A game like no other - Macleans.ca

A game like no other

The World Cup is fuelling the hopes and dreams of an entire continent


Jorge Silva / Reuters

Like an apparition in red, South Africa’s Soccer City Stadium rises from the spare, bone-dry grasslands on the western fringe of Soweto, the Johannesburg township that Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and soccer star Steve Pienaar once called home. The curvy, 95,000-seat venue, clad in a mosaic of earthy reds and browns, looks like a calabash, a traditional pot used to cook and brew beer. At night, a row of lights along the bottom simulates a fire, completing the illusion.

Last month, the striking soccer pitch overlooking the downtown skyline still seemed ominously like a construction zone—piles of gravel, pallets and concrete tubing scattered outside—although it had officially been declared “finished” 18 months earlier. Just final prettying, it turned out, of the stadium’s spectacular $461-million makeover; part of an ambitious program that has seen South Africa, host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, construct two brand-new pitches, and rebuild or renovate seven others almost from the grounds up for the competition that begins June 11.

World Cup 2010 Special

Soccer City is already rich with symbolism for South Africans. In a nod to the industry that launched the continent’s biggest economy, the players’ tunnel mimics a mine shaft, complete with exposed soil and concrete. Its orange-yellow seats evoke the mineral pulled from the nearby west reef gold mines. Here, in 1990, only hours after the end of his 27-year imprisonment, Mandela gave his historic speech setting out a vision of racial peace and reconciliation. And by July 11, when it plays host to the tournament’s final match, the stadium may well mean something special to the rest of the world.

On this day, inside soccer’s newest cathedral, all was quiet. But in its shadow, a handful of boys played pickup soccer in the late-afternoon sun, a scene undoubtedly being replayed across Africa, from Kampala’s slums to Meskel Square in downtown Addis Ababa—as it has, a million times before, in Barcelona’s parks, Brazil’s favelas and in concrete courtyards in suburban Paris. Forget for now North American football, basketball or even baseball. Forget the Olympics. This game, like none other, belongs to the world, available to anyone with a ball and a patch of ground, a truly democratic pastime. FIFA estimates that 265 million people now play in organized leagues. Every continent—and almost every country—can point with pride to homegrown “footie” stars. And nothing in sports means more than this tournament. Almost half the planet watched the last World Cup final in Berlin in 2006, the first time three billion humans have ever done anything simultaneously, notes David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round, a history of soccer. Viewership this summer—the quadrennial tournament’s first visit to Africa—is predicted to climb another five per cent.

All World Cups, by their nature, are momentous. But this one is also a vessel for some rather lofty ambitions; a sort of global debutantes’ ball for both the host country and the continent. “We can all applaud. The victor is football. The victor is Africa,” FIFA president Sepp Blatter declared when the tournament was awarded in 2004. The coming-of-age/welcome-to-the-adults’-table narrative—not unlike the one that surrounded the 2008 Beijing Olympics—is still getting the hard sell: “What we hope as an outcome is that this country will become a destination, a business entry point for the African continent,” Danny Jordaan, chief executive of the South Africa 2010 organizing committee, told the AP in April. “It’s an image makeover.”

Success off the field, of course, heavily depends on the outcome of the tournament itself. Six African nations are competing: South Africa, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria. As recently as a couple of years ago, there were bold predictions of a home-continent victory. (Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions made the quarter-finals in 1990, Africa’s greatest success to date.) But circumstances are conspiring against a story-book ending. Ghana will be without one of its biggest stars, Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien, ruled out by a knee injury. Ivory Coast’s Elephants, led by another Chelsea star, Didier Drogba, has drawn a spot in the “group of death” with favourites Brazil and Portugal, and only two teams will advance. Cameroon’s past heroes have been sniping from the sidelines about this team’s lack of fire, causing captain Samuel Eto’o, who plies his trade for FC Internazionale in Milan, to threaten to stay home.

