Monday, June 14, 2010

Football World Cup 2010: One World, One Universal Language, One Identity

At the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on June 11, with the ball at his feet, Tshabalale breaks into a run and moving forward with amazing agility and speed. Mexican Defenders try their best to match him and mark him. However, he is unstoppable and moves into a far left position of the Mexican penalty box and sends a swirling left footer that flies into the net on the far side. With the ball kissing the back of the net, He breaks into a traditional dance, joined by his cheering team-mates of ‘Bafana Bafana’ along with thousands across South Africa. Switch to the next day, at Ellis Park in the same city, Veron-fondly called ‘the Witch’ is back at his best and takes a flag-kick that swirls away outside the penalty area, where there seem to be none waiting to receive. But out of the blue, Gabriel Heinze, jumps forward with a brilliant header, that sends the ball into the left corner of the Nigerian goal. That goal is enough for the Argentines to ensure victory.

Welcome to World Cup 2010. These images and countless others will follow for one entire month in South Africa, are treasures, if one can call that. Soccer at its classic best, with a feast of world-class footballers batting it out for the ultimate prize, to be crowned the champions of the planet. The wait for the last four years was intolerable. This one month will be taken over by fever, raging amongst the fanatics of the game. Millions across time-zones will cheer and join the carnival for their teams. The carnival includes all the attackers, the magicians, back-benchers, and dark-horses. As dreams, hopes, tears and madness amalgamate and sit side by side for this month, emotions run like a river in full torrent.

Every World Cup has enough myths, tales of bravery and heart-breaks to share. The History of World Cup begins in 1930, as Uruguay hosted the inaugural edition, something that was given for them being the reigning Olympic Champions. With Lucien Laurent etching his name in history as the first goal-scorer in World Cup, the tournament was a rage. Uruguay met Argentina in the final, going on to be crowned the World Champions.

Latin American dominance of the game thus began with that crowning glory. That style of play had a special touch to it, as the beauty of the game increased manifolds with teams from the region, especially Brazil and Argentina. The Latin American style is also a pleasure for the eye, having a unique charm and elegance. As every World Cup begins, Brazil and Argentina go into the tournament, having a ‘natural and sole claim’ to the crown. Most of he eye balls at the global stage, follow both these team, more than anyone else. 5-time champions Brazil and two-time winner, Argentina are rich in both the game and legends behind it. Having legacy of greats like Pele, Garrincha, Vava, Didi, Jairzinho, Zico, and Socrates, their followers seek nothing short of the crown for the 6th time. With 1994 winning captain Dunga at the helm as manager weaving the tactics, their moves are sharpened by a force having names like Kaka, Fabiano, Robinho, Maicon, and Lucio. Brazil is one of the teams that appears complete both in the defence, mid-field and up-front and is a top favourite of the bookies. Even before the kick-off, the best on paper. However, Argentina are not ready to give that status yet to their arch-rivals and are ready for the battle, A magician by the name of Diego Maradona-still capable of many a battle on field-is their coach and that perhaps is a big plus in their campaign for a third crown. Despite having an eventful qualification campaign, that saw them enter the final 32 as fourth in the region, one can only write them off at their own peril. Losses to Bolivia-something described by Maradona as “six bullets piercing the heart”-Chile and Brazil seemed to dent their hopes, but they recovered in time. But the Argentinian hopes and dreams are carried on the shoulders of a host of battle-trained players. Leading from the front as the trump card is none other than, Lionel Messi, or the “the Messiah” as Maradona calls him. The reigning FIFA World Footballer of the Year, Messi is also widely seen as the successor of the great Diego. Plying his trade for Barcelona in the Spanish league, his tremendous form is definitely the talking point. His role as the Argentine fans see, is that of a helmsman who has to take the ship through the rough seas. Apart from Messi, Argentina arrives in South Africa, with 5 other best strikers, Diego Milito-from his heroics for inter Milan taking them to the Champions League podium, Carlos Tevez from the English League, Sergio Aguro, Gonzalo Higuain and Martin Palermo. Also, they have Mascherano as captain, Walter Samuel, Angel Di Maria, Maxi Rodriguez, Heinze, and Veron to strengthen their strike force. But Maradona and his boys, have to ensure that all the prowess isn’t just restricted to being on paper. Apart from the ‘Selecao’ and ‘Albiceleste’, there are Argentine Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay-who again ride on the back of the veteran, experienced Diego Forlan. But the Dream Final everyone is looking forward on July 11, is that of the arch-rivals, Brazil and Argentina. Another history is waiting at the threshold-if either Maradona or Dunga ensure their team as world champions, then he would emulate the great Franz ‘Kaiser’ Beckenbauer

