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The Beautiful Game

30 June 2014, 21:15

*According to strict FIFA copyright guidelines, I am neither authorised nor entitled to use the words: soccer, World, Cup, Brazil, 2014 and ‘Sepp Blatter is a knob’ in any sort of sensible sentence, so in order to avoid any pesky legal difficulty for the good people here at News24, and lots of confusion for you the reader, I will refer throughout this piece to some or other global sporting event being held in this year, somewhere in South America that involves overpaid cry-babies kicking a round object to each other for 90 minutes, in order to win some sort of chalice. 

“If a man watches more than three (sport) games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”

Erma Bombeck, American humourist

I awoke from a sofa stupor this last Sunday afternoon, wondering where my weekend had gone. It turned out I had zonked out for two whole days - precious time I could’ve spent bonding with my son or making love to my wife - vegged out on the couch doing nothing but ogling the idiot box.

But I had an excuse. It was that four-yearly carnival of sport called the…you know? That one with the ball. By the end of this month, I will have watched over 120 hours of games, numerous highlight packages and endless interviews and discussions, all meticulously analysing every aspect of a game that I would usually pay no attention to in my normal life, but which every detail I now must know and consume, and sprout forth endlessly to anyone who brave enough to listen.

I love the Wor…that thing with the chalice. I have never been a great sport watcher, apart from a thrilling five-day cricket test match – yes, they do exist – and a much-hyped 100m something every other Olympics, but when it comes to the Beautiful Game in its glorious global format, I dedicate myself to the grand pursuit that calls out to all vigorous and loud men the world over: staying up late, eating junk food and shouting at the television. Like Huxley’s soma, I slug it all down, blasted into infinite (plus stoppage time) bliss for a one whole month.

The whole torrid love affair between us began in 1994. That event we were talking about earlier, kicked off in June that year, hosted, almost unbelievably in the USA, not one of the sport’s traditional strongholds. Much excitement surrounded the event, presented with a typically American Hollywood shine and dazzle. All set with the customary ‘lights, camera, action’, it was the first real widely viewed global sporting event of the modern era.

Bizarrely, singer Diana Ross was invited to kick the opening ceremonial ball, and failed infamously in front of 30 million people. She could have done a lot worse than Italy’s Roberto Baggio, an actual professional player, who closed out the tournament a month later with one of worst penalties in the history of everything, to not only help his team look foolish in front of chalice-winners Brazil, but prove to the world that men with rattail ponytails just look silly and can’t kick straight.  

The two kicks offered a pair of marvelously ludicrous bookends to a grandiose tournament, marked less by the skill on the field than by the pomp and circumstance with which that much loved-hated non-profit organisation known as FIFA could finally present - with the help of technology and salivating sponsors- the Great Game to the world, and more specifically, the unconverted United States.

The first rule of great salesmanship is learning how to sell ice to Eskimos, and FIFA went one better in 1994. They succeeded in convincing the notoriously fickle American bravado they could actually enjoy a game that involved skinny men prancing around the field like disco-loving Mediterranean rent-boys for 90 minutes, with the distinct possibility of nobody actually scoring.

Even President Bill Clinton came out, to offer his blessing and assure his loyal citizens that “(pre-teen First Daughter) Chelsea just loves the game, y’all.”

Hungry for distinctive local heroes, FIFA primped and titivated an unknown TeamUSA into a veritable ten-man boy band (including a highly-stylised brooding grunger in defender Alexei Lalas, one of my personal favourites of that year). The recipe was a success, and the world and America lapped it up, as did I.

Down in Africa, it felt like we were watching the moon landing. Strange beings in faraway lands, doing weird things with balls in the middle of the night.

Thanks to some really late nights, we all got a crash course in global time zones, and were perplexed even further by the fact that America had three of them. One game started in Chicago at 3 o’clock, and two hours later, another game started in Los Angeles, also at 3’o clock. Were they all like Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap, traveling back in time, leaving all us, the geographically ignorant, going ‘oh, boy’.

But the action on and off the field was just too good and too exciting to let go of. Players were hunted down by gangland hitmen:

(famously, Colombian defender Escobar was killed after scoring an own goal that saw the team exit the competition: the urban legend, growing with the years, pointed to nefarious elements in the Colombian drug trade who lost a bundle betting on the match)

Games were halted to allow for McDonald commercials and the heat of the American summer created a claustrophobic, sweaty battle arena every night, where heroes were made and villains made even larger.

I remember watching a particular game that year, between eternal rivals Ireland and Italy, played in New York City, the original melting pot of the world, in a stadium filled with drunken blue collar staples and randy gangsters. Even watching it on TV, the whole experience felt as if a single misplaced “hey, whayalookingat?’ or a misguided cup of Guinness would’ve blown the whole city off the face of the planet. 

“If TV were only an invention to broadcast soccer, it would be justified.”

Roberto Fontanarrosa Argentinean writer and football philosopher

This was the era of the emergence of the passionate spectator. Blindly nationalistic, being there for the team, complete with battle paint, noise-makers and unwavering dedication, and it was all first seen on a global level in 1994. It was pure craziness, and it continues today, so much so, it literally defines the tournament’s success and popularity.

One of my own experiences of this organic juggernaut of passion for the Beautiful Game happened one cold July weekend, during the second stage of the 1994 competition. My friends and I went on some epic birthday bender, across two cities, ten bars and one bottle of expensive tequila, and found ourselves on the seedier side of one of those cities, 2am in the morning, trying to find an open bar to watch the next game beamed in from outer space.

Nothing was open, apart from a small illegal tavern, in the bowels of a rundown hotel, filled with some of the roughest people we had ever seen, swallowing Black Label quarts whole and taking our coffin measurements with their eyes. Tired prostitutes sat in the corner, under the smallest TV in South Africa, tuned rustily to the start of the game.

We sat down gingerly and started to watch, the barkeep eagerly encouraging our patronage and enthusiastically admiring our mutual love for the sport. I don’t remember who was playing whom, what the score was eventually, but it was a cracker of a game, applauded riotously from within this dinky little tavern at four o’clock in the morning. The mood simmered as the game ended, but the delight of the event made us all friends for that short, special time.

The atmosphere of it all reminds me that, despite the whole masterly manipulated reputation of faceless FIFA and their profitable (for some) global sporting event, the sport’s heart still beats on the street, with the ordinary fans, even with those who have never watched a game in their lives: the long-suffering wives who need to hear what the off-side rule is every five minutes, the kids armed with cheap plastic balls, eager to go out and do it themselves, the aunties making cheesy asides like “O, he has nice cheekbones” and “Now, who is this guy again? Do we like him?” and the uncles who get a little upset because it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual game.

And yes, also the average bug-eyed couch potato in 2014, with chip crumbs down his shirt and a sleeping cat on his head, whose goal-scoring screams wake the baby, and who eventually takes out a separate mortgage out on the living room. He, too, is eager to take another great big swig from the Kool-Aid that is the FIFA World Cup of soccer…in Brazil…in 2014…oops.

*This piece was first published on the Athena website http://imagineathena.com .

Thanks to the editors for allowing it to be republished here. 

CD Anderson is a writer from the northern most edge of Snor City, and speculates in various forms of artistic tomfoolery. 

He collects interesting words, bad habits and funk rock records. He has wife, a dog and a Thomas, and really doesn’t feel that old, honestly. 

He can often be found loitering here: @bizarrojerri / bizarrojerri.wordpress.com

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