By Paul Gardner
Is it possible that a soccer tournament will break out in South Africa? That the sport will manage to force itself into the foreground and push aside the huge tribe of pseudo-soccer-enthusiasts who appear regularly every four years -- the politicians and the businessmen and the publicists and marketeers and suchlike.
An admission: I do view this World Cup as the most politicized yet. Soccer has been priding itself on its supra-national, non-sporting elements for a decade or two now.
As man (or woman, if your prefer), Aristotle’s famous political animal, continues the search for the best way to organize his governments and get his political views under control, soccer has edged its way onto the scene, posing as some sort of panacea, a sporting balm that brings all nations and creeds and colors and religions together so that we shall all live happily ever after.
Four years ago it was explained to us how soccer, through the World Cup, had managed to do, in four short weeks, what the politicians had failed to do in over 50 years. It had brought Germans together. An extraordinary triumph, if that’s what it was.
Obviously, matters were not going to be allowed to rest there. Next stop South Africa, where soccer, embraced in emotional terms by most of Africa’s leaders, will mark the birth of South Africa as a truly modern country (I think I’ve got that right).
Should you harbor any doubt about the incredibly inflated importance of the tournament to South Africa, listen to South African President Jacob Zuma talking of what the award of the World Cup meant to his country: “We knew from that moment that South Africa would never be the same. It is clear that millions of our people have waited for years and look upon this tournament with hope, pride and a sense of belonging. Bringing the World Cup to South Africa is to trust South Africa, to trust Africa and to say, ‘You are strong and you can do it.’”
Even when FIFA president Sepp Blatter is trying to sound modest by downplaying FIFA's role, his words have a boastful ring: "I have never said that FIFA or even football in general can eradicate poverty or cure terrible diseases, but our sport can certainly play a significant part in how these problems are tackled."
I find all this very disturbing indeed. Heaven knows where it will all end. Presumably with FIFA taking over the United Nations and running the world.
But somehow, the idea of pervasive brotherly love doesn’t seem right for a tough tournament.
One guy who hasn’t got the message is the Mexican coach Javier Aguirre, who told us yesterday: “We are not here to enjoy ourselves, we are not here to make friends.”
Quite. The Mexicans are in South Africa to play soccer, and their first task, in the opening game today, is to beat South Africa. They’ll have to do that in a game that is, without any doubt, the most politically charged and emotionally drenched game I have ever come across.
Right from the first moment of this tournament, from the opening whistle of the Uzbeki referee Ravshan Irmatov (who has never refereed a World Cup game before), politics will be having a massive influence. Which leaves me nervously pondering another sally from Blatter: “We all know that home advantage can work wonders - particularly in African countries.”
The Mexicans, of course, will find themselves on the receiving end of a hostile “home-advantage” atmosphere such as few, if any teams, have ever experienced. Which sounds like a huge advantage for the South Africans. But it may not be. I saw something like this in 1989, when Trinidad & Tobago backed by a stadium of its own fans, all wearing red, buckled under the pressure and lost the crucial World Cup qualifier to the USA.
I encountered the same thing in Egypt in 1997, at the opening game of the under-17 World Cup. On a suffocatingly hot Cairo evening, a crowd of 70,000 jammed the national stadium to watch Egypt take on Thailand. Tension was high, as was security (President Hosni Mubarak was rumored to be there).
But it was not Thailand, it was Egypt, the poor young Egyptians, who wilted under the pressure. Somehow, they squeaked out a 3-2 win in that first game. But they never played well. When Egypt, in its third game, this time in front of 80,000 fervid fans, managed a 1-1 tie with an already qualified Germany, it meant that Egypt had, quite undeservingly, advanced to the second round. The Egyptian coach was in tears as he came to shake hands with his German counterpart. Egypt exited quickly in the next round.
Of course, those were under-17 boys -- but the boomerang effect of massive support and sky-high expectations may well work against the South Africans (who may also have the presence of the almost legendary Nelson Mandela to add to the over-wrought excitement).
Lost among this ominous swell of draining pressures is the soccer. Mexico has been playing well. It has an experienced squad that ought to be able to keep its head when all about it (i.e., the South Africans) are losing theirs. For the Bafana Bafana must be the least experienced team in the tournament. Though they certainly cannot be as poor as they looked a year ago. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira has conjured up a run of 12 games without defeat. But the thought of all the pressures keeps returning -- no host team has ever lost an opening game -- the host team has always qualified for the second round.
Can we then, get a real game of soccer out of this cauldron of non-soccer pressures? A game in which it is the sport itself -- which means the players and the coaches, South Africans and Mexicans alike, and the referee -- take center stage, rather than the politicians and the money men and the sponsors. Can soccer be allowed to be what it honestly is, a simple game? That will not be easy.