After months of build up, the opening ceremony of the most popular of sporting events reached its climax with the most symbolic of couples lifting the most coveted of prizes. Pelé, with 1281 goals the most prolific scorer of all time and indisputably the most recognisable symbol of virile excellence, walking hand in hand with the most distinctive (and beautiful) face in Germany (the host country, of course), Claudia Schiffer, as coveted a prize as the cup they held in their hands, as accomplished a woman as Pelé a man at what women do best: look beautiful, exploit their allure and complement a man. A raw feminist might have cringed but then in all likelihood no raw feminist was watching.
And yet, it is not only the sensibility of a gender theorist which might be insulted by the general phenomenon that accompanies competitive football. In no other sphere and under no other circumstances is it acceptable to raise delicate issues with the alacrity and the voracity that football fans from opposing countries do. Of course, the official stance is that political correctness must not be transgressed; however, you would have to be deaf, blind and dumb as well as willingly ignorant not to notice the undercurrent prevailing in most chants, tabloid headlines and plain exhortations voiced in the period immediately before, during and immediately after a big football game.
Racial issues aside –FIFA’s concentrated effort has succeeded in making racist comments truly intolerable-, all aspects of historic, social and even ethnic animosity are revisited during these four weeks of fantasy. Yet, the distasteful antagonism that exists between rival camps is in the end meant to serve the role of integrating element within each crowd (crowds which often share absolutely no other interests in life apart from football) rather than to fruitlessly incense the spirit of the opposition: as a social spectacle little can be more entertaining than watching a bunch of Argentinean fans stand in front of a massive big screen on a hill in the Olympic complex of Munich separated merely by a corridor of stairs from a bundle of Brazilian sympathisers who momentarily pledge allegiance to the Ivory Coast (Costa do Marfil turned for a day into Costa do Brasil) exchanging insults with a large smile on all their faces. In the end, the Argies laughed the loudest in the best footballing contest of the tournament so far, as 75 minutes of top-class, high-tempo competition received a deadly blow with Argentina’s second goal, from the boot of young Saviola. However, that didn’t stop the African (and adopted African) fans from celebrating through the night in Hamburg –the game’s venue- on Saturday evening; much in the same way that a miserable first outing for the Brazilian dream-team did not stop an all nighter in Berlin on Tuesday night, after Kaká’s clinical left-foot strike sealed a 1-0 victory over a Croatia side that only lacked self-belief to beat the reigning world champions.
As the Aguillian delegation will find once they arrive in Germany, the World Cup Finals have a lot more to offer than simply sport. Football fever in the host country knows no limit at the moment –the extent to which it dominates all aspects of life remains truly staggering. Songs, banners, competitions and all sorts of publicity revolve around the collective euphoria created by the event; And the atmosphere will not be the least important element to leave a –hopefully fruitful and indelible- mark in our representatives when some of the best footballers in the world go through rehearsed situations to provoke specific reactions, when solid defences counterfeit these moves with moves of their own, when footballing artists create magic and inspire whole stadiums, which hold more than five times the population of Anguilla.
Among the worthiest moments in what has otherwise been a week of questionable football must be counted Arjen Robben’s dominating first half for Holland in their victory against Serbia and Montenegro (itself a historic game for involving a team that represents a country which no longer exists); Tomas Rosicky’s two beautiful goals in Czech Republic’s comprehensive demolition of USA; Mexico’s impressive second half effort against Iran (although their performance must be qualified by the standard of a courageous opposition which nonetheless ran themselves out of energy after a gutsy first half); Italy’s careful (aughhh, and ever so boring) domination of another African representative, Ghana, who despite showing all the guts that characterised Angola’s performance and all the confidence that was oozed by Ivory Coast, failed to turn their ball possession into palpable results; and finally Portugal’s strong start against Angola, showing world class until falling victim of their usual weak temperament after a frustrating first half which saw Pauleta and Ronaldo miss three goals each.
In fact, Angola might have pulled a sensational late equaliser out of their hat after a last minute uncertainty by Portugal’s Maniche lead to Angola’s best chance of the game. It was not to be, and thus the greatest upset of the tournament remains TnT’s intense goal-less draw against a one-dimensional Sweden obsessed in finding the strong heads of Larsson and Ibrahimovic. Even after Avery John’s dismissal, the soca warriors looked solid at the back and, with Dwight Yorke playing a very deep creative midfield, Leo Beehacker’s boys were even able to string a few passes together. It was, however, late replacement keeper Shaka Hislop’s heroics which ensured that Trinidad and Tobago –the smallest nation ever to qualify to the World Cup Finals- have more than pride to play for when they face the lacklustre England side who despite beating Paraguay failed to show any of the superiority that have made them the second favourite –behind Brazil- to lift Jules Rimet’s trophy this summer.
All in all, a tournament which still keeps its best football moments from us has already delivered plenty of adorable stories. Not least the enthralling finale to Australia’s first World Cup Finals victory against a cagey Japan eleven who stopped playing after being awarded an illegitimate goal in the first half and who looked not only drained but also shocked beyond reaction after keeper Kawaguchi –till that point Japan’s hero- made a costly mistake that culminated in Tim Cahill’s equaliser in the 86th minute. The remaining seven minutes of the match were no more taxing than training for Australia, who scored two more to snatch three points from their first group stage game.
Nevertheless, the fairytale of the competition so far must go to Philipp Lahm, the young German left-back who, barely 19 days after an operation, opened the score of the first game of the championship in Munich –a couple of miles away from his own home- with an astounding, heart-stopping, eye-watering right-foot stormer that hit the inside corner of Costa Rica’s goal, sending the arms of 60.000 spectators at the brand new Alianz Arena, plus 35.000 fans in an over-run Football Festival (supposed to house no more than 20.000) and in all fairness at least half the 80 million population of Germany into seventh heaven. Standing next to Costa Rican fans they told me how proud they were to lose such –the best ever- opening game; Trinies were more than proud, they were jubilant to get a point; Ivory Coasters were equally jubilant, despite getting no point at all; Mexicans have been ecstatic after every single game –even the ones that do not affect their team in the least; Argentineans remain hopeful after a strong first outing. Brazilians are all of the above; and the rest of us, we just wait for the ball to roll again so that we can enjoy the show.