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World Cup celebrates shared human passion

Even those who aren't fans can and should appreciate that the World Cup is far more than a mere competition. During the next four weeks, hundreds of millions of people will celebrate a shared passion and, because of it, perhaps fret a little less over the things that drive them apart. That is a beautiful and all-too-rare thing.

sports Updated: Jun 12, 2010 11:54 IST

What came first: The wheel or the football? And which one, if it was taken away from us, would we miss the most?

Easy. The football. The wheel merely helps us get around. But we would be less human without our footballs.

Even those who aren't fans can and should appreciate that the World Cup is far more than a mere competition. During the next four weeks, hundreds of millions of people will celebrate a shared passion and, because of it, perhaps fret a little less over the things that drive them apart. That is a beautiful and all-too-rare thing.

President Barack Obama's election aside, when was the last time so many parts of the world were gripped by such excitement? To hazard a guess, four years ago when players from 32 nations came together to test their skills with a round ball.

Even if we don't speak each other's languages, don't always appreciate and respect each other's cultures, religions, politics and lifestyle choices, "Goal!" is a word that resonates joyfully and is understood from Beijing to Bogota, Sydney to Seattle. No other sport speaks to so many. The game's cross-border, cross-culture, cross-division universality is what makes the World Cup so special, a celebration not of 22 players on a pitch but of all who watch them.

In Britain, power engineers are bracing for huge spikes in demand for electricity at the end of games, as TV viewers emerge from their couches, switch on lights, grab drinks from fridges and turn on kettles for cups of tea.

In Brazil, beer consumption is expected to rise sharply. The government slashed import tariffs on beer cans to avoid shortages. Banks will close when Brazil plays. Same goes for public employees in Honduras, who are getting time off to watch the national team's matches.

How comforting that so many of us will tune in together in our far-flung corners of the globe. That makes the planet feel reassuringly small, a global village.
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Congratulations, South Africa. You did it.

When FIFA president Sepp Blatter pulled South Africa's name from an envelope in 2004, many were skeptical that it could get ready to host a World Cup in just six years. But it has. The stadiums look prepared. The South African people even more so. The players are here. The matches have begun.

Arguments about whether the billions of dollars invested could have been better spent on schools, water and hospitals will not stop when the winning team lifts the World Cup on July 11. Perhaps some of the new stadiums will be unused and fall into disrepair after the world goes home, which has happened elsewhere with Olympic venues. Let's hope not.

But does the money really matter, was it really ill-spent, when its effects are clearly making a whole nation, perhaps a whole continent, feel so good about itself?

In the apartheid era, playing football nourished the dignity and sense of self-worth of political prisoners locked on Robben Island. They fought and pressured their jailers to be allowed to hold matches, organize leagues, build a pitch and buy equipment. Winning that right was an important victory. Now, hosting the World Cup is nourishing the confidence of an entire country.

In the words of Nana Masithela, attending a pre-World Cup concert on Thursday, "We are showcasing ourselves, to say, `Blacks can do it!"'
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Unfortunately, French defender William Gallas and a few other super-sulks just don't get the significance of it all. Gallas "has decided not to speak to the media for the duration of the World Cup," says France team spokesman Francois Manardo. No explanation why.

Veteran Mexican striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco also is avoiding any contact with reporters after a photographer caught him smoking a cigarette outside Mexico's training camp in Germany two weeks ago. That players have been keeping largely to themselves is understandable, given that winning matches is foremost on their minds. The ultra-luxurious hotels being used by teams such as France do seem jarringly sinful compared with the poverty of Africa, although such contrasts of rich and poor are part of life here and predate the World Cup.

But players who cold-shoulder their fans and their South African hosts by snubbing reporters cannot be excused.