By TD Fuego
We expected a fiesta of football in the first World Championships to be held on African soil, and that in South Africa of all places, a country which was debarred from international sport only twenty years ago for its policy of apartheid.
For the most part, we were not disappointed. But, like many previous finals in the past 25 years, the magic was somehow missing and some of the matches were boring beyond belief. The abysmal Brazil-Portugal match in the first round and the heavy-going semi-final between Germany and Spain were so lacklustre that many a football fan must have dozed off before the final whistle. Even the final match between Holland and Spain turned out to be a scrappy and boring affair, with a dozen yellow cards and one sending off. Nothing much in it remotely resembled the crème-de la-crème that a World Cup final is supposed to represent!
For those of us old enough to remember the final match held in Mexico between Brazil and Italy in 1970, there can never be anything to compare with it. In that game, the inimitable Brazilians beat a strong Italian side by 4-1 in the regulation 90 minutes. Their game was of such star quality, it impelled one BBC commentator to ecstatically exclaim, “They don’t so much play football, they samba it!” and went on to exhort the viewer, “Enjoy it; for it is unlikely we will ever see the likes of it again!”
And, with the departure of the maestro Pele (full name: Edson Arantes Do Nascimento) from the international soccer scene along with that incomparable 1970 side, we never did see the likes of it gain. In passing, right-back Jairzinho scored in every single game of those finals and, if memory serves me right, that record remains unbroken forty years later. Quite something, isn’t it?
The Jules Rimet Cup
Having won the finals three times (1958,1962,1970), Brazil were allowed to retain the Jules Rimet cup forever in their possession, as per the rules. But, the glory days over, it would be another 24 years before they would hold the World Cup again. In an insipid final against Italy in 1994 that went into extra time, they won by 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out. For a country used to a team of prolific scoring abilities, this must have seemed like a shameful, third-rate spectacle to the audience back home. It seemed like that to many of us admirers of Brazil, too.
But, Brazil is not the only side to fail to entertain like before. There are other examples but, to avoid boring the reader, I’ll give just one: England. In spite of employing all manner of tactics, which has included recruiting two top foreign coaches, the English eleven has not succeeded in getting hold of the Cup since their home win against a formidable German side in 1966. Forty-four years in the wilderness for the inventors of the beautiful game! Manager Ramsey and captain Moore must be turning in their graves! And what can one say about the inelegant departure of the (vuvuzalez déjà!) Bleus, the erstwhile 1998 champions?
Money, the Root of the Evil?
Like me, the reader must well have wondered what it is that has so altered the game. The simple answer is Money and Globalisation. In 1970, when Arsenal paid Hibernian 100k Pounds for Peter Marinello, the news was greeted with shock horror headlines in all the British dailies. Forty yeas on, nobody even bats an eyelid upon hearing of transfer fees that count in tens of millions of Pounds, rather than tens of thousands.
Also back in the early 1970s, when the Tottenham Hotspur “imported” Ardilles and Villa from Argentina, there was a massive hue and cry in the media and elsewhere. Eventually, the authorities decided a club could buy a maximum of two foreign players, and no more. In contrast, in the globalised world of today, it is not unusual to find almost entire squads made up of foreign players in some European leagues.
This is fine for the clubs because it allows them to buy the best talents available. It is also great for the player as he can choose to go to the club that will pay him the most. But, not so for the national team because the players, being out of the country sometimes continents apart, are unable to practice together as often as they probably need to. So, whilst possibly brimming with individual talents, they seldom manage to play as a cohesive whole. This probably explains the poor showing this June from England, Brazil and Argentina among others, in spite of their star players.
I say partly because the blunt truth is that, unlike his predecessor, the modern player costs/earns so much money that he can no longer afford to go all out simply for the honour of winning for the national team. He may have as much talent but, at a cost millions, he is beholden to the shareholders of the club. In short, he is seen as a very expensive asset on a pair of very brittle legs and every care must be taken to protect it.
So, the order of the day is to sacrifice individual talent in case he gets hurt in a tackle. Kick and run, drawing invisible geometric shapes as you go along, is what he is ordered to do from the sidelines; and win the match if you can but, above all, do not lose it. Probably a good strategy for the club. But, for the fee-paying fan, it often results in a bottom-numbing 90 minutes on the expensive seats of the terraces.
Alas, gone are the days when a Pele or a Maradonna would dare take on the whole of the defence from the middle of the field and go past several players before scoring or laying the ball off to a sure-footed colleague. With their departure, gone also are the days of exciting ooh-aah! twists, turns and dribbles. In the circumstances, it is little wonder that, in spite of costing a fortune, the likes of Anelka, Messi and Rooney did not give us much to write home about.
At the end of the day, someone had to win the Cup. And, Spain may have won the final match and become world champion but, apart from their die-hard fans, most people would probably have forgotten this fact by the time of the next finals in 2014. Sadly for the game, South Africa 2010 will be remembered for everything, except the exciting football that was absent for much of the time on the immaculately prepared, green pitches.
Long after we have forgotten who beat who, we will remember the impressive Calabash stadium in Johannesburg, the infectious exuberance of the crowd and the haunting sound of the Vuvuzela. We will also be talking admiringly about the impeccable, unbiased commentary of the English-speaking African commentators. They may be fairly new to the art, but with their well-researched, succinct presentation, they have shown that they have nothing to envy their more mature European counterparts.
And long after we have got over the boring 120 minutes (it went into extra time) of the final game, we will still be humming and tapping our feet to Shakira’s catchy Waka-Waka number. Way-hay!
* Published in print edition on 16 July 2010