Moving on from Latin America, we come to another style matching the former, the European variety. In terms of abundance of talent, the team matching Brazil and Argentina is Spain, the reigning European champions. With stars like Casillas, Fabregas, Puyol, Iniesta, Ramos. Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Silva and Villa, jostling in one single team, the Spanish Armada is brewing with richness. Under the coaching of Vicente Del Bosque who has taken over reigns from the successful Luis Aragones, Spain have staked their claim authoritatively on the glittering trophy. Under Fabio Cappello, England had a remarkable qualification campaign. But injury to captain Rio Ferdinand has been a set-back. But under Steven Gerrard wearing the captain’s arm-band, Rooney and Crouch as strikers, Lampard, Aaron Lennon, John Terry, Ashley Cole, and Shaun-Wright Philips, the English hope to get their second title after 1966 at Wembley.  Under ‘Magic Boy’ Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal to better their performance four years off. But they will definitely have to play out of their skins in their Group G games, having tough opponents, Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea. The French, whose qualification play-off was marred by Henry’s ‘hand-ball’ against Ireland, are in Group A with Uruguay, Mexico and hosts South Africa. Missing from their squad is the legend, Zinedine Zidane, whose ‘magic legs’ won’t be on show this time.  Also not in action are Trezeguet, Barthez, and Patrick Viera. But Raymond Domench has at his disposal the strength of Malouda, Ribery, Abidal, and Anelka, hoping they would carry the flame ahead.

The reigning world champions, the ‘Azzuri’ are also under the stewardship of Marcello Lippi. Coming in the midst of ugly and corrupt scandals in their domestic league, Serie A four years before, Lippi had marshaled his troops well then leading them to their fourth championship title. However, after Roberto Donadoni failed for a brief while, making way for Lippi again, this time around, the Italians are one of the oldest in the tournament. With play maker and skipper Michael Ballack missing the action due to injury that has in fact, almost finished his World Cup career, Germany is still looking forward to bring out is lightening football. Coach Joachim Low would hope that Klose, Podolski, Schweinsteiger, and Philip Lahm would make sure Ballack is not missed and go to win their third world title. The proponets of ‘Total Football’ have always had the case of “so near, yet so far”. The Dutch who boast of legends like Cruyff, Van Basten, Rikaard and Ruud Gullit, would hope that Arjen Robben, Sneijder, Von Bommel, Dirk Kuyt, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst would make some deep in-roads in this edition.  Apart from these teams, Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia, Switzerland, Denmark, and Greece complete the European line-up. Europe also has the distinction of having the oldest and youngest managers in this edition of the World Cup-them being Otto Rehhagel of Greece and Vladmir Weiss of Slovenia respectively.

The host continent Africa, have always had the tag ‘Dark Horses’ attached to them. The African style has an all together different charm. Something that begins slowly, going on to reach an aggressive crescendo; they also have a rich legacy to safeguard. Cameroon under Roger Milla in 1990, Nigeria in 1994, Senegal in 2002, and Ghana in 2006, have been great examples of African dream runs.  In South Africa, Ghana would be there, but without their star player, Michael Essien, as the Chelsea star is out wit an injury. But they would hope Asamoah Gyan and Stephen Appiah would be at their best. “The Elephants” or Ivory Coast would ride the waves under their star Didier Drogba, who has under his belt a successful league and goals with Chelsea. Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, would also have with him Salomon Kalou, and the brothers Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure. But to negotiate their way upwards against Brazil, Portugal and North Korea would be a stiff challenge. The ‘Super Eagles’, Nigeria would also be knocking at the high doors, as the successful coach of Sweden, Lars Lagerback tries to devise ways to progress from their tough Group B, having Argentina, South Korea and Greece. Under Samuel ‘Eto’o-experienced from the Spanish and Italians leagues with Barcelona and Inter Milan-as captain and Rigobert Song, the ‘Indomitable Lions’ Cameroon, march forward hoping to emulate Milla’s legacy. But Eto’o would correct the criticisms of Milla against him. South Africa called ‘Bafana Bafana’ are the only team to escape the trials at qualification, as being the hosts. Coached by Brazilian Carlos Alberto Pereira, they would seek to make strong dents and move to the second round from Group A. The ‘Desert Foxes’ Algeria who defeated Egypt in an eventful play-off at Khartoum, complete the line-up from Africa.

