Every four years, the world celebrates its greatest sporting event, the
Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup. Unlike the
competing sports of rugby, baseball, basketball, American football, cricket and
even the Summer Olympics, soccer is the giant among world sports. The king of
games, played by paupers and royalty alike, it's enjoyed by hundreds of
millions of people if not billions around the world.
Compare the soccer tournament to all the other "World" cups you know of: rugby
involves a handful of nations with strong European bloodlines, cricket involves
former colonies of England and while the Summer Olympic Games involve an
dizzying array of sports, unfortunately these attract very specific audiences.
As for the American-dominated sports of baseball, basketball and American
football, their "World" cups involve no more than an occasional invitation to
Soccer is a simple game; all it takes is a wide-open field, a pair of goals and
a soccer ball. Add as many pairs of legs to the mix (preferably 11 pairs each
side and a couple of officials) and there you have it. Simple rules, no special
outfits and a bloody good workout for one and all.
But is it really a "World" Cup if the biggest countries of the emerging world -
China and India - will not participate? In a way, they are joined in their
splendid isolation by the United States of America. The USA is playing in the
World Cup, while the national football teams of China and India will be
watching the spectacle on television. However, while the world focuses on the
tournament, Americans will be glued to their televisions watching mundane,
parochial sports that involve marginal city teams slugging it out with each
In any event, it is unlikely that Americans will even find their way to the
right country should they so choose; if the following image from an American
television channel is any indication (sent to me as a joke on e-mail, with no
Returning to the subject of China and India at the World Cup though, it almost
seems inconceivable that the world's two most populous countries cannot even
make it to the list of 32 finalists in South Africa. It isn't the first time
either - China has rarely qualified for the World Cup and India, never.
Defenders of India point out that the country's national obsession is cricket
(I had to look this up - the actual "national" sport is field hockey), and
football is a distant second. That seems unlikely for the huge number of fans
following the European premier leagues in Asia; and the number of Chelsea,
Manchester United and Liverpool T-shirts I saw in India on my last visit.
That aside, even assuming that say only a miniscule minority of the Indian
population is interested in football - let's say only 20% of men, even that
figure accounts for over 100 million potential players; most of them under the
age of 25. Not to put too fine a point to it, with that playing population
India should be winning the cup, not merely playing in it.
There is a general disdain for sports in India though - a topic that I picked
up in my article on the 2008 Summer Olympics Games in Beijing (The
anatomy of an Olympic winner Asia Times Online, August 8, 2008). This
indifference, combined with bureaucratic hassles, petty corruption, inadequate
training and a general lack of professional and monetary value for players, has
contributed to the decline of soccer in the country.
Then there is China. Here you have a country where the average male stays up
late (or rather wakes up very early) on weekdays to watch English Premier
League games, where football is a national obsession and the anger surrounding
the national team's failure to qualify in 2006 nearly sparked riots in Tianjin,
120 kilometers southeast of Beijing (where they lost to Iraq).
Ask the average Chinese taxi driver about the national football team and you
could be risking life and limb (besides your ears) in the ensuing lecture,
while he swerves through the traffic to demonstrate the correct technique for a
midfielder. With passions running wild, the average Chinese football fan vents
his anger on the Internet, but keeps a very low profile in public.
The general consensus in China appears to be that Chinese regional football
teams have been too busy fighting each other and maximizing franchise values to
actually bother working together to create a cohesive national team (a
complaint that seems borrowed from the English team, but that's not the point
here). The more salty version of that analysis is the endemic corruption of the
national selectors and coaches, even as players get poor training and
Then there is the pressure. China has a deeply unforgiving fan base. There, an
Olympic runner would drop out rather than risk hurting his "image".
Whichever way one sees the failure to qualify, it is clear that it deeply
affects the Chinese people as an issue that should be rectified. Much like
Japan and South Korea have managed to improve themselves on the world stage,
fans hope it will soon be the turn of China.
This time around the World Cup will be held in South Africa, a country that was
outside the stage of global events for much of its recent post-colonial history
due to the unfortunate practices of apartheid. The new resource-based economy
that has emerged from the shadow is hardly perfect; indeed many would say that
it is doomed to follow the path of many of its neighbors (Zimbabwe is mentioned
by some particularly worried people); but for now this is a country that offers
Awarding the games to South Africa was controversial long before the event, as
the country was originally tipped to win the rights to host the 2006 cup that
instead was awarded to Germany - a move seen at the time as an European
conspiracy. The resulting furor created enough sympathy for South Africa to
scrape through and win the hosting of the World Cup four years later.
