Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



The Golden Ball
Thank You South Africa!


by Gilles d'Aymery





(Swans - July 12, 2010)  Everything comes to an end, good things as well, the proverb says and so it is with the 2010 World Cup, this grand quadrennial football jamboree, the most-watched sporting event in the world. This fête du ballon, this magnificently orchestrated feu d'artifice, mixing the blaring of the vuvuzelas with a joie de vivre, a bon-enfant atmosphere that rivaled a Brazilian carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and the relentless ballet of the players in the pitches, all made it for a wonderful and memorable Mundial. As always the natural selection occurred as the best teams advanced towards the final. Spain at long last won her first World Cup and deserved it, but the real winners were South Africa and the entire African continent. They offered a terrific show and flatfooted their detractors and other naysayers by putting together one of the best-organized and least violent World Cups in recent memory -- a gorgeous accomplishment that all of us, football lovers, applaud in earnest.

In May 2004, when FIFA selected South Africa through a majority vote, voices of dismay and disapproval were immediately raised, principally in the Western world. South Africa, these voices claimed with disdain, did not have the infrastructure to hold such a championship. Africa was not ready for the big time. They were too poor. The money spent on infrastructure should be spent on alleviating poverty and unemployment -- as if this would have happened in our neoliberal world... They never would be ready in time... These afro-pessimists were proven wrong, weren't they? South Africa renovated its old stadiums and built four architecturally pleasing new stadiums. Then critics snidely suggested that the transport system and hotels would not accommodate the afflux of visitors, all the while contending that visitors would not show up anyway due to street violence, aggressions, robberies, rapes, and that the stadiums would remain empty. Results? No violence, no rape, no aggression, no "terrorist" attack, no hecklers, flawless transportation, clean hotels, a record-setting attendance both local and international, and a most delightful and warm hospitality from the host nation. Even the critics of the vuvuzelas who wanted the instrument banned were proven wrong -- the vuvuzela became the symbol of this World Cup!

South Africans and all Africans ought to be very proud of their accomplishments on and off the fields.

Quite a few "firsts" occurred: the first World Cup on the African continent. The first goal of the tournament scored by Siphiwe Tshabalala, the 25-year-old South African midfielder. Six African teams competed. One first-time finalist, Spain, which has now joined the very select club of World Cup winners (Brazil, 5 times; Italy, 4 times; Germany, 3 times; Argentina and Uruguay, twice; and England and France, once).

Then there were the players and the 32 teams out of 204 nations that fought a valiant competition to qualify. Note here that in the realm of football no clash of civilization exists (cf., Samuel Huntington) and in this sublime sport, mass religious faiths play second fiddle to the real god, the Golden Ball. The players come from multi-ethnic backgrounds -- the German squad had 11 players out of 23 who weren't native Germans. The selected players become in the words of French novelist Henry de Montherlant les Onze devant la porte dorée ("the Eleven in front of the golden door"). For those of us with an impassionate love for the sport, footballers are, to borrow from an old Arabic aphorism, "birds without wings" (the original silvery proverb refers to horses...). They fly and glide all over the pitch with amazing velocity, resilience, and persistence, amassing some mind-boggling passes, dribbles, and shots to the goal that led one Spanish TV commentator to say in a moment of ecstasy after a particularly beautiful score: "And they say that to see a work of art you have to go to a museum... Pero, que golazzo! Gol!, Gooooool, Gooooooooooool!" The best of the best turn into idols in the barrios, banlieues, and urban projects from where many come. This was true long before the sport -- like all sports -- became commercialized and commodified. Some currently famous athletes are paid millions to play and represent the interests of sporting-good multinationals like Nike, Addidas, Puma, and the like -- money, the rotten egg of humanity... But many more play for nothing but the joy and the pride to reach a level of excellence and represent one's nation in such a glaring international affair -- the chance of a lifetime. Siphiwe Tshabalala earns less than $3,800 a month. Most players are journeyers who ply their trade with pride and love of the game.