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South Africa, at least, has proclaimed itself ready to welcome the world—and perhaps beat them. The venues are completed, the massive security operation is primed, fan-fests are open, and the Gautrain, the continent’s first high-speed rail line (built by an international consortium that includes Canada’s Bombardier) is scheduled to start service June 8. Even the traditional details have been attended to: tribal chiefs and healers slaughtered a cow outside Soccer City in a ceremony to welcome fans, and ensure that ancestral spirits won’t be frightened by the babel of foreign tongues. So far it’s working. The country’s national squad, nicknamed Bafana Bafana (the Boys) and ranked 83rd in the world, surprised 35th-ranked Colombia in a friendly last week, winning 2-1.

For all the positive developments in the run-up to the June 11 kickoff, the grubby counter-stories have commanded their share of international attention. There have been reports of at least two al-Qaeda plots; the first targeting the Danish and Dutch teams, the second, the match between England and the United States on June 12. Authorities have downplayed the threats, but some 55,000 officers will be on South Africa’s streets during the festivities, bolstered by special protection squads from each of the other 31 participating nations. Fear of crime, a long-standing problem in South Africa—on average there are 50 murders a day—is said to be keeping some fans away, despite government assurances that the situation is in hand (undermined this week by reports that five Colombian players had money stolen from their Johannesburg hotel rooms; two cleaners were arrested). Port and rail workers have just settled a crippling three-week strike, and now power workers are contemplating a walkout.

World Cup 2010 Special

And the soaring cost of the tourney—now estimated at $4.6 billion—in a country where the unemployment rate hovers at almost 25 per cent, and millions still lack basics like electricity and water, has raised fears of violent protests. The global recession has washed away the initial optimistic talk of $13 billion in spinoff revenue for South Africa. Heading to the kickoff, the only clear winners are FIFA and its corporate friends. The sale of broadcast rights alone for 2010 brought in $2.15 billion, up 53 per cent over 2006. Current figures aren’t available, but the sale of marketing rights to its six official partners, including Visa and Sony, brought in another $715 million for the 2006 edition. (Adidas forked out $350 million for its seven-year partnership ending in 2014.) Coca-Cola, another global sponsor, is powering its 2010 marketing campaign—the biggest in company history—with Wavin’ Flag, a hit song from Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan. The Cup’s best ad, however, belongs to a company that’s outside the party tent. Nike’s three-minute epic, “Write the Future,” set an Internet record with 7.8 million views in its debut week.

Then there are the tickets. Organizers predict they will have sold 98 per cent of the 2.88 million available by kickoff. But for all the hype about this being a continent-wide event, only 40,000 of those seats have gone to African fans living outside the host nation. FIFA blames high travel and accommodation costs (getting from here to there in Africa sometimes requires a logic-defying detour through European airports). The truth is the $80 price put the tickets out of reach of all but the wealthy, as did the way they were sold—over the Internet, credit card only.

Still, the World Cup does have a proven, transformative power. In 1998, France’s Cinderella run to the title before its home fans also became a celebration of the French multi-ethnic ideal. Les bleus were led by Zinedine Zidane, a Muslim of Algerian descent. Thierry Henry, their most fearsome striker, was black. When millions flooded the streets cheering their names it was seen as a landmark not just for French sport, but for French society, too. Likewise, there is a deeper meaning to Germany’s World Cup win in 1954 over Hungary’s “Magical Magyars”—one of the sport’s greatest upsets. Rainer Werner Fassbinder seized on it for The Marriage of Maria Braun, his classic film about German postwar renewal. “Deutschland ist wieder was!” a sportscaster is heard screaming in its final scene—Germany is something again!

Such heady triumphs make it easy to overlook the other, less-savoury moments, like the second World Cup in 1934 (the tournament started in Uruguay four years before), hosted and won by fascist Italy; the über-nationalism introduced by Mussolini remains ubiquitous. “Two world wars and one World Cup,” fans in Britain sneer when playing Germany, invoking their celebrated win in 1966 over their archrival (and happily ignoring Germany’s three trophies). When England plays Argentina, they chant: “Where is your navy? At the bottom of the sea,” in reference to the Falklands War. Such ugliness is not exclusive to the World Cup: chauvinism, racism (particularly in southern and eastern Europe) and intense violence are also central to soccer’s global storyline.