Frenetic preparations have been underway for the past few years, albeit to much
gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. While domestic critics have complained
about the excessive costs of building the stadia, the lack of infrastructure
that would be woefully exposed (according to them) and issues regarding
corruption (that old staple of all emerging markets); foreign critics have been
preoccupied with the country's crime rates (exposing mainly their incredible
lack of understanding of basic statistics), and the stadia's facilities and
Against the promised bookings of over half a million hotel rooms during the
World Cup, though, it appears that the cup will end up attracting less than
half that number. Perhaps this due to the recession gripping Europe or the
absence of passionate interest from the likes of Chinese and Indian fans. But
the end result is that hosting the cup could prove far from remunerative for
the South Africans. Personally, I blame the scare-tactic reporting about South
Africa in European media that will undoubtedly keep many people away.
Style and passion
As a truly global sport, soccer does have something going for it that many
other sports do not - it is firstly and most importantly a team sport. While
superstars abound - Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, England's Wayne Rooney, the
Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, Brazilian Kaka, as well as Argentinian Lionel
Messi - their success is tied to the ability of their teams to pass the
ball around in the 90-minute game as ball possession is vital.
This has allowed the English Premier League to create a game with fast-paced
action that astounds and amazes spectators and which has helped become perhaps
the richest league in world soccer. When playing for countries rather than
franchises (teams) though, players tend to speak the same language and
congregate around distinctive styles.
It is the evolution of the distinctive styles of various nations that makes
certain games, such as Brazil versus England or Germany versus Korea, so
interesting. The difference in playing styles is staggering. At the risk of
over-simplification, there is the Latin American flamboyance against the
meticulous logic of northern European teams; the exuberance of African teams
against the frenetic ball passing of the southern European teams and the
clinical styles of the North Asian teams against the sheer athleticism of the
With national styles come national stereotypes. The Italians (current defenders
of the title) are often accused of diving - fooling the referee into believing
an illegal tackle took place. This is something you might never want to mention
to an Australian - an Italian dive in the last world cup cost the "Socceroos" a
penalty and the game. Germans are considered boring.
Overused terms include the "hand of God" - a fortunate but illegal use of the
hand. This is based on Diego Maradona's goal for Argentina at the 1986
quarter-final against England, but it was more recently used in France's win in
a play-off for this year's tournament against the Republic of Ireland.
Meanwhile, the constant under-performance of the English soccer team vexes its
columnists into discussing the "Wimbledon effect", an allusion to the lack of a
British singles champion at that tennis tournament since Fred Perry in 1936.
National pressure on the qualifying teams is universal, but especially acute in
South Korea, where the population expects the "Taeguk Warriors" to match their
semi-final reaching performance of 2002.
Who will win?
"I don't know" is the right answer. Seriously, at this level of performance the
only certainty is the continued surprises. Defending champions France lost to
Senegal in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup and very few fans have
forgotten the stunning performance of Cameroon in 1990 - as well as Roger
Milla's goal celebration dances that have since been adopted in different
There are a number of wild card entries - there is North Korea, which has
returned to the world sporting stage with a bang (though hopefully it leaves
the fireworks on the field); the USA team that seems capable of some surprises
and the raft of African countries that few football fans bother to tally up
before the World Cup, only to rue the effects later on.
Then there is the weather - timed to coincide for maximum viewership in Europe
following the formal end of the football season, the winter weather in South
Africa may prove a wild card all by itself (on balance favoring the European
teams who are used to playing in cold weather).
European gambling sites are usually a good gauge of how the "experts" think:
based on the odds provided by one broker (William Hill), the chances of Spain
winning the cup are highest at 4 to 1, followed by Brazil at 9 to 2 and a tie
for third place between Argentina and England at 13 to 2. Languishing at the
bottom at 2,000 to 1 are New Zealand and North Korea, which are nicknamed the Chollima
after a Korean mythical horse. Hosts South Africa are listed at 150 to 1 (which
cannot put them in a good mood after spending all that money), while the
holders Italy have odds of 16 to 1. These will change as the games start on
Friday, and a week from now I would expect most odds to have changed
All that said, on purely principled grounds of fairness and justice, I would
like to see the Germans win. After all, the people of the country are paying
for the participation of most European countries at the cup (think Greece,
Spain, Portugal, Italy and even France) as well as (eventually) the problems of
other countries ranging from the US to South Africa; it seems only fair that
they at least get a World Cup to show for their lost billions.