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The World Cup: Sport at its best...

posted by Mickey and Paul on 6/03/02

(The illustrations in my part of this article are meant to be a little gallery of memorable moments from previous Football World Cups, for the appreciation of those who have some knowledge of the history of the tournament, and to provoke the curiosity of those who don't. Enjoy!)

The greatest living Frenchman, Zinedine Zidane, declines a Croation's invitation to lambada during the 1998 tournament.

Four years ago, my then girlfriend was going through a Natasha Henstridge in "Species" phase and was trying to fall pregnant, so we took a couple of week's holiday, went out of town, stayed in a really nice place, had all our meals in restaurants, and we enjoyed episode after episode of prophylactic-unencumbered sex; and when we weren't having sex … well, there was no obligation on us to keep regular hours, since all the next day held was more sex, and more of it, so we stayed up all night watching the coverage from France of the 1998 Association Football World Cup and had sex during the half time intervals. As you can probably imagine, this was a time in my life that I look back on with some fondness. Sometimes I hear a song on the radio that reminds me of that time, and I smile, and no-one knows what I am smiling about. But do you know what? If I looked back on the same time, and excluded the sex, and the holiday, what I would be left with, i.e. a bunch of nights watching soccer games on the television, would still represent one of the high points in my life.

As much as I love watching the Olympic Games, as a sporting event, I prefer the World Cup. As a friend of mine pointed out recently in a piece for the "Sydney Morning Herald," the fact that the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics get bigger crowds and achieve higher television ratings than any of the actual events is an indication of the fact that the appeal of the Olympic festival is not necessarily to hard-core sports-fans; and while this may not be a bad thing in its own way, suddenly dropping in on some sport one hasn't watched for four years, even though it might be elite level weight-lifting or dressage or whatever, just doesn't give one the same sense of culmination as the World Cup provides to the millions of people around the world who love the round ball game.

And the fact that, however well the other nations complete, the World Cup has a single winner adds immeasurably to the intensity of experiencing the tournament. Some of the greatest teams in soccer have failed to win the World Cup. Indeed, in some ways the legends of the Hungarian team from 1954 and the Dutch team from 1974 burn more brightly than those of the relatively colourless West German sides that won those respective tournaments; and yet the fact remains that West Germany is one of only seven countries to have won the World Cup. Compared to that, the handing out of gold medals at Olympic events seems profligate. It seems that just about every country in the world is good at some event or another. These events dominate the coverage in the countries that are good at them. The end result of all this is that the Olympic Games comes to resemble a children's party, where there is a little bundle of sweets prepared for every child to take home. The World Cup, by comparison, is fought over with a sense of desperation commensurate to the singularity of the prize, as if, just once every four years, the monarch of a fairy tale kingdom were to throw a single precious stone to his subjects.

The Uruguayan team that won the inaugural World Cup in 1930. If they had not been good at soccer they would have made excellent fugitives from justice. Some of the faces appear to have been crafted expressly to appear on a "Wanted" poster

Since this is a piece about the World Cup, I'll now spend most of the rest of the article talking about stuff which, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with the World Cup, but has to with the tragic nature of soccer, which is the thing about it I love the most. I have just finished reading Nick Hornby's book about soccer, "Fever Pitch" and it is a point he makes really well in the book, I think, that the most profound feelings that come with being a spectator of football are not just the exultation that comes from watching your team win; no, there is also the feeling of being gutted.

After the World Cup, arguably the most prestigious international soccer event is the Euro tournament, which is like a mini-World-Cup for European teams. In 2000, the television rights to broadcast these games in Australia were secured by a pay-T.V. network. Now that a few years have passed and a few more of these sorts of deals have gone down, I am beginning to know a few people who have pay TV, but back then this is was not the case. My friend, Vince, however, brought it to my attention that there was a café in Leichhardt, the traditional centre of Sydney's Italian community, which was going to opening early in the morning so that people who wanted to eat breakfast at 3.30 AM while watching the Euro's could do so. I wasn't impressed with the whole situation to begin with but after I had gotten up at 3.00 AM a few times and caught a taxi to Leichhardt, to sit in this tiny café with a bunch of strangers who were doing the same thing, it became my settled opinion that no major sporting event should be shown on free-to-air television, because it is much nicer to watch an event like that in a convivial atmosphere, and, in particular, while eating a delicious Italian breakfast.

