World Cup Prejudices
Published: Sunday | July 9, 2006

For all that, and all that,
It is coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.

­ Robert Burns

MAN HAS dreamed of universal brotherhood since time began. Why can't we forget our superficial differences of race, religion and language and focus on a common higher goal? It's a question our greatest minds have pondered without success.

Yet, every four years teams of mostly uneducated young men kicking around inflated bladders produce a month of global harmony, or at least the closest approximation our contradictory species has produced. It's a safe wager that the global crime rate plummets during the World Cup as young men everywhere sit glued to television sets. And even those indifferent to football must thrill to the wonderful images of disparate fans joyously embracing each other.

It's a striking commentary on human nature that this basically juvenile pastime ­ at 34 football senior citizen Zidane is too young to run for head of state in most countries ­ has done more than any learned treatise to unite mankind. Diego Maradona might be an unprincipled, drug-addicted imbecile, but he has brought more people together than Plato, Kant, Einstein, Gandhi and Mandela combined.

Which brings to mind Russian journalist Vitali Vitaliev's first visit to Prague after the fall of communism. A 30-metre-high statue of Stalin had been replaced by an equally tall rubber figure of then 'king of pop' Michael Jackson, and the way in which the 'Great Friend of Children (especially boys)' manipulated excited young fans disgusted Vitali. But, as he observed:


"No matter how weird and shallow the adoration of Michael Jackson might be, it was still incomparably better than the personality cult of Stalin which had cost humankind many millions of innocent lives ... 'Jackson is preferable to Stalin' decided I, and headed for a nearby pub. For the first time in years, I was desperate for a beer."

It's easy to scoff at the ridiculously overheated emotions the World Cup engenders. Yet, an estimated 80 per cent of earth's inhabitants watched at least part of a match. Never before have so many from so far shared such common emotions. 'The Football Association Rule Book' ­ produced at an 1863 meeting of a few Oxbridge graduates in a London pub ­ virtually created a universal language.

In a sense, the entire planet's acceptance of a uniform set of laws to settle boasts of national prowess represents a quantum leap for mankind. Mindless and meaningless it all may be, but so are most wars. It's infinitely wiser for countries to batter each other into submission with balls instead of bombs.

If only America and Iraq or Israel and Palestine could learn to settle their differences on a football pitch as England and Germany and France and Italy do now. Perhaps the single most significant political phenomenon of the past 40 years has been the European Union's growth. But would integration have progressed so smoothly and rapidly without player movement around the European Leagues? Can Englishmen who cheer rabidly for Arsenal's Thierry Henry dislike the French?


Despite all the hype, the World Cup is usually a disappointing sporting spectacle. The preliminary matches produce occasional gems like that 23 pass Argentine goal against Serbia. But, the fear of losing is so intense that knock-out matches tend to be deadly boring affairs punctuated by a very occasional spark of creativity. So I rarely watch full games anymore. But, you can't escape them entirely. And many times I saw on screen two sides that left me indifferent. Tunisia or Saudi Arabia? Who cares!

Yes, we all support underdogs. So I cheered on Togo against France and Ghana against Brazil and, naturally, Trinidad against Sweden. But, in trying to generate a rooting interest when equals met, I often found myself falling back on national stereotypes and memory scraps while being rudely reminded of my global ignorance.

Portugal and Holland? Nothing rang a bell. Germany and Argentina? Well, I've always hated the idea of robotic teutonic ultra efficiency. But, maybe not as much as unsportsmanlike Argentine arrogance. Spain versus France though created a thought provoking mental deadlock ­ the peerless Pascal or the incomparable Don Quixote?

England and Portugal? Well, I speak English and live under English-derived laws and grew up with Manchester United and know about Beckham and Rooney. So it was a little sad to see the Poms knocked out. Yet, thinking of those obnoxious, drunk, braying hooligans chanting 'Two World Wars and One World Cup!', well, maybe another honourable English defeat wasn't such a bad thing.


Brazil and France? Well, Brazil means the immortal Pele but I'm tired of them winning and people who have been there tell me it's a pretty racist country, and while smiling Ronaldo seems a nice guy his smug teammates are irritating. Plus, eight of the French squad are from Martinique and Guadeloupe, meaning it's almost a Caribbean side. Vive la France!

Italy and Germany? Well, Italians always remind me of Jamaicans, full of exuberance people of the heart. On a cruder level ­ though I'm sure today's Germans are mostly nice people who abhor Nazism ­ better Mussolini than Hitler. And Verdi is my favourite composer. Forza Italia!

Portugal and France? Well, smaller underdog Portugal would be a welcome 'none of the usual suspects' winner and why not the 'genius' Scolari leading two different teams to consecutive World Cup victories? Yet, the same 'washed up old men' Les Bleus winning the World Cup after 2002's humiliation would be a paean to sporting unpredictability. So, whoever.


As to the all-blue final, well, if those Seria A cheating reports are accurate, honest folk should cheer against Italy. Which means the Azzurri will probably triumph. But whoever hoists the cup, I'll care for about ten seconds. No doubt the losing team of young multimillionaires will be consoled by adoring groupies.

So a month of cheers and tears boils down to one victor and 31 vanquished, with the moans not only outnumbering the roars but resonating more deeply. After the initial euphoria, sporting triumphs always leave an 'Is that all there is?' aftertaste, while the defeated are haunted by 'if only' thoughts. In Emily Dickinson's words, "Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed."

Indeed, it's now a scientific fact that losing hurts worse than winning feels good. According to the July 3 Newsweek, stock markets in countries knocked out of the World Cup tend to go down, but they don't go up in those that win. Proof perhaps, as Damon Runyon quipped, that life in general is six to five against.

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