United Through Football

For a month as from the opening match on 12 June to the final on 13 July 2014, the world experienced a special bond of kinship, passion, anguish and joy in equal measure as the results of the 64 matches of the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil unfolded. Apart from the national fans of the 32 qualified countries to the World Cup, football lovers across the world, transcending national frontiers, have also traditionally been diehard fans of the most popular and successful countries in world football, especially the 8 countries that have won the World Cup. In its 20 editions since 1930, the World Cup has been won by Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, England, France and Spain.

From Kolkata to Beirut, fans of Brazil, Germany or Argentina organized themselves with jerseys, flags and faces painted with the colours of their preferred teams to live the frenzy and excitement of the World Cup. Across the world, including Mauritius, Brazil has a special place in the psyche of football lovers. The magic and myth associated with Garricha, Didi or Vava have been transmitted to us by our rapturous elders. With their unique skills and the deft wizardry of their ‘samba football’, Pele, Jaizinho, Rivelino, Romario or Ronaldo have enlivened our passion and joy from the game to unrivalled heights. Rivelino, the initiator of the bended banana shot has been emulated with lethal marksmanship by David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane or Lionel Messi.

Of the 77 countries that have participated in at least one World Cup, Brazil is the only country that has participated in all 20 editions from the first World Cup in 1930. For the millions of avid supporters of Brazil in the world, expectations were sky high for a World Cup win on home soil. This was not to be.

Brazilian mojo and magic

The Brazilian mojo and magic skills seem to have faded since 2002 when they won the last of their record five World Cups to date. Attracted by handsome contracts, top Brazilian players have for years now left Brazil to play in the best European teams as well as other teams in the world, such as in Russia and the United States. Their game has been moulded accordingly in line with the technical evolution of football. The national coach, the quality of the players and the cohesion and combative spirit of the team as well as the game plan adopted all have a bearing on the outcome of matches.

Whatever be the reason, the crying truth to all who watched the poor team performance of Brazil on home ground during the World Cup is that Brazilian players seem to have lost their natural game and their mythical technical wizardry to change the game in a few magic passes, nimble footwork and breath taking goal scoring streaks of genius à la Pele or Rivelino to wrest victory. Such awesome skills are today showcased by players such as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Although Brazil has ended the tournament fourth, they have conceded 14 goals in the World Cup, the highest total by any team and have lost two home games in a row for the first time in 74 years. It was a humiliating experience on home ground. They were booed by the home crowd. The only solace for Brazil was that Argentina, their archrival in South America, was defeated in the final and could not add insult to humiliation on their home turf. For the many millions in the world who support Brazil, it is ardently hoped that Brazil will learn the lessons from this major setback and rebuild around such stellar players as Neymar and a new coach capable of selecting, honing and inspiring a recast Brazilian team to play with the old magic to win the World Cup in Moscow in 2018.

England, Italy and Spain were also major disappointments as they exited from the World Cup in the group stage. The African teams had a mixed result with Cameroon, Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, with its fine crop of players such as Yaya Toure, Gervinho, Kalou, Wilfried Bony, Drogba, stumbling at the group stage whereas Nigeria and Algeria were defeated at the round of 16 stage. More has to be done by the African football federations to ensure that African countries start having a better track record in future World Cups. Colombia, Costa Rica and Belgium were impressive and lost only in the quarter finals.

Top team position no longer impregnable

It must be recognised that whether it is a Grand Slam Tennis tournament like Wimbledon or the World Cup One Day International (ODI) in cricket or a golf Open Championship, all world Cup contests are getting tougher owing to the systematically improving quality of contestants. The no 1 seed or top team position is no longer impregnable. It must be remembered that most of the players of the 32 qualified countries had just completed a gruelling league tournament in the respective countries where they play before participating, with little respite and rest, with their national teams in the World Cup which is held in the summer break.