Black hole sun. Szabo of Hungary saves during the 1938 final against Italy. In the end, it was to be the Italian's Day

The only unpleasantness I had was watching the England vs Germany game while seated next to a crop-headed young Englishman who commentated on the match incessantly. Actually, to be fair to the guy, I don't believe he knew he was talking out loud; I think what |I was hearing was the wallpaper of his brain, coming out involuntarily because of the stress from which he was clearly suffering. I know this because this is how he addressed the England striker, Alan Shearer, for the first 45 minutes of the match: "You fucking cunt. Oh, you fucking cunt. Shearer, you useless fucking, fucking cunt. You fucked it up, you fucker. You are a cunt." At half time, he turned to me and by way of making some pleasant conversation he said, "Shearer's having a good game, isn't he?" Naturally I agreed, because 1). Shearer had been playing well; and 2). I knew full well that if I had chosen that moment to say to him, in my uninflected Queensland drawl, "No, actually he's been a complete cunt," I would have been buying myself a knuckle sandwich.

As the tournament went on, however, and Italy did well, the crowds at Papa's café swelled. Suddenly, instead of being part of an intimate little breakfast club of soccer fans, I was part of a street party of 300 or 400 predominantly Mediterranean people who would descend every match morning onto a little café designed to comfortably hold about 20 people. By the time Italy qualified to play the final against France, the winners of the 1998 World Cup, the café had hired a couple of extra televisions for the occasion, and had erected some rough terracing on the footpath; while all down Norton Street there were similar crowds jamming the dozens of other cafes that had discovered the wisdom of opening early and telecasting the event.

The greatest Portuguese player of all time, Eusebio, consoles the greatest player of them all, Pele, on the quality of oral pleasure he received during the 1966 finals

One of the things about soccer is that it brings to the fore national stereotypes; but one of the other things about soccer is that a nation's national soccer stereotype is not necessarily identical with the general stereotype. I don't think I would be wrong in thinking that part of the stereotypical view of Italians is that they are a flamboyant and warm-hearted people. In soccer terms, two things are unmistakably characteristic of every Italian national team: 1) the team is clearly selected purely on the basis of physical beauty and the question of ability to play soccer is a secondary factor in gaining a place on the side 2). the team is addicted to a conception of play known as "catenaccio" (literally, "the door-bolt") where the side spends most of its time snuffing out any chance that their opponents have to score. The Italians are prepared to cede superior possession to their opponents and rely on murderous counterattacks against the run of play to get their own goals. Those people who object to soccer because it is a low scoring game would be well advised to avoid games involving Italy; people who are aficionados of the game (and of course, straight women and gay men) love to watch them play.

Every English lad you show this photograph to will assure you it is an image of the ball crossing the line. This much disputed goal, scored by Geoff Hurst late in the 1966 final was awarded by the referee after consultation with the Russian linesman. This event provoked the funniest ever line in the English working class comedy, "Til Death Us Do Part," the original inspiration for "All in the Family") with the character of Alf Garnett screaming at the linesman, "Remember Stalingrad! Remember Stalingrad!"

In the Euros final, Italy took an early lead, and held on to it, and held on to it, and held on to it. It was grim, gripping football. Meanwhile as the minutes passed, and as the Italian defence held firm, despite the Italians almost never having the ball, everybody around me was going apeshit. Although it was a wintry morning, girls who looked like teenaged versions of Sophia Loren were dancing and shedding clothes; barrel-chested men with walrus moustaches were singing "la Donna e Mobile"; Fiats painted the colours of the Italian flag were circumnavigating the café, blasting their car horns. And then, five minutes into injury time, with, seriously, like about two seconds left to play, France's Sylvain Wiltord collected the ball out left, cut inside, and put into the net. Such an eerie quiet fell on the crowd that you could hear the commentary. I was hoping for Italy to win, but my friend Vince, had told me he was supporting France, and I looked around at the stricken faces, and I looked for Vince, because I was worried that he might be dancing around like Tigger, which would have been dangerous. I found him, and he was smiling, which was dangerous enough, but the crowd probably just thought it was a symptom of the same shock they were all experiencing. It was suddenly apparent to everybody that it was inevitable France would now score first in extra time and, under the Golden Goal rule, would win the tournament. Every single person inside and outside that café knew it. The Sophia Lorens put their clothes back on. The opera singers switched to "Povero Rigoletto" Everybody may have winced when David Trezeguet's goal hit the net and ended the match, but it was the wince that one gets when getting a needle at the doctor, because the pain is expected.