The experience in South Africa will help settle whether such trends belong to the sport’s past or future. There is no game with a greater international reach, and some argue that its integrated markets are already chipping away at national and tribal identities. Chelsea, once famous for xenophobic hooliganism, became in 1999 the first British team to field an entirely non-English squad. Only two players with Brazil, the most storied and successful team on the planet—Cup favourites, once again—actually play there. The rest play in Europe, in the game’s richest leagues: England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

All that inclusive, Kumbaya spirit somehow seems to have bypassed Canadians, however. Not only did our national side fail to qualify for the tournament, Canuck-born players with dual citizenship, like Calgary’s Owen Hargreaves (England) and Toronto’s Jonathan de Guzmán (the Netherlands), didn’t make their adopted squads. The sole Canadian on the pitch in South Africa will be Winnipeg’s Héctor Vergara, a referee. Go ahead and cheer.

World Cup 2010 Special

Tino Lettieri, who was Canada’s goalkeeper at the World Cup in Mexico in 1986—to date, this country’s only trip to the big show—says most North Americans fail to grasp how fierce the global competition is for a qualifying spot. “It’s so difficult to get there,” says Lettieri, who now lives in Minnesota where he owns a chain of pizzerias. “These other countries live and die for this competition.” The top-flight players in Canada are still mostly the children of immigrants from soccer-mad cultures, he notes. (Lettieri was born in Bari, Italy, although he ended up with the nickname “the Roman Pony,” a PR man’s wink at Sylvester Stallone’s “Italian Stallion.”) Soccer boasts far more registered players in Canada than even hockey, but rarely generates the same sort of commitment and fervour. The issue may be too many competing choices, says Lettieri, pointing to his own 16-year-old son, who spends more of the year on skates than in cleats.

Contrast that with the reality for most African children. “Soccer is a lot more than just a sport in a community with no cinema, no community centre, or any amenities,” Peter Alegi, author of African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game, says from his home in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. “Otherwise meaningless games between 12-year-old boys take on the importance of a World Cup final.” Raised in Italy, educated in America, the historian says he learned the true meaning of the game when he volunteered as a coach in the black townships in the early 1990s. A generation of African stars have already transformed the way the game is played internationally. Now they are bringing that same sense of pride and ownership to the World Cup, hoping it can change perceptions of a continent. “Africa tends to be associated with negative images; death, disease, despair, the kid in Mogadishu clutching the rocket-propelled grenade,” says Alegi. “It’s a matter of tremendous pride, for South Africans in particular, to have pulled off this global mega-event.” Will the good feelings last, or the benefits spread beyond their borders? That’s what the events of the next month will determine.

It’s not hard to find evidence that the transformation has begun. Last fall, Chelsea’s Drogba signed a $4.6-million deal to become the global face of Pepsi-Cola. In a move that should put many of his sporting compatriots to shame, he pledged all the money to the building of a new hospital in his native Ivory Coast. “I made a promise to myself that if I was able to live my dream as a footballer, I would build my dream in Africa, in my hometown of Abidjan,” Drogba said at the time. The 200-bed facility is scheduled to open by the end of 2011, and aims to save some 10,000 lives a year.

Drogba—who left home for France at the age of five to further his chances of becoming a pro—was shocked into action after he visited an Abidjan hospital last year. “We hear about all the incurable diseases, but these kids are just as likely to die from diabetes because there is no insulin available,” he said. “It was then I decided the [Didier Drogba] foundation’s first project should be to build and fund a hospital giving people basic health care and a chance just to stay alive.”

The mythology surrounding soccer has always been powerful. When it comes to the game’s future in Africa, the dreams are too.

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