FIFA World Cup: The greatest spectacle on earth

It comes around once in four years, throwing up heroes, villains and fools and eliciting the most intense of reactions.

Published : Jun 11, 2014 12:30 IST

Pele in action during Brazil's 5-2 semi-final victory over France in the 1958 World Cup. He, aged just 17 then, scored three goals in the match.

Pele in action during Brazil's 5-2 semi-final victory over France in the 1958 World Cup. He, aged just 17 then, scored three goals in the match.

THE British author Terry Pratchett writes in his Unseen Academicals : “The thing about football—the important thing about football—is that it is not just about football.” And so it is with the FIFA World Cup, arguably the greatest sporting spectacle on earth. For one full month, the whole world is united under one overpowering, obsessive interest as high drama unfolds before billions of people, throwing up heroes, tragic figures, villains and fools; eliciting reactions that span the entire gamut of human emotions, from the heights of jubilation to the depths of despair.

Even death is no stranger to the event, as was evident in the murder of the elegant Colombian defender Andres Escobar, who, some believe, was murdered by the Colombian drug cartel for accidentally scoring a same-side goal in a match against the United States in the 1994 World Cup. Little wonder that when the French philosopher and Nobel laureate Albert Camus was asked which one he preferred, football or theatre, he apparently answered, “Football”, without any hesitation. Camus himself was a keen footballer and was a goalkeeper in the university team while studying at the University of Algiers.

No other sporting event has had such a far-ranging social impact as the World Cup in football. Though only 32 countries compete for the 18-carat-gold, 6.1-kg FIFA World Cup trophy, all the countries of the world get involved in a manner that is inexplicably deep and emotional. Even in Kolkata, more than 13,000 km away from Brazil which is hosting the 2014 World Cup, various youth clubs hoist the national colours of the different countries they support and celebrate their victories and mourn their losses with as much ardour as in those countries themselves.

The World Cup only confirms what Konrad Lorenz, the great Austrian ethologist, wrote in his seminal book On Aggression: “Sporting contests between nations are beneficial not only because they provide an outlet for the collective militant enthusiasm of nations, but also because... they promote personal acquaintance between people of different countries who otherwise would have little in common.”

Genius and insanity

The World Cup is the ultimate stage for the most universal game in the world. It is a unique platform on which dramatic passions of inestimable intensity are played out as glory and shame share the same dais and the line between genius and insanity is often blurred. It is only on a stage like this that Diego Maradona’s infamous “hand of god” goal in 1986 against England cannot but coexist with his second goal, which many consider to be the “goal of the century”. Just three minutes after fisting the ball into the back of the net, the Argentine legend dribbled past five English players and scored one of the most breathtaking goals in World Cup history; it was as though he was making amends for his earlier moral lapse.

For many, the defining moment of the 2006 World Cup was not Italy lifting the trophy, but the French legend Zinedine Zidane being sent off at the end of extra time in the final for headbutting Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest. Without Zidane, France lost the championship 5-3 in a penalty shootout. It was an inglorious exit for one of the greatest players of all time.

But whatever it was that Materazzi said that made Zidane lose his mind at the most crucial moment of the final, the French legend’s reaction perhaps sent across one message to the whole world—some things are more important than football! That is what the World Cup is all about. It is far more important than just football. And that is why for years to come it is Zidane’s headbutt that will be talked about more than Italian skipper Fabio Cannavaro’s heroics in the defence, which was instrumental in Italy’s victory.

The craze for the game has endured, if not increased, in the last 84 years since the first official World Cup was hosted in Uruguay in 1930, in which the host country became the champion, defeating Argentina. Except in 1942 and 1946, when the tournament was not conducted because of the Second World War, the FIFA World Cup has been held regularly every four years, reaching out to more and more people with every passing year. The last World Cup, held in South Africa, was broadcast to 204 countries on 245 different television channels. A total of 3,170,856 spectators attended the 64 matches in the stadiums, and over six million people attended “public viewing events” in 16 sites across the world.

One particular hero

In the 19 World Cups held so far, a total of 76 nations have participated, of which only eight countries have won the cup—Uruguay (1930, 1950), Italy (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), Germany/West Germany (1954, 1974, 1990), Brazil (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002), England (1966), Argentina (1978, 1986), France (1998) and Spain (2010). Every generation throws up its own heroes, and the World Cup is where they make their entry and their mark. But one particular hero who stands apart from the rest and practically defines the game is Pele.