It is also evident that the standard of refereeing marred by some blatantly erratic decisions as well as the hot and humid weather influenced the output of players and the outcome of some games. As quite a few of the more tightly fought matches went into extra time and some into the very taxing penalty shoot-outs, all teams who reached the quarter and semi finals deserve merit. Full credit and hats off go to the finalists and the 2014 World Cup winner Germany which thus became the first European country to win the World Cup in the Americas.

Germany won its fourth World Cup, the first since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the unification of Germany by a goal scored 7 minutes from the end of extra time thus saving the finalists from the angst, grief and trauma of defeat or the relieved joy of victory characteristic of penalty shoot-outs. How can even seasoned professional footballers be expected to remain focused under immense pressure after 120 minutes of a gruelling contest in humid conditions to coolly score with each penalty kick in a penalty shoot-out?

Goalkeepers have played a determinant role in steering their team’s progress in the tournament, whether in the course of the game by making brilliant saves against top class strikers or during the penalty shoot-outs. These include the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, winner of the Golden Glove, Sergio Romero the Argentinean goalkeeper who helped win the penalty shoot-out against the Netherlands in the semi-final, the Mexican Guillermo Ochoa or Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas.

Social costs borne by vulnerable sections of society

For the first time a billion people are estimated to have watched the 2014 World Cup. With 171 goals scored, it was the joint highest goal tally in World Cup history. Miroslav Klose with a cumulative score of 16 goals became the highest goal scorer in the history of the World Cup, surpassing Brazil’s Ronaldo on 15 goals. However, there is a less glorious side. The big success of the World Cup masks the poverty, the lop-sided development and the socio-economic ground reality in Brazil where the growth rate is a paltry 1%. The World Cup costs ballooned to some US $15 billion of public expense while only 10 of the 56 infrastructure projects could be completed in time for the tournament. Schools, hospitals and other earmarked public projects were shelved as government funds dried up.

200,000 people were evicted from their homes to make way for the World Cup construction projects and favelas posing a risk to visitors were forcibly cleared. There were widespread protests against the way public funds have been spent and strikes over low wages as well as precarious livelihood as 42% of the young survive on the informal economy. US $900 million have been spent on police technology to monitor and ‘big brother’ the people’s protests. Pele, the face of football in Brazil, has criticised public spending in the World Cup and expressed sympathy for the protestors. Neymar, the lead player of the Brazilian team has declared that he will enter the field inspired by the protest movement.

The home defeat by Brazil will exacerbate social tensions in a country deeply divided between the haves and the have-nots. In the light of events in Brazil and the social costs borne by the most vulnerable sections of society as well as the questions of impropriety raised in the case of the choice of Qatar’s World Cup organisation in 2022, it is time for FIFA to stop turning a blind eye on serious socio-economic and environmental shortcomings of countries hosting international tournaments.

During the exhilarating month of the World Cup, young and old and people of all walks of life, bonded through a common cathartic passion for football, were cut off from sordidness and blissfully exercised their savvy punditry among the fraternity of football lovers on the matches watched the previous night with joyful alacrity.

As was the case of the previous World Cups, the 2014 World Cup has revealed a new crop of talented football players to the world such as James Rodriguez of Colombia, the top scorer of the tournament, Keylor Navas, the goal keeper of Costa Rica who saved 21 of the 24 shots on target that he faced in the World Cup or Germany’s Toni Kroos. All these players together with Luis Suarez, Di Maria, Alexis Sanchez of Chile and others have either become key purchases or prime targets of acquisition in the summer transfer window (mercato) by the top teams in Europe. However, the power of money flaunted by Gulf countries, Russian oligarchs or wealthy clubs into football is a disquieting game changer. Why should say Barcelona corral three of the top world players such as Suarez, Messi and Neymar and probably alternatively keep one of them on the bench when football fans across the world want to see these football stars playing?

In contrast to a vintage edition of the World Cup in Brazil, the Mauritian football scene has dwindled to a sorry state. It is high time that in line with Government avowed policy, football is uplifted to the high standards it attained in the past and is structured to husband, train and groom the plethora of latent talent so that Mauritius can achieve similar international successes in football as won in athletics and other sports.

* Published in print edition on 18 July 2014

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