Category Archives: Football

Waving the Flag

A hard-earned victory for Spain brought down the curtains on the FIFA World Cup 2010. The ill-tempered final saw a profusion of yellow cards and a first-time winner; but there are better reasons for which this tournament deserves to be remembered.

World Cup football came to Africa for the first time in its eighty-year-old history, and South Africa won the honour to host it over Egypt and Morocco. Perhaps it is only fitting that this troubled country should have received the privilege- it gave South Africa the chance to bury its stained past and portray a new, vibrant front, sending out a strong message against racism. There were concerns over the nation’s preparedness to stage the tournament and the pace of organization, but South Africa managed to dispel these fears and pull off a splendid event.

South Africa has not had it easy. A tremendous amount of strife, racial tension and colonial exploitation wreaked havoc in a country richly endowed with natural resources. Apartheid broke the spirit of the country, but one man stood tall and led by example- Nelson Mandela’s determination did not crumble in the face of political disturbance, and he was the force that pulled the country together.

Not very many years have passed since apartheid was entirely abolished, and South Africa has had a lot of rebuilding to do in this period. The economy suffered; poverty and unemployment were rampant. Political systems underwent changes, crime and disease- AIDS, in particular- reared their ugly heads. Having been banned from international sport as a result of sanctions imposed during the apartheid era, South Africa had to struggle back into the fray and make its presence felt. And today, it has just finished playing host to an international sporting event- one of global proportions- with remarkable success.

Reeling under the effects of major societal challenges, it is indeed a stupendous achievement for South Africa to have put everything behind and dedicated itself to producing a marvellous festival- for the World Cup was never just about sport. When different nationalities and ethnicities come together, the tension in the air is palpable- but there is also a spark of excitement, the desire to pummel barriers down and celebrate sport, talent and youth. Afrikaans met English, Shakira gyrated in a Johannesburg stadium, vuvuzelas (and sockzelas) made a smashing (and not easily forgettable) appearance. South Africa has been lauded unanimously for a spectacular event, and rightly so.

While African football didn’t scale great heights, it did have a thumping presence in the tournament- positive signs for a continent that is more often than not remembered for rebellion and disease. South Africa’s success at hosting the tournament should also provide a ray of optimism to its neighbours, struggling to overcome their own problems of politics and racial differences.

Hosting a major sporting event is not the antidote to all political and social troubles. It does, however, create a multitude of opportunities to be capitalised on and generate interest and business. It involves massive expenditure, but if rightly built upon, can be a source of enough positive publicity to attract investment and foreign business. With the world watching, the last layers of diffidence and hesitation are peeled off, and a sparklingly confident front (cleverly concealing the hiccups) reveals itself.

As India comes close to its own sporting extravaganza, the Commonwealth Games, albeit on a much smaller scale, there is a lot it can learn from China, hosts of the 2008 Olympics, and South Africa. Budgets inevitably inflate themselves and spending goes well over the estimates; this, however, need not put paid to our hopes of a successful event. Building on it in the long run is essential- a one-off event which ends up in a large number of arenas that nobody has any use for later is an unforgivable drain on a developing country’s economy. The Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, for instance, hasn’t been put to any great use since the Olympics in 2008- a circumstance that had rather be avoided.

That said, hosting events which provide global exposure gives a fillip to countries that are usually better known not for all the right reasons. South Africa has done itself proud, and Brazil will hopefully carry the mantle on in 2014 as the new powers assert themselves.

Forca, Football!

Scoring a jaw-dropping two points out of twenty in the preliminary round of a football quiz made me aware, for the umpteenth time, of my painful lack of knowledge of the game. I might have heard the lyrics of ‘Waving Flag’ sung and re-sung and distorted to glory, groaned over the inevitable ubiquitous use of ‘Waka Waka’ in the newspapers, but I soon realised what I didn’t know was central to the theme of the quiz- in short, trivia about the game. Intelligent guesses and wild shots in the dark are always thrilling when the answers turn out right, but sometimes, when confronted by people who know their stuff inside out, ignorance isn’t quite bliss.

The sulking skies opened up just before the quiz competition was due to start, and my teammate Airborne and I were hoping for a slice of extraordinarily good luck- the kind that led India into the 1950 World Cup finals, instead. It is another matter that they didn’t play because they weren’t allowed on the ground barefoot, as one version of the story goes. We were spared major embarrassment, of course, as people trickled in to increase the amount of competition (presumptuous of us to consider ourselves part of it, even so)- the quizmaster wanted atleast six teams to make a decent match of it, and his fears were unfounded. A decent number of people braved the rain to turn up at the prelims, and but for a bit of sparring, Airborne and I might have reached the royal score of four, halfway to the cut-off. Six teams made it to the final round, and no, we didn’t rue any lost opportunities.

As the questions flew around, we were treated to an intriguing collection of trivia scooped out of the massive amount of history the World Cup has accumulated over the years. Humour, controversy, corruption, and the crowning glory of triumph- football has seen it all.

Sport is no exception to the curses of human arrogance and senselessness. The brutal murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the ostracism of the Jews at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin are some of the more famous examples of politics sullying the reputation of global sporting events. Evidently, football has had its share of controversies- the inaugural edition of the World Cup at Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1930, featured only four European teams, a surprisingly low number for a continent that is home to some of the powerhouses of the sport. Defending champions Uruguay sought to retaliate by boycotting the 1934 championship in Italy, another controversial tournament where the hosts themselves had to qualify to play.

This is just a sample of the trivia that we were treated to. There were references to bizarre incidents, such as the one about a dog running on to the field to be caught by England’s Jimmy Greaves, who in turn had his lap graciously soiled, at the 1966 World Cup- yet another example of nature triumphing over man.

The magnitude of football’s reach is incredible. Its being a sport that can be played on the streets with a battered ball and goalposts traced out with a piece of chalk on a wall greatly helps matters. India may not have latched on to the idea of football asWe may be a long way off from having a football team to cry ourselves hoarse for. At a particular World Cup hockey tournament while India was still under British rule, the Indian team is reported to have sung ‘Meri Bhains Ko Danda Kyun Maara’, a folk song, to avoid singing God Save The Queen- Indian spirit, drawn straight from the rural heartlands. Maybe it won’t be too long before we have our own football anthems (and no, we’re certainly not taking the services of a certain bejewelled music director, thank you very much), and a football team that will give us someone to burden with our hopes and expectations (isn’t this what we do best?).

We returned from the quiz with our curiosity whetted- it was the perfect curtain-raiser to the approaching weeks of unbridled sporting passion, raw and real. The 2010 World Cup kicks off tomorrow, and here’s to the thirty-two teams that made it- the major hopes and the underdogs, the rookies and the players who will fight painstakingly to reach that one epoch before the swansong- this is one festival the world will feast on, undivided in spirit, for one magnificent month.

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