Holland's Johann Cruyff in the 1974 final against West Germany. Cruyff is the greatest player in the history of the game to not have lower limbs

Because soccer is a free market, it is not all clear that the World Cup represents the highest level of football. It is unlikely that any country could put together a squad to match the squads that some of the big European clubs like Real Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester United, or Juventus can field. Of course, this kind of speculation depends on imagining how Zinedine Zidane, the great French midfielder, would stack up against Zinedine Zidane, the brilliant Real Madrid midfielder; or how Rivaldo, considered as a Brazil's finest player, would match up on a team list against Rivaldo, considered as a mercenary for F.C. Barcelona. In this kind of exercise the clubs have an advantage over nations, because they have access to great players who will almost certainly never have opportunity to play on the greatest stage of all, because they come from ridiculous little countries, like Ryan Giggs (of Manchester United and Wales) and Harry Kewell (of Leeds United and Australia) who won't be in the World Cup finals.

Despite this, the World Cup remains the greatest event in soccer, because, while not underestimating the passion that club football generates, the World Cup is the most passionately felt event; the fact that tragedy engulfs team after team just feeds that feeling. I am kind of glad that I am not a member of one of the nation-states involved in this nonsense, because it will give me an opportunity to take a serene and disinterested view of the play. Who am I kidding? When Uruguay eliminated Australia to take the very last available place in the finals, I was as sick as the goddamn proverbial parrot would have been if the goddamn proverbial parrot had had a soccer ball shoved up his nostril. A great philosopher once said, "The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other." Another way of taking a pessimistic measure of the human condition is to count is to count how many teams win the World Cup, compared with how many do not.

If the rest of the Italian team hadn't sat on their bums while Roberto Baggio did all the work, they might have beaten Brazil in the 1994 final

I've just read over this post, and I see that it has turned out to be kind of serious; and that I seem to have forgotten that football is only a game. Well, it is. But don't tell me that again for the next couple of weeks.


It's a game of two halves....

I like most of what America has to offer; I'm a pop culture junkie and I'm hooked on the entertainment drugs the U.S dish out. If there's a big movie, a bad movie or a cheesy pop act to enjoy, I'll be there to enjoy it. Good, bad or indifferent, I think there's only one printable thing better than watching a movie - watching a soccer match. Soccer is the people's sport, the universal language. The Americans have, as a nation, never really embraced it; instead, Baseball and Football are their national sports. It's quite sad that "soccer" has never really taken off in the States; by and large, Americans like their sports big and loud, with lots of points and larger than life characters. Americans even call it Soccer; the rest of the world justifiably call it Football. That's what it is. Let's face it, the foot is used more in soccer than in America's conception of Football. Actually, I've watched both Baseball and American Football - the games are too long, punctuated by too many time-outs and populated by fans who really haven't seen what atmosphere is.

I don't see much athleticism in burly men striking a ball with a bat, then hobbling to the next sandpit, nor muscleheads scrumming, then kicking and running for an oval ball. Soccer is ninety minutes in duration, divided into two halves and packs more drama into that time frame. No time-outs, no sin bins, no second chances. Not every game is great, but you know how long you'll be sitting in front of the T.V . When the U.S hosted the 1994 World Cup, the organizers wanted to change the tradition. It was inconceivable that so many people could like a sport that lasted an uninterrupted forty-five minutes each half. How could they not have time-outs, promoting the joys of Budweiser? How could the scorelines be under five? They wanted bigger nets, time-outs and mindless product placement every time there was a lull in the game. But those lulls, those games that feature few replay opportunities are what distinguish Soccer from the other sports. There's more to it than winning or losing, or how many "points" the opposition have scored. It's the ultimate paradox to the Stat-obsessed American sport. It contains more drama than the average Judi Dench opus. Anyone who truly loves the sport can appreciate the art and skill it encourages. And unlike American Football or Basketball, you don't necessarily have to be a giant to excel at it. It is that rare sport: one that does not discriminate.

