Reflections on the World Cup: The bitter and the swee
One month and sixty-four matches later, the South African vuvuzelas that gave us the signature B-flat bee-swarm blare of the nineteenth FIFA World Cup have fallen silent. The stadia are empty, the crowds no more. But long after the face paint that emblazoned radiant hues of thirty-two nations’ flags on cheeks old and young has been scrubbed off, after all the matching dyed wigs have been discarded and the patriotic costumes packed, aficionados of the world’s most popular sporting event are left with a bittersweet aftertaste.
Sweet: It was poignantly gratifying that the bookend matches were played in Soweto to a home crowd as passionate about their national team, the Bafana Bafana (a Zulu term that translates endearingly as “the boys”), as it was colorblind. Nelson Mandela graced both occasions, the first in spirit only, due to a personal tragedy on the day, the last in person, albeit briefly.
Sweet: The exuberance of the hosts. South Africa’s team sang and danced their way to all of their matches, exhibiting a refreshing immunity to the nerves afflicting every other squad from the get-go. There was unbridled joy when the boys opened the scoring with an exquisitely struck volley by the lyrically-named Siphiwe Tshabalala, the first World Cup goal on African soil fittingly of such a high standard that it remains one of the best of the tournament.
Sweet: The personal triumph of Uruguayan talisman Diego Forlan, winner of the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player. Forlan inspired his team all the way to the semi-finals, but his own inspiration is his sister Alejandra, left paralyzed at the age of seventeen by a car accident. As she lay in a hospital bed the twelve-year-old Diego promised her he would find fame and fortune as a soccer player so he could get her the best doctors in the world.
Sweet: Plucky New Zealand. Minnows in the world of international soccer, reached the competition by winning a playoff against fellow minnows Bahrain, then outperformed defending champions Italy and went home unbeaten.
Sweet: The way all of Africa pulled together behind Ghana, the continent’s sole representative in the quarterfinals. Seeking to become the first African country to reach a World Cup semifinal, Ghana deployed its youthful vigor against Uruguay, leading to one of the most dramatic climaxes to any World Cup quarterfinal ever, which will be remembered for …
Bitter: Apart from its historical implications, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez’s instinctive goal-line handball to prevent a certain match-winning Ghanaian goal in the last minute of extra time raises an interesting question: Can an instinctive reaction also be deemed an intentional one? If so, the subsequent vilification of Suarez by the African fans and press is justified. If not, his red card and the awarding of a penalty to Ghana was a misapplication of the rules, because a handball is only a punishable offense if it is intentional. Regardless, the outcome of the match demonstrated that for some infractions, the rules more effectively punish the offender than compensate the victim. No such provision exists in the laws of the game, but under the circumstances awarding a penalty goal to Ghana would not have been a miscarriage of justice.
Bitter: The integrity of the game is diminished when fairness is compromised. More so when the cause defies logic. The laws of the game are set not by FIFA (French acronym for the International Federation of Association Football, the international governing body of the sport), but IFAB, the International Football Association Board, which is comprised of eight members, one representing each of the United Kingdom’s four pioneering football associations (English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish), and four representatives from FIFA. Rules changes require approval by at least six votes, so while FIFA approval is necessary, FIFA alone cannot change the laws of the game. The octet has its work cut out for it at its next meeting. Several high profile incidents cast a spotlight on either the rules themselves or the way they are (or sometimes aren’t) enforced. Much acrimony was directed at the referees, but the blame lies on the lapels of the suits around the IFAB board table. The referees are human and, like the rest of us, can make an incorrect call when watching fast-paced action in real time, particularly as it relates to whether the entirety of the ball has crossed the goal line (prerequisite for GOOOOOOOOAL!) and whether or not a strike should be disallowed for an offside, or other, infringement. The USA, England and Mexico all suffered infuriating injustices. Technology, in the form of instant replay, can address the game’s most glaring structural deficiency and ensure fairness, if only at the level of the sport where its use is warranted. The IFAB can and must learn from the NFL.
Bitter: The fake histrionics of some players when they are fouled, and sometimes when they aren’t. No names necessary. If you watched the matches, you know who they are.
Bitter: The bone-crunching over-aggression that some players – some teams – used as the foundation of their game. In the final, the sport’s quadrennial showpiece, Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong executed a brutal studs-up stomp on the sternum of his Spanish counterpart Xavi Alonso. Referee Howard Webb should have sent De Jong off, but likely didn’t want to deprive the global audience of an eleven-a-side contest so early in the match. It was a classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decision.
Bittersweet: FIFA’s Say No to Racism campaign is well-meaning but meaningless unless the federation puts its teeth where its mouth is and rescinds the membership of countries who practice legal or institutional discrimination.
Sweetest of all: In the end, the best team won. To become the first nation to win the championship after losing its first match, the Spaniards stuck to what they do best, mellifluous passing, clean artistry, and just enough goals at the right times to prevail.
The party may be over, but most of the Iberian Peninsula will dance through the changes of many a season to come. Four years hence, the lenses of the world will turn to Rio and the anticipated home field-driven resurgence of Brazil’s Samba Soccer. Until then, in the hope that FIFA acts appropriately, here’s tipping a Stetson to the rightful reign of Spain’s Flamenco Football.
On Mon, Jul 12, 2010 at 12:49 PM, Tarif Abboushi
Yes, I read David Theis' piece after I sent mine to Lonnie and I agree the overlaps between the two make mine redundant.
I'll try to mak