However, their craft is not just a trade. It's an art that has often been compared to ballet dancing. In each case the choreography must be impeccable. It requires the most strident collective discipline forged in a set of well-worn rules and values -- the first one being mens sana in corpore sano ("a sound mind in a sound body"). A sound body without a sound mind can only bring disaster to a ballet or a football game. All the pieces must be refined into the greater whole. This is not tennis, road racing, or a skiing competition. No Prima Dona can win without the support of the whole team. Like bicycle racing, the contenders to the throne (the strikers) are entirely dependent on team play. But unlike cycling a winning goal can come from the least heralded player. This was amply demonstrated in the semi-final between Germany and Spain. It was not a particularly great match, but the Spaniards showed tremendous discipline in their passing game, controlling the ball and flustering their less-experienced opponents. Eventually, neither David Villa nor Fernando Torres -- the stars of la Roja -- shot the winning goal. Instead, it was the longhaired defender Carles Puyol with his superb header who brought Spain to the final -- and it was midfielder Andres Iniesta who scored the winning goal in the final. Like an orchestra or a ballet company, football teams are governed by a set of universal rules and values that transcend the otherwise wide cultural diversity among the nations. So, North Koreans perform according to the same rules and values as the Algerians, the Ghanaians, the Germans, etc., like a violinist will perform Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 according to musical rules developed over 200 years whether the orchestra is Japanese, Australian, or German. Musicologists may suggest that the resulting performances would vary according to the maestro conducting the orchestra (e.g., Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, etc.) and what version of the cadenzas are used (e.g., Joachim or Vieuxtemps) -- and, of course, this is correct. But this is equally true with football. Teams display different styles (e.g., Latin vs. Saxon...though this is a bit of a generalization), yet the underlining rules are identical for all. And the same can be said in regard to the referees who too must abide by strict rules and regulations and who discharged their function with panache and great success amidst a very few over-publicized and commented errors.

Human errors do happen in all activities of life, some more consequential than others. Compare the environmental nightmare created by an oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the mistaken call on an offsite play in the Argentina-Mexico quarterfinal. Two human errors: one that may destroy a part of our ecosystem, the other that will turn into just another stuff of legends. In fact, there is no real comparison: Mexico will play again; so will Argentina -- and future generations of football aficionados will keep talking about the poor and unfair call that was so detrimental to the Mexican side, like the English goal that was not called in the quarterfinal with Germany. Tough and unjust call, but yet again England and Germany will have many other occasions to settle their historical football rivalry...which hopefully will never be settled, thus adding to the unending joy of the spectators. On the other hand, chances, as unfortunate as they are, that the Gulf of Mexico turns into a dead sea loom big and large. Human errors ought to be kept in perspective. Some are far more destructive and substantial than others.

The referees overall did a superb job to the best of their human and, therefore, fallible abilities. Over 95 percent of their calls were proper. Perhaps Malian Koman Coulibaly lacked some international refereeing experience and cost the US team a goal. Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda and his linesman Mauricio Espinosa missed the English goal, and Roberto Rosetti, the Italian referee (as well as his assistant) failed to call the offside in Carlos Tevez's first goal scored against the Mexican team. Still, the incorrect call did not hurt the US team, which ended up winning its group and moved to the Group of 16 where it was defeated by a much better team, Ghana. England and Mexico undoubtedly were shortchanged, but they also were widely overplayed by their opponents, Germany and Argentina. Refereeing errors, as unfortunate and uncommon as they are, rarely change the outcome of a game, and certainly not the overall final results of a World Cup. At the end, the best teams prevail. Some former great teams were dismissed out of hand and they did not need help from the referees to show their poor -- or in the case of the French team utterly disgraceful -- performance. Italy was sent home. England was sent home. Portugal was sent home. Brazil was sent home. Argentina was sent home, and on and on. Their poor performance had nothing to do with the referees. They simply were not up to the task at hand. They were not the best teams.

