In a little over a week the greatest show on turf begins. The fanfare has started, most of the teams have landed, the specially shot ads are rolling out and the bookmakers are eyeing revenue in billions of dollars. Most of the talk is about Maradona and Messi, Wayne and Spain but amid the hype and the hope, and through the buzzing of the vuvuzela horns, there’s a growing murmur that sounds like Greek to me. It’s the debate over whether a developing nation should be burdened with a $5 billion (about Rs23,600 crore) bill—that is what the World Cup will cost South Africa; the tournament’s critics point to Greece, whose recent debt crisis was due at least in part to cost overruns during the Athens Olympics in 2004.
There is much to knock in the World Cup. The football is patchy at best, the quality of play undermined by the timing of the tournament—it comes at the end of the European season, where the world’s best players ply their trade and consequently are hostage to injury and fatigue—and its 32-team format, which always warrants a couple of dodgy match-ups. New Zealand vs Slovakia, anyone? The two recent editions have been fairly pedestrian, lacking the stirring narrative of France’s win in 1998, while the last truly great World Cup player was probably Maradona in 1986.
Passion play: Brazil’s Kaka (second from right) has a global fan following. Paulo Whitaker/Reuters
For all its shortcomings, though, the World Cup evokes passion in the most unlikely quarters. One acquaintance, a respected middle-aged writer, told me she couldn’t wait for the tournament to begin; it was her sole interaction with sport but it was not superficial—she could name instantly the stars she wanted to follow and why. Driving around in Kerala’s Wayanad district last weekend, I saw verdant stretches broken by huge posters of the Brazil and Argentina teams—one on each side of the road in a diplomatic touch belying the bitter rivalry. In Kolkata, bitter rivalry of another sort—party politics—has seen voters in the recent municipal elections being handed fliers with the tournament schedule printed on the reverse. Even that is a step behind perhaps the most bizarre sports headline of the past month: “30 hurt in clash between fans of Brazil, Argentina”. In Bera upazila, Bangladesh!
Not really bizarre, though, given the profile of the typical World Cup crowd. While the Olympics offer a broader spectrum, with representatives of almost every sporting nation, the World Cup shows a commitment from the most surprising quarters. Among the most vibrant of fans in Germany was a small group from Angola who, through music, colour and good humour, inspired their team to the brink of an improbable second-round place. And many English fans spent their life savings on making the trans-world trip to Japan in 2002, though presumably much of that was spent on the local beer. Bangladesh, ranked 157 on Fifa’s list, has sent a dozen-odd journalists to the last couple of World Cups who battle against time zones, cruel exchange rates and Fifa’s caste system, which allots match tickets on the basis of where the reporter’s country ranks in its scheme of things (Bangladesh figures pretty much at the rear).
Perhaps the World Cup scores because it appeals to our most basic instincts. To begin with, football is the simplest of games; even at the highest levels, it is no more than 11 kids against 11 other kids. To watch them live, in the stadium, is to strip away the celebrity that TV adds, the close-ups and fancy footage, and instead focus on the human element. The training session is where these players have a bit of a laugh, just as you and I would in our Sunday-morning kickabouts. Nothing prepares you for the simplicity of that spectacle—just as nothing prepares you for the sheer bombast of a Brazil practice session, complete with running commentary on radio for the fans at home.
And few global tournaments offer the chance of revenge, a chance to undo decades, centuries of grief and hurt. One of my favourite World Cup sights is from the very first game of 2002, when Senegal beat France, their former colonial masters and the World Cup holders. At the final whistle, a huge Senegalese reporter sitting several rows behind me got up, spread his arms wide and flashed a huge smile. No words were needed.
None of this will wipe out South Africa’s debt nor guarantee it will not go the way of Greece; the 300,000 visitors and all the money they spend on overpriced hotel rooms will not undo the country’s myriad problems. But there is every hope that the 736 footballers on duty will produce the thrills and drama to make the next six weeks compelling viewing. That is the beauty of sport and the promise of the World Cup.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo and is covering the World Cup for their sister website Soccernet. This is the first of a series that Gupta will write on the World Cup.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com