In the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, 17–year-old Pele dazzled the world with his six goals, as Brazil went on to win the first of its five championships. Brazil retained the cup in 1962. In the 1966 tournament, it lost to Portugal in the group stages, but won the cup back in 1970. It was their third win and they were allowed to keep the cup, then known as the Jules Rimet Trophy, named after the former FIFA president at whose initiative the FIFA World Cup had begun.

Another name that stands out with Pele in the 1958 and 1962 World Cups was Manuel Francisco dos Santos, better known as Garrincha or “the little bird”. In 1962, with Pele out of the tournament due to injury, it was Garrincha, also affectionately called “the angel with bent legs” by his adoring fans, who dribbled Brazil to victory. For all the adulation that he received from his country —“Joy of the People” was another of his nicknames —Garrincha died in obscurity and penury in 1983, at the age of 50. He may have lost all his money, but he never lost the love of the people. “Garrincha, thank you for having lived,” a fan scrawled on a wall after his death.

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There has been no dearth of great footballers since Pele’s retirement. Gerd Muller, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Zico, Socrates, Maradona, Zidane and others, each of whom has left an indelible mark both on the field and on the minds of the spectators with his skills, vision and courage. Every World Cup has been defined by the brilliance of a few stars—Johan Cruyff (Netherlands) in 1974, Mario Kempes (Argentina) in 1978, Paolo Rossi (Italy) in 1982, Maradona (Argentina) in 1986, Romario (Brazil) in 1994, and Zidane (France) in 1998.

But then, stars are meant to dazzle. There is essentially nothing surprising about that. But what adds to the magic of the World Cup is the unexpected. A 38-year-old Roger Milla, rose out of nowhere, scored four goals and guided the unheralded Cameroon to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup. Equally unforgettable was his post-goal belly dance in celebration, imitated in school playgrounds all over the world. Then there is the example of Rossi.

This wily Italian striker triumphed over disgrace and almost single-handedly defeated the mighty Brazilian side of 1982 with a hat-trick, then proceeded to help beat Poland in the semi-finals, scoring both the goals for Italy, and finally scored the opening goal against Germany (then West Germany), helping his country win the cup for the third time, 44 years after it won it last. Similarly, the magic of the 1986 Mexico World Cup lay not only in Maradona’s wizardry, but also in the game of first-time qualifiers Denmark, whose sublime display of Total Football stunned the world, bringing back memories of the Dutch team of 1974, led by Johan Cruyff—almost universally considered to be one of the greatest teams, along with the Brazilian side of 1982, to have not won the coveted cup.

The FIFA World Cup is also the ideal tournament where ageing stars seek one final dance with greatness before gracefully bowing out amid cheers and tears, and the young look to paving their path to immortality. But not all the farewells of legends are glorious exits. Who can forget Zico and Socrates, two great Brazilian legends who failed to score off penalties against France in 1986? Or Zidane ruefully walking out of the field after being sent off in his final match in 2006?

More than just a game

As the 2014 World Cup gets underway, the players stand poised to prove their superiority over everyone else and cross over from the domain of stars to that of legends. So, who are the players who may define the World Cup this time? Cristiano Ronaldo? Lionel Messi? Neymar? Angel di Maria? Mario Balotelli? Eden Hazard? Thomas Muller? Luiz Suarez? Or will a new star burst forth onto the scene and blaze his way into the history books? Whatever happens, the one certainty about the World Cup is that there will be surprises that will be talked about for decades and tales that will be handed down from one generation to another. That is what constitutes the myth and mystery of the World Cup.

This time, the event is all the more special as it is taking place in the country that is almost synonymous with football. Not only has Brazil won the cup a record five times and ended up in the second position twice, it is also the only nation to have participated in all the 19 World Cup tournaments that have taken place so far. The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup was in 1950, when it lost to Uruguay 2-1 in the deciding match of the four-team final group, much to the bitter disappointment of the 200,000 Brazilian supporters who had turned up for the match. It remains to be seen if, 64 years later, Brazil can exorcise the ghost of the past by winning in front of the home crowd.

But at the end of it all, when the celebrations are through, when the echoes of the roar of the crowd have subsided in the empty stadium, and the last of the embers from the flaming torches and flares have been extinguished, leaving behind only wisps of smoke and strands of confetti, one may venture to suggest in a tone of mild protest: At the end of it all, it is just a game.

Well, not really. The World Cup is much more than just a game.

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