Monday, June 21, 2010

Richard II and Andrés Escobar

            In 1994, the US defeated Colombia 2-1, the first World Cup win for the US in 44 years. It helped the US to a glorious second round appearance in the first World Cup held on American soil.

            It was a marvelous victory. I was 16 when that game was played, and my soccer mania was at its apex. That day I had played soccer all afternoon at a camp run by a group of British players who were on the UW Green Bay Soccer team. And my dad and I were running clinics at elementary schools teaching basic soccer skills to kids aged 5-8 every morning, because we believed that American soccer could be better and we were doing everything we could to contribute. The next year Major League Soccer was launched in the US and expectations and execution by the men’s national soccer team has been on the rise ever since.

One of the goals in that match was an own goal accidentally knocked in by Andrés Escobar who was brutally murdered in Medellin after Colombia were eliminated in the first round, thanks to their loss to the US. Pele had previously predicted Colombia would win the entire tournament.


Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe

That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow. (5:6)


            In Richard II the King of England is deposed and murdered and there are 8 plays which chronicle the fallout of this deed.

            Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) suspects that King Richard II was involved in the murder of his uncle, and he wants to get to the bottom of it. The play opens on his conflict with another nobleman, whom he accuses of being involved in the plot as well. The King – perhaps out of guilt – prevents these two nobles from satisfying their honor and dueling it out. Instead he banishes them.

            Bolingbroke’s father dies and predicts a lot of bad things in Richard’s future, and so Richard takes all of his property (which should pass to his banished son) and uses it to fund a war in Ireland. Richard is a terrible king, he is extravagant and wasteful and no one really likes him, but he’s the king, so what are you gonna do? Well, if you’re Bolingbroke, you raise an army and come back to England, and demand that he return your property and title and lift your banishment. And then you force him to abdicate the crown and you quietly have him murdered so that you can be king.

            Richard is put in a tough spot when he hears that Bolingbroke has returned with a big army, but his spinelessness is only matched by his eloquence when he turns on the pessimism:


No matter where – of comfort no man speak.

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,

Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

Let’s choose executors and talk of wills. (3:2)


            But even though Richard sucks and no one is going to be sad that he’s no longer king, everyone seems to know that a king is anointed by God and deposing one treacherously is going to invite some divine reckoning. The Bishop of Carlisle prophesies:


The blood of English shall manure the ground,

And future ages groan for this foul act,

Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,

And, in this seat of peace, tumultuous wars

Shall kin with kin, and kind with kind, confound. (4:1)


            This proves true as there is civil unrest for the next many generations. Fathers fight against sons, sons against fathers and brother betrays brother one after another. King Richard himself warns Bolingbroke that he’s inviting bad times on England:


And though you think that all, as you have done,

Have torn their souls by turning them from us,

And we are barren and bereft of friends,

Yet know my master, God omnipotent,

Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf

Armies of pestilence, and they shall strike

Your children yet unborn and unbegot,

That lift your vassal hands against my head,

And threat the glory of my precious crown. (3:3)


            But Bolingbroke goes ahead, has the king and his advisers killed and starts the snowball rolling. At the very end of the play he expresses some regret:


Lords, I protest my soul is full of woe

That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow. (5:6)


            Is he really full of woe? Probably. Every one wants to win honestly and to achieve a greatness that they deserve, but most of us will take victory however we can get it, which is dangerous.

            The universe finds a way to balance itself. And retributive discord is the weight of celestial choice.

The day Andrés Escobar was killed my family and I were going to Chicago to see the second round match between Germany and Belgium at Soldier’s Field when the news came over the radio.

There was a moment of silence before the game began, and later in the day my dad asked me: “If you could change it, so that the US loses that game, and Escobar doesn’t get shot, would you?” It seemed like a terribly unfair question, but I thought about it, and before I could answer, he said, “You shouldn’t have to think about it.”

            I used to have a T-shirt with a quote from Bill Shankly, a famous British Football manager that said: “Soccer isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that.” Soccer players often say that a big game is a kind of war, and if they’re American they’re dutifully reprimanded for the insulting comparison. In other countries they’re more understanding of the extreme simile.

            We didn’t kill Andrés Escobar. I don’t think American soccer is under a curse or part of some cosmic balancing act as a result of what happened to him the way the usurping House of Lancaster is in the Shakespearean histories. So is it wrong to think that when the US does lose games that other innocent lives are saved? In the next World Cup we lost to Iran 2-1 in a brutal game in France. What might have happened if the result had gone the other way? Impossible to know.

A goal was stolen from us by bad officiating when we played Slovenia, but Slovenia is a tiny country. The repercussions of soccer victories there could be life-changing, nation-saving. If Colombia had won the World Cup in 1994, what could it have meant to the citizens of that troubled nation?

            Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast, became the first African player to ever score a goal against Brazil in the World Cup yesterday. He is playing with a broken arm. It is said that he once prevented civil war in Ivory Coast by asking that an important match be played in the north, even though he is from the south of Ivory Coast. It is likely that he will one day run for president of his country much like George Weah of Liberia, 1995 World Footballer of the Year.

            Soccer is an important force in the world. At 16 I may have been reluctant to surrender the memory of Tab Ramos and Tom Dooley racing around the Rose Bowl with American flags draped over their shoulders for anything, even the life of someone I never met. But my dad helped me put that into perspective.

There are more important things than being kings of world soccer. If someone had taught Bolingbroke a parallel lesson, maybe England would have avoided a great bloody brouhaha for 86 years.

I guess no matter how hard we try, men have a tendency to take some things way too seriously.  

Andrés Escobar

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