From Asia, comes Australia, who changed their confederation from Oceania. Under Mark Schwazer, Bresciano, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill, the Socceroos would hope to make good progress in the tournament. Japan have also made their presence felt from Asia along with South Korea, who would hope to re-work the magic at home eight years back when they reached the last four. North Korea makes its entry into the World Cup after 1966, where they had shocked Italy and went down fighting to Portugal, who were saved by Eusebio. Then there teams like Mexico, whose hopes hinge greatly on performances by Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Rafael Marquez and Javier Hernandez. USA would have Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsy under the managership of Bob Bradley who tries to fit into the shoes of Bob Bradley. Honduras is the other team from North-America Concacaf region. Completing the entire line-up would be New Zealand under Ricky Herbet, who was also part of their only World Cup appearance in 1982. The New Zealanders enter the final round defeating Bahrain in the Play-Offs. This effectively ended any possibility of the participation of a team from the Persian Gulf. This World Cup is marked by their absence, which has never happened so in near past. Also, this World Cup would be unique in the fact that, there would be no team making its debut in the World Cup finals. Each team has featured in either of all 18 previous editions.

I have the belief that there is no one single Group of Death in this World Cup. While without doubt, Group G having Brazil, Ivory Coast, North Korea and Portugal is the toughest. But Group B comprising Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea and Greece is also a challenge. So is Group D with the Germans, Serbs, Ghana and Australia. Even Group E comprising Netherlands, Denmark, So tough battles can be expected in the 10 venues that South Africa has brought forth for this tournament.

History and Legacy abound in World Cup along with controversies and scandals too. A host of names are legends in their own right at the global stage. Puskas, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Vava, Didi, Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Beckenbauer, Pele, Maradona, Johan Cryuff, Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi, Dino Zoff, Gerd Muller, Linekar, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Romario, Roberto Baggio, Rivaldo, Batistuta, Maldini, Cannigia…………..the list is endless. Several moments in the field have given their share of controversies, whether it be Geoff Hurst’s goal in 1966 final against West Germany at Wembley, something debated under the same breadth as Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ in 1986 quarter-final against England. Snippets and Trivia also abound in the World Cup. The tale of how after winning the 1934 World Cup winners, Italy safeguarded the Jules Rimet Cup, when their Football Association Vice-President kept its under his bed-trunk even at the height of Allied attacks in Wartime, as how the cup was stolen in 1966 and the English being saved of massive embarrassment by a dog called Pickles, which retrieved it. The World Cup has come a long way from its inception,. The trophy itself underwent change, as the Jules Rimet Cup was replaced by Silvio Gazzaniga’s sculpted piece used to this day. Franz Beckenbauer had the honour of raising it first in 1974, as the Rimet trophy was handed over to Brazil permanently, who won it thrice.

Every sport connects millions through its transcendental effect; the power to provide unbridled joy from multitude of problems for people and take their dreams as well as aspirations on top flight. Football thus makes a ‘Global Unifying Factor’. Carrying dreams, hopes and a special mania, millions welcome the World Cup world over. Despite the drives and penetration of commercialization, the essence and spirit of football still stands undiluted, tying together people like no other force. A Ball and 22 bodies running behind it is just a mirage….when the ball rolls in World Cup, the entire world runs behind it, eyes riveting towards the goal mouth. ‘Jogo Bonito’ or the Beautiful Game may be a Brazilian axiom, but its connotations are global in nature today, as it creates new meanings and adages. So whether it be in Savannah of Africa, Amazon jungles of Latin America, Prairies of North America, the Meadows of Europe, Deserts in Arabia, towns of Asia or high lands Down Under, the World united. As the whistle blew at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on June 11, when the sounds of Vuvuzuela resounded, as Shakira joined in chorus with ‘Waka Waka’ and various colours & jerseys, came afore, the World for One Month has a Universal Language, Universal Identity: Football!!

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