It’s always like this. The World Cup takes four long years to come and is off again after four of the shortest weeks of your life.
After flitting through stadia, cities, airports and bus stations, spending hours at huge, billowy media tents, subsisting on beef lasagne, schnitzels, burgers and French fries, here I am now waiting at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium for the end to begin later tonight.
There will be a new champion by the time Holland or Spain go home, one country in defeat, the other in victory. A new Word Cup champion nation hasn’t emerged since 1998, the year when India tested its nuclear bomb, Mohammad Azharuddin was our Test cricket captain, and France stunned Brazil to lift the cup in Paris.
But this time, there will be a champion team lifting the World Cup outside their country. The last time that happened was when Pele was 17 and Garrincha, the little bird who left defenders belly-up. That was in 1958.
The monster tournament has grown in size and popularity since the World Cup ball was first dropped on an Uruguyan pitch 80 years ago. But the winners’ club has been the exclusive purview of seven nations: Brazil winning five times, Italy four, Germany three and Argentina and Uruguay twice each, with France and England getting a piece once. After tonight, this G-7 will expand to G-8. So by 2014 when I’m (inshallah!) in Brazil for the next World Cup, the list of usual suspects everyone calls favourites going into the tournament will be, well, a little unusual.
The guided-missile heads of Wesley Sneijder and Carles Puyol being among the reasons why their teams have got to the final, there is little to differentiate between Holland and Spain tonight. But without doubt, the two best teams of 2010 World Cup will be coming out of the tunnel of Soccer City Stadium in a few hours.
Holland go into the final with an all-win record. Under coach Bert van Marwijk, the Oranjemen have lost only once — 25 games ago. The only time they looked under pressure in South Africa was in the first half of the quarter-final against Brazil in Port Elizabeth. It was a situation tailormade for another legendary Holland implosion. Often scythed by dissension or, as Van Marwijk put it, arrogance after a few good wins, this Dutch side has shown a lot of character, that writer and fellow national Ian Buruma described in another context as a quiet, let’s-get-the-job done ‘Protestant ethic’.
Now, they can be the first team since Brazil in 1970 to win all their matches on their way to the title. And they don’t have the pressure of playing against the hosts in the final as they did in 1974 (West Germany) and again in 1978 (Argentina). As Ruud Krol, twice World Cup runner-up, put it, “I don’t think many Dutch people will be able to live with a third failure. It has to be third-time lucky for us.”
But what about the ever under-achieving ‘conquistadores’? As expected of a team that’s led the Fifa rankings for 17 of the last 24 months, Spain have won and drawn far more often than they’ve lost. No wonder coach Vicente del Bosque termed the stutter against Switzerland as “a shock, a surprise” more than once since disaster struck the ‘armada’ in Durban on June 16. If Spain do win tonight, they would be the first team since France in 2000 to be World and European champions.
Cape of extremely good hope
So with the climax of a month-long saga coming to an end later tonight, how has it been for those who’ll really wake up tomorrow and find the World Cup missing? I mean, for South Africans?
From Devaa, the dental surgeon who bar-tends for a hobby at night, to Madison, the taxi driver in Durban, to the receptionists at Hotel Oribi in Kensington, a Johannesburg suburb, where I stayed for nearly a month, everyone has spoken of good business “from the World Cup”. With the host team not qualifying to the second round, the Waka Waka World Cup may not have been as good as projected but as they all seem to be saying here, “Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all."
But the ‘bread’ on the table for the rest of the world hasn’t been bad at all. Whether from the stands or on TV, millions followed the ‘Hand of Suarez’; Frank Lampard’s ‘phantom’ goal that, like Schrödinger’s cat in quantum physics, was a goal and not a goal at the same time; Carlos Tevez’s strikes from off-side; a lot of orange and red and a bit of Brazil; Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, and the marauding young Germans; and — as long as weren’t an Italy fan — almost nothing of defending champions Italy.
And today, Johannesburg is “fully, fully booked” with people offered lodgings in Magaliesburg that’s 124 km away. And they are the lucky ones. Some who will descend on Soccer City Stadium tonight have been offered places to stay in Cape Town and Durban will be flying in and flying out. Just to watch some final magic and fireworks before life returns to normal and the world returns being flat.