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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Matter of Life and Death

Roll out the hooplah and profligacy, the pageantry and waste! The World Cup is about to begin. Many people in the world will begin to wonder, what's the big deal? Why so much press, why so much jabber?

Well, the simple answer is that, despite the hype and the self-aggrandisement from Sepp Blatter and FIFA, the powers who 'own' the World Cup brand, Football is a global phenomena, the most important and pervasive pastime of our time . Football is the funnel and the fantasy for the hopes of so many impoverished people. In a way it is sad that football has taken on this role; Why not poetry? Why not Opera? Why not gardening? In a way it is also beautiful that football is the world's placebo; for FIFA may own the World Cup brand but they do not own every clay pitch nor every ragged ball upon the globe. It is still the people's game. (Besides those who have no time for the extravagance of literature, nor the frivolousness of art for its own sake, and those who till the soil for work not pleasure still find time to follow the fortune of The Selection.)

So as the vetted stories roll of the tickers it will be worthwhile looking beyond the sanctioned scripts. Take for example this story about New Zealand's disrupted first training session. It seems the scouts did not do their job properly since the All Whites' floodlit training pitch is surrounded by thousands of households which burn coal for their cookers. The smoke was so thick that New Zealand had to cut short their first hit out for fear of lung damage. Surely a big disappointment for Ricki Herbert, but not too serious. There'll be another place, another time for training. The story aired here as the lead story in the evening sports round up, and so it should. The irony is that for the thousands of people who live in that township the very real danger of cooking with carcenogenic coal smoke will not go away when the World Cup ends.

Likewise how is a football fan to interpret the shameful story of South African poor being shepherded into temporary housing, reminiscent of the District 9 refugee camps, to 'clean up' the country ahead of international media and diplomats arriving. The slogan Homes, not Games, used by critics of the Vancouver Winter Olympics is admirable but ultimately futile. The poor will no doubt want both, since they have waited years to see Bafana, Bafana back in the spotlight.

The real hope lies in the fact that the assembled media, sick of being corralled into highly managed mixed-zones may wander far from the FIFA cordons, and beam back some of the real South Africa to the watching world.

Oh yes, Football is important, but the game at the elite level has long been co-opted by political agendas- The Junta used the 1978 World Cup in Argentina to serve its own ends, Mussolini had the Azzurri playing in black shirts instead of blue, the Chilean Junta used their National Stadium as a Prison camp. The temptation for politicians and war mongers to hijack the game is all too prevalant. Will there be another Football War- An encounter where the nomonal tinder is football, but the real fuel is long standing ethnic or dogmatic tension? Will Kim Jong Il use the World Cup as a platform for propaganda; denying his long suffering people even the joy of following their team, a right we all take for granted? Will Obama use the photo ops to divert attention from the horrors unfolding in the Gulf? All that money and energy being channelled into sport when very real environmental and social catastrophes continue to be ignored. How does a football fan compartmentalise that?

There will no doubt be some act of gross charlatanry and cowardice linked to the World Cup, whether some petty despot decides to milk the Cup for glory, or whether some put upon wife takes the full brunt of a husband's fury when his team is eliminated, it is almost inevitable that the World Cup will bring misery to some.

And for all this Football is never spent, there lives the dearest freshness deep down things. Despite the tyranny and terror which may or may not arise the majority of the globe will appear to blithe it come Cup Final day on July 11. Are the poor worried about the threat of war and terror enough to switch the TV off? Not likely, for irreverence is a greater oaf than superstition. And the reverence of the Cup will surely bring a joy which will outweigh the misery.

Football is not a matter of life and death, it is far more serious than that- the World Cup may yet throw more light on the suffering of the world, and help unite people in the understanding that we can all get joy from the simplest game.

Rant over. Game on.

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