Many commentators and participants from the countries that had felt short-changed advocated changing the rules of the game and introducing new technologies, like video replay. The US commentators on ESPN and ABC (American TV channels) were the most adamant on the topic. They promoted time and again that after-the-fact TV replay takes precedence on the split-second decisions made by the referees, demonstrating, yet once more, how clueless they were about football. Their comments and lack of knowledge were so annoying and evident that as often as possible I switched to the Spanish channel Univision. There, at least, the announcers were calling the games the way it was done years ago on radio before the advent of TV. They "called" the games, the players, the moves, the strategies. Not once did they question a call from a referee. When the US know-nothing (beside selling commercials) commentators raged against a referee's call, like the Argentinean offside, their alter ego on Univision simply stated: Me parece que [Tavez] estaba a fuera de juego, pero el arbitro dice que no. Entonces siguemos... ("Seems to me Tavez was offside, but the referee judged otherwise. So let the game go on..."). No second guessing, no whining, no dicing, no pitiful requests for "instant replay" -- because instant replay would kill the game and make it as boring (and commercialized) as American "football" is. Football is a fast-paced game that from start to finish does not stop, but for half time. While it takes but 15 or 20 minutes to sense which team dominates the other, one never knows what the next hour or so will bring. Games are unpredictable and played at a fast, grueling path. Only cyclists, marathoners, and triathaloners can fathom the pain and the ecstasy of winning or losing these body-killing contests -- notwithstanding the fact that athletes that run marathons and triathlons do not repeat the feat seven times in just one month, like the Spanish and Dutch squads did. There must be a reason why football is the most-watched sport in the world. What about its ubiquity and its uniqueness?

Instant replay? Which play? A shot at the goal? An offside? A yellow or red card? A mere fault leading to a free kick? Who calls for the replay -- a player, a coach, a referee, some backroom official? If the replay is not conclusive, who makes the final decision -- the referee, FIFA, god? How long will the entire process take? How long will the game be kept on hold? Enough time that a commercial be inserted in between replays (which is the real motive behind this brouhaha)? This is a most ludicrous, self-serving, commercial promotion. Football is a fluid game. It goes on and on for 90 to 120 minutes. The referees live in symbiosis with the players. The latter know and respect the decisions of the former, even when they disagree with the call. Referees know the players and the game. Players know the referees and the game. Something has to give in any one play. There can only be one decision maker. It is the referee. Players know how far they can get by with a fake play, an objection to a call. Any hot head will be thrown out at a moment's notice. The referee reigns. Period.

Frank Wycoff, my dearest American friend who played football in high school and went on to coach for 20-some years, reminded me of the way it goes in the world of football. Both of us watched as many games as we could entertain and kept calling each other to share our personal sentiments about one game or the other. In the semi-final between Holland and Uruguay, the second goal scored by Holland was based on an offside play. Holland went on to win 3-2. I told Frank the second goal was offside. He answered with a laugh in his voice: "No, it was not." "Come on, Frank," I retorted, "the replay conclusively showed that the player was offside by one parting leg." Frank laughed again and said there was no offside since the referee did not call it. As simple as that! Think about it, without refereeing errors there would never have been Maradona's "hand of god," the controversial "Wembley goal," Vata's "devilish hand," the "frog's hand" of Thierry Henry, and now, among many other "errors" that have become legendary, the "revenge of Wembley" or the "anti-Wembley goal." This truly is the stuff of legend. Any fan, any kid will know about them, talk about them, generation after generation. So, vive l'erreur!

Football is a gorgeous sport, but it also is a grueling, cruel, unfair, and yet just endeavor. There, in this World Cup, was no more cruel and unfair moment than the loss of Ghana in the quarterfinal. The Ghanaians were clearly the better team. Yet, when their second goal was blocked by Uruguayan Luis Suarez with his handball -- earning him a red card -- and Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty that had it been successful would have sent Ghana to the semifinals, Uruguay moved on and the Ghanaians went home to a heartbroken country. However, Sanchez was benched for the semifinals due to his red card. He was direly missed and Uruguay ended up losing to the Netherlands. Talk about poetic justice!

This is football -- imperfect, yet glorious. The final was rather uninteresting but there had to be a winner. Sadly, for the third time Holland did not get to hold the Golden Ball in their hands. The Spaniards did it in their first try. Kudos to them. (Special mention goes to Yuichi Nishimura, the Japanese referee who was by far the best referee of the tournament, and to Paul, the psychic octopus, for his flawless score.)

And to South Africa and South Africans: So many thanks for this wonderful World Cup and for giving the world an uplifting image of the African continent. Black is beautiful!

Can't wait for 2014...Brazil!!!


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 12, 2010