeks; another item in the papers told us that the committee investigating the Turkish flotilla incident postponed announcing its conclusions to the day after the World Cup; and it seems that even the murderers and rapists stayed home this last month glued to their TV screens.
Thinking about it on the macro level, the only disadvantage of the World Cup is, in fact, that it ends. Maybe if it could somehow be spread over four full years, so there would be no dead time between one World Cup and the next, we could solve all the world’s problems: The hungry would forget their hunger; the occupiers that they’re occupiers; the oppressed that they’re oppressed. And we could all simply concentrate on staring at that harmless game that, on the face of it, has managed to neutralize all our negative feelings. That idea could easily be translated into a petition, maybe even into a radical political movement, if not for the edifying story of Paul the Octopus.
The octopus that answers to the name of Paul, who lives in an aquarium in the little-known city of Oberhausen, Germany, was first discovered to have remarkable soccer-predictive powers during the 2008 Euro Championship. Before each game, his caretakers placed two transparent plastic containers into his tank, each filled with plump little Paul’s favorite food. The German flag was painted on one of the containers, its opponent’s flag on the other. When Paul chose to open and go into one of the receptacles, he was actually choosing the winning team. At the beginning of the present World Cup, Paul predicted the German team’s progress from one stage to the next (including the surprise loss to Serbia), and, contrary to many commentators, he believed in that young, inexperienced team’s ability to demolish the strong Argentinians. The problems began when the multilimbed prophet rightly predicted that the Germans would lose to the Spanish team. As soon as the game ended with Germany being ousted from the tournament, threats against the life of the poor creature began to appear. Various German blogs started publishing octopus recipes; others called for the oracle to be tossed into a tank of hungry sharks. And so the gifted octopus was instantly transformed from local hero to public enemy No. 1.
The conclusion I draw from Paul’s story is that while it is possible to escape from the violent, ugly reality we have created to a nicer, more innocent one, as long as we remain what we are violence and hatred will always find their way back to the center of things. So, all we actually have to do to make the seemingly impossible connection between the naïve green fields of the World Cup and this paranoid, violent world of ours is to paint the Israeli flag on one of Paul’s food containers and the Palestinian flag on the other, if only to discover once and for all whether that slippery German mollusk is a closet anti-Semite or just another Arab-hater.
Translated by Sondra Silverston.