Saturday, December 07, 2013


As I recall it, that was the old Newsweek magazine's title for its obituary page.  Yeah, there were a few other items on it, people retiring or taking on new roles, but mostly the transitions were to a more permanent status (like the one Newsweek made, recently).

 A Great, Good Man
The history of the twentieth century, it is already clear, will be one which features a number of Great Men:  national leaders who came to dominate the landscape, who provided the leadership which induced their followers to produce the great changes, for good and for ill, which marked the century.  Stalin, Mao, Churchill, FDR, Tito, Mussolini, Nehru....the list goes on.  The last of these Great Men still standing was Nelson Mandela, the father of modern, post-apartheid South Africa, who died this week.  Unlike many of these, he seemed to be also a good person, one who cared about the "little people", and one who did not crave power for its own sake.

Mandela suffered greatly, but his victory was all the more massive in the end for his pain.  I do not know his religion, but for me he demonstrated the ideals of Christianity through his life more than most.

First, he was a communitarian, one who believed in the sharing of wealth.  He was not a Communist, as such, though he did ally himself and the African National Congress which he led with the South African Communists during the darkest days of his revolutionary opposition to the apartheid regime.

His greatest example for us all came upon his release from prison after 27 years, when he spoke without bitterness and sought reconciliation with white South Africa.  Then, again, he yielded power voluntarily after a single term as President, when he could easily have stepped into the usual "President for life" role seen far too often in Africa's post-colonial history.

Mandela became an advocate for the poor and powerless all over the world, a leader of the non-aligned movement.  That meant he was not a friend of the US government for the most part.  When the chips were down, as in the 1980's when Ronald Reagan vetoed legislation to support the sanctions of the apartheid regime, our government rarely met the test, so his alliances were often with our political enemies, like the Soviets, Red China, Yasir Arafat, and Fidel Castro (Castro could be counted as one of those Great Men I mentioned, and he's still alive, but I'd hardly consider him "still standing".)

Yes, he did advocate and lead violent actions, though from what I have read, they were not what we think of as being "terrorism"--acts designed to kill innocent civilians--but ones designed to disrupt and sabotage the tyrannical, racist system. In his day, when he had to be, he was a warrior, but one for justice, and then he became a notable peacemaker.

I have to thank The Special A.K.A. for the song named for him (a/k/a "Free Nelson Mandela") from 1983, which introduced me for the first time to the growing legend.  And what a song, by the way!

The US Men's Soccer Team's World Cup Chances
OK, they're not dead yet--the draw was just announced, the games are several months away--but it looks very doubtful that the USA team will make it out of the first round in the World Cup in Brazil next year.  They are in a group with Germany, which is one of the top favorites, with Portugal, a squad full of top-rated international talent, and Ghana, which has been the immediate cause of our elimination in the last two World Cups. Two teams will advance.  The US will seek revenge against Ghana, and will be a target of revenge for Portugal, but is unlikely to be more than a troublesome obstacle for Germany, the team for which our coach Jurgen Klinsmann performed so well in past WC's.

The USA team emerged to its potential in recent months, playing well in the final round of our regional qualifying and finishing first in the group (after a putrid set of performances in the preliminary round, which we barely escaped).  This got us exactly nothing in the draw--we were not one of the eight top-seeded teams--so we took our chances and got hosed. Mexico, in contrast, which under-performed in the final round, finishing fourth and having to win a playoff with New Zealand to make it in at all, got a more comfortable group and is quite likely to go through if it can edge out Croatia.

Two countries whose seeding I have to question are Uruguay, which has proven tough in the past but finished fifth in South American qualifying and also had to play in for a spot, and mighty Switzerland. Uruguay got put in the absolute toughest group, with unseeded England and Italy (and poor Costa Rica), while Switzerland has a relatively easy road to the second round (with France, Honduras, and Ecuador).

Just as the groups show wide disparity in quality, the pairings for the following rounds suggest there will be easy and extremely challenging brackets.  Probably the most critical first-round game will be the matchup between Spain and Netherlands, the two finalists in 2010.  Paired in the same group, one would expect them both to advance fairly easily (over Chile and Australia), but one of them will face Brazil in the second round.  Brazil's path to the Cup semifinals looks difficult to me; after a fairly easy group (the one including Mexico) for the first stage would likely come Spain or Netherlands, then Italy (assuming they finish second in the group, as they always seem to do, but then win in the first knockout round).

Assuming Brazil wins its group, it almost behooves Spain or Netherlands to lose that game and finish second, where its path will likely be easier.  In the bottom half of the brackets, though, I see few obstacles for Germany and Argentina to win through to the semis (and face Brazil and Netherlands/Spain, respectively).  My prediction is for a Brazil-Argentina final, with the home team a big favorite to win it all--and a big target for any quality team looking to make its name with an upset of historic proportions.  It's not likely, but it can happen--after all, Brazil is always a favorite and has won "only" five times, and it lost (to Uruguay) in the one previous instance that the World Cup final was in Brazil.

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