Thursday, 26 June 2014

Along the road to Rio

I admit it, instead of working on the end of my trilogy; I have been watching the World Cup. I have to. I have watched every one since 1966 and for me; it is the perfect window on the state of the world and its people.
The World Cup has it all; heroism and sacrifice, craft and guile, grit and determination, and of course; xenophobia, racism, tribalism and every form of cheating. It is the world as it truly is: noble in intent but very, very flawed.

Back when it started, in 1930, it was about each participating country bringing their own brand of the world’s game. In the relative obscurity of a pre-television world, teams were unknown to each other for the most part. In a time when nationalism was about to send us all to hell, we saw everything in those terms. Football teams were seen as representative of their country’s national characteristics.

Even now, after years of cross-pollination, and the fact that most of the players involved play in the same top leagues, this persists in the minds of the fans and is part of the media hype.
Sometimes it has credence and other times it is total bunk. For example, the USA, home to all that is glitzed and over-hyped, produces teams that are diligent and honest to the point of admiration while the Greeks field a side that is so well-marshalled and works at a rate that would ensure economic prosperity if it was a true indication of national characteristic.

The Italians, who know how to enjoy life better than most, usually serve up a brand of football that is often dour, cynical, and pragmatic to the point of tedium. Recently, however, the inclusion of Mario Balotelli has made them far more interesting for a number of reasons.
The French . . . well the French can play some of the most majestic football, but always with one hand on the self-destruct button.

The Germans often remind me of Prussian-trained ballerinas. They play with style, skill, iron-willed discipline and determination up to and including the last second and are not above political pragmatism when it suits them.
The Portuguese, often gifted with some of the greatest players of the time; Ronaldo, Figo and the truly great Eusebio, strut their stuff like peacocks until cruel conspiracies contrive against them.

The English, who take the credit for inventing the game, suffer from illusions of grandeur but play like the emotionally constipated twits in a Jane Austen novel.
The Spanish, who served up years of tika-taka, a tedious form of play where you keep the ball for such long periods of the game that the opposition fall asleep, have been and gone and may now return to the classic underachievers they have shown themselves to be for years.

Then we have The Dutch! Back in the 1970s, the Dutch made the game beautiful but lost in the finals of ’74 and ’78. They lost again in the finals of 2010 and this year’s squad, gifted and talented as they may be, must wake in terror from dreams of coral dresses.
The Asians, Japan and South Korea, are heading home with mixed emotions. Their newness has faded and all their huffing and puffing could not disguise that fact that they are still some way from the top of the class.

Australia probably came with the one goal—do better than the Kiwis who drew all three of their games in the last World Cup and went out as the only undefeated team that year. Sadly, and despite the heroics of Tim Cahill, it wasn’t to be.
Likewise, Iran, who had their moment in the spotlight the year the beat their ‘Great Satan,’ are gone but maybe it is just as well. Their kits were shrinking in the wash and there are some aspects of Iran that the world is not yet ready to see.

Many years ago, the great Pele predicted that an African team would soon win the cup.
We are still waiting and I believe we will for some time. Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria are all blessed with world class players who are the essential parts of the various clubs they play for. Drogba, Yaya Toure, Muntari, Eto’o, Essien . . . the list goes on and on, as does the wait. African teams still have not found the way to become the sum of all their parts.

Though the Algerians were a pleasant surprise and, as young team, might just be one for the future . . . they just might.
Costa Rica are proving to be a huge surprise and should make it to the quarter finals. But beyond that? Assuming they see off the Greeks, they will play the winner of Mexico and Holland and that should be a bridge too far. The Mexican might be for real this time, but that has been said so many times before. Some of the giants of the game will stand between them and the cup.

Argentina have Messi who is, for many people, one of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Diminutive to point of being overlooked, Messi is the type of player who can carry a lack-lustre team a long way. Unlike his greatest rival, Portugal’s Ronaldo, Messi has, despite the showing so far, a superior supporting cast who can only get better. Perhaps in time to win it all?
Brazil will have their say even if the current version is the poorest team they have fielded in years. Yes, Neymar is an idol to soccer tourists, but the rest of the squad are weak. In their opening game, they struggled to overcome a dull Croatia and had to rely on a very dubious penalty.

The Brazilian team of 1970 was the greatest team of all time and subsequent versions have never come close to matching them, despite some very generous refereeing decisions down the years. They are the host team and as such must be heavy favourites. But then there is the matter of the final of 1950, Brazil vs. Uruguay. So confident were the home fans that their newspapers crowned them champions before the game which they lost, 2-1.
And that brings me to Luis Suarez. This is the third time we have video images of him sinking his teeth into an opponent. Add to that his racist taunting of an opponent and you get the picture of a very disturbed man. But there is more. This man is gifted with such footballing abilities that he has an army of supporters who will hear no wrong about him.

This is why the World Cup is the perfect place to watch the world. Here, as in everywhere, right and wrong are so subjective. ‘Our guy’ can do no wrong and ‘your guy’ is an animal that should be locked up. But at the end of the day, the world, like the ball, is round.