Whether this World Cup proves to be among the best or not, it is certainly poised to become one of the most memorable

2010-06-12 00:00

AT last “it is here” can be replaced by “it has begun”. Is it possible our lowly ranked side sprang a surprise? Bafana seem to be about as well prepared as possible and the next step will be to strengthen the game across the country. It’s been let down by its administrators. SA ought to qualify for every World Cup finals. Instead they struggle to reach the last stages of the continental competition. Vuvuzelas are not half as important as dedicated administrators.

Is it too much to hope that an ageing French outfit that stooped to subdue the Irish rovers came a cropper? Alas justice has largely ignored sport. Power is everything. Regardless, it’s going to be hectic and by the end even the reluctant will be able to tell their Kakas from their Decos. Of course enthusiasts are obsessed. My eldest has seven soccer pictures on his bedroom wall and one of his sweetheart. So much for romance.

Let’s hope it is a cracker of a tournament. Let’s hope the visitors do not judge the country too harshly or themselves too lightly. Have no time for these anti-apartheid activists who afterwards washed their hands of the entire affair. Such people care more about pretty principles than Africa. Now they bring their impertinence. Last week our duly elected president presided with humour and dignity over a press conference only to endure an unpardonably intrusive first question from some insufferable hack. When did the personal become public?

Of course success is the only answer. In that regard England, anyhow, has little to boast about. Of the last 12 World Cups, the 1966 edition is incomparably the worst. Of course at the time it seemed like the best. Our entire family sat around a black and white TV set on that Saturday afternoon when England took on the dreaded Germans. Locals had developed a rhythmic clap that spread around Wembley whenever the boys needed a hand. It stays in the mind.

It was a tight, taut final taken into extra time by Uwe Seeler (if memory serves), who scored a late equaliser. In the added minutes England restored its lead with a contentious goal — in the entire ground only the Russian linesman was certain Geoff Hurst’s shot had crossed the line. 3-2. Hurst broke away again in the last minute. Kenneth Wolstenhome was commenting and shouted “there are people running on the field, they think it’s all over.” As the centre-forward belted the ball into the net, he added: “It is now.”

All these years later the moment stays in the mind. All the players became folk heroes, especially Nobby Stiles, a scrawny and almost toothless right-half whose tackling lacked subtlety, and Alan Ball, a little red-headed inside-forward with a squeaky voice who covered every inch of the turf.

At the time it seemed like a wonderful event. Youth and fervour can cloud the mind. In hindsight, it was one of the game’s lowest points. England fielded three great players, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Gordon Banks. Moore lacked pace and aerial authority, but was blessed with Buddhist serenity and superb anticipation. Charlton was a prematurely bald midfield player able to send long scything passes and score goals from 30 yards. In those days the balls were heavier and the fields muddier. Banks was supreme between the posts, but less inclined than modern goalkeepers to dominate the penalty area.

Otherwise England was a humdrum bunch superbly organised by an astute but reticent manager. They played pragmatic, hard-working soccer and did not bother much with entertainment. Indeed they were called “the wingless wonders”. And they were the champions.

Notwithstanding the exciting denouement, it was a dirty, mean, destructive tournament saved mostly by the brilliance of Eusebio’s ill-fated Portugal and the valour of a North Korean side that took a 3-0 lead against Portugal only to lose 5-3. Otherwise crude tackling and caution dominated. Pele, the most skilful player of the period, was kicked into oblivion. Brazil won the previous and subsequent Cups but was shamefully treated in 1966. Referees were lenient. “Hard men” could commit grievous bodily harm without getting booked.

Pele was the giant of the era. Diego Maradonna came next. The Brazilian was a great player and the Argentinean was a flawed genius. In that regard they resemble Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. Genius soars, greatness endures. Take your pick. Both dominated World Cups. Champions always come to the party

Now it’s the time for Messi and Ronaldo to follow in their footsteps. Neither can otherwise claim true greatness. If the African teams flourish and adventurers thrive, it’ll be a wonderful competition. If they all fall down and defences dominate, it’ll still confirm that soccer has come a long way in 44 years.

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