Truth be told, the majority of people who visit this site aren't soccer fans, and those who are would probably be amazed to discover that I'm not an American, but a Brit/Irish (depending on your politics). Sure, I consider myself more attuned to the American culture, and I am routinely disgusted by much of the British popular culture output - our pop acts pale, our sitcoms are generally dire and we still haven't matched the American efficiency for pomp and ceremony. However, as much as I'd love to depart this dreary SCOTTISH town and live in the States, there's one thing I'd miss enormously...Soccer. For the last fourteen years, soccer has been my passion. As such, it's provided me with moments of intense pleasure and extreme pain - sure, it's "just a game", but it's a game that means so much to so many. Some people invest their time in Star Wars or computer games, all interests offering a diversion from (a presumable) banal everyday existence. As far as I'm concerned, Soccer cannot be topped for value. It's a multi-purpose, multi-faceted game. It's both an ideology and an addiction. It has an intangible power, dividing nations and bringing them together. Think of any metaphor, any era, any political agenda. Chances are that no political speech, no war and no wordy critic could define any given generation more than soccer - the statements are made on the pitch. Histories, grudges and national pride dominate every international game.

Every four years, these passions are put to the test. The World Cup, steeped in memborable moments, arrives and captures the imagination. It serves not just as an event, but as an institution - many nations view it as a national holiday, their teams representing all their hopes. This is that year, very special in the fanatic's calendar. Four years is a very long time. The wait between each tournament is a long one and that time can and does play host to some amazing changes in the universal landscape. In 1990, West Germany were classy and deserving World Champions. Four years later, they were a United Germany and eliminated by Bulgaria, the tournament no-hopers, in the Quarter Finals. The World Cup creates these moments. They are etched in its history. To make the finals is a great achievement, but to go home with pride intact is difficult to accomplish. Germany trounced Saudi Arabia 8-0 the other day. And some of these nations, as unlikely as they are, don't take defeat too lightly. Their presidents/kings make outrageous demands and frightening threats if the team doesn't return with gold or respectability. Analogically, it would be like threatening to shoot Lou Diamond Phillips if he didn't win an Oscar next year. In 1994, Columbia's Andreas Escobar put the ball in his own net and cost his team the game. Two weeks later, he was scoring own goals in the big pitch in the sky, gunned down by a furious supporter who'd lost more than a few coins on the match outcome.

Football is a game, but sometimes it veers into "life or death" territory.

The major footballing nations are comprised of: Germany, France, Argentina, Brazil, Holland, England, Italy and Spain. These are the only teams that are ever likely to lift the coveted World Cup (Holland and Spain have never managed the feat); nevertheless, the World Cup has hosted some amazing shock defeats. In this tournament alone, the World Champions (France) were toppled by an unfancied African underdog (Senegal). Holland were bested by Ireland in the qualifying stages and haven't even made it to the Japan/Korea tournament. The World Cup is like Rocky. You know one of the smaller teams might defeat the big guns, but ultimately they'll be going home broke and damaged. In other words, I'm opting for Ireland and England; Ireland are the perennial scrappers, the team that consistently surprise but don't even view themselves as challengers for the gold. England always enter the tournament with high hopes, but due to a string of bad luck, fall short. On their day, they can beat any team, but luck continues to evade them. In 1982, they were eliminated on goal difference; In 1986, one of the world's greatest players (Maradona) beat them almost singleHANDedly by a) scoring one of the greatest individual in the tournament's history, and b) fisting/palming the ball into the England net. The final score was 2-1 and the illegal goal cost England dearly. In 1990 and 1998 respectively, exciting England teams were beaten by West Germany and Argentina on penalty kicks. If they'd won either game, and they did deserve it, they would surely have stood a great chance of capturing the prize.

The greatest injustice before OJ was acquitted.

The World Cup is not only a test of character for the fans, but also for the players. It has made stars of legends such as Pele, Gascoigne and Maradona who, without the World Cup, would be a 5'4 hustler selling coke by the gram - which is essentially what he does now. That said, not every great player has graced this stage. But every great player wants to. It is the boyhood dream, the footballing utopia and arguably the finest sporting spectacle we'll ever see. Just like the American Superbowl, only without the unnecessary padding and helmets. Soccer is a man's sport, but something everyone can enjoy - it's a tactical treat and easy to understand. Miss it, miss one of the most exciting games man has created. As far as tournaments, the stakes are never higher than at the World Cup. And, just like life itself, you'll realize that Soccer is worth enjoying...

It's a game of two halves....


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