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Bill Shankly, one-time famous manager of Liverpool FC, once quoted: “Someone said to me ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said ‘Listen, it’s more important than that’.” Today, we get to see how that view may be true for millions of people. The month-long tournament may be even more popular than the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which reached a global TV audience estimated at 3.6 billion people. In 2010, when South Africa hosted the World Cup, about 3.2 billion people watched at least one minute of the competition, according to FIFA; that was 10 percent more than viewed the 2006 tournament hosted by Germany. Media experts say Brazil will do better because of its large domestic audience, the timing of matches, soccer’s growing fan base in countries where other sports have dominated, and new technology. Brazil is the largest country to host a World Cup since the United States in 1994, with nearly 200 million people.

I will be glued to my television screen this afternoon. I will be shaping my activities to allow maximum viewing time. That will be interesting, because I will be travelling a lot during the tournament, including to Brazil. So, I look forward to juggling my activities, and seeing matches in ways and places that I can only imagine at the moment. My hosts in France are football fans, albeit French. I know they will go crazy when Les Bleus are playing. That’s alright.

My English family and friends will be even more fanatic, and I will understand their passion better, having grown up in England, and watched and played football there for decades. Chants of “Engerland!” will be filling many a pub.

I have no idea what fan madness I will meet in Brazil, but I think back to visiting Mexico during the 1986 World Cup. I was there on business, and my boss was a keen football fan. He’d shaped the trip to end  in Mexico in time for the final match, and ‘arranged’ tickets for himself through one of the banks that financed the tournament and rebuilding the stadiums. I was left to my own devices. Being a boy raised on the streets, I had no problem figuring that out. I bought from a tout and remember paying close to face value for my seat. (It was an interesting exercise in economics: the initial high value of the ticket is in danger of falling to zero s match time approaches. The tout must sell to recoup at least some costs. Wait long enough and the price can fall sharply, even to  below face value. I did not wait that long, but got a great deal. My bargaining power was raised by Mexico having a massive stadium and not enough people who could afford the tickets.) I still have the official programme. I also remember vividly the match and being able to see all the goals clearly as I was seated directly behind one of the nets.

The final was an epic match that had all that one could want: great technical skills (Maradona supreme), excellent goals from open play (Argentina) and set plays (Germany), drama (good lead, equalization, winner as time runs out). The best team won the match. The finals were flawed, however, by Maradona cheating his team to the semifinals by punching the ball into the net against England. It’s history now, but it left a black mark against a great player. I’m not fool and know all too well that many great sports figures are flawed deeply. But, there needs to be honour in the way that winners win. Ok, I will come down from my pulpit.

This World Cup will show whether another flawed football genius can truly redeem himself. Luis Suárez has been one of the game’s lightning rod for bad behaviour in recent years. His scoring prowess was already legendary going into the 2010 tournament. His commitment could not be questioned. He was doing what his team needed, but often do not get from a talented striker: he was a goal scorer standing on the goal line of his own team, as the last line of defence. His team was in desperate straits, holding on against a rampaging African ‘lion’, Ghana. The hopes of Africa getting to a semifinal for the first time were high and looked assured as the ball rocketed toward the net and destined to beat the last man, Suárez. The dying minutes were here. Then Suarez did  ‘A Maradona’: he played the ball with his hand, to prevent the goal. Penalty!

Suárez was shown the red card and ejected. Ghana missed the penalty. It was the last kick of the match! The game went into extra time. Ghana lost on penalty kicks. I cried so hard. I had been watching the game with a Ghanaian friend, my best man. It was too much. So much hung on that match and it was ripped to shreds.

Suárez went on to more infamy. He joined Liverpool FC. But in 2013, he was accused of making racist remark and served a long suspension. He culminated the season with a biting of a Chelsea player’s arm. He was given a 10 game ban from the start of the 2103/14 season. He returned from that to score some stunning goals, more than any other player. He was exemplary on the field. He scored his sixth Premier League hat-trick for the club, making him the most frequent scorer of hat-tricks in Premier League history. He won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award, becoming the first non-European to win the award. Suárez also won the FWA Footballer of the Year, and was named in the 2013-14 PFA Team of the Year. As the Premier League’s top scorer with 31 goals he won the Premier League Golden Boot, and shared the European Golden Shoe with Cristiano Ronaldo. He was named Europe’s most influential football player in the 2013-14 season of the top 5 European leagues in the “Bloomberg Top 50 Power List“. He almost helped Liverpool to the title, but had to settle for 2nd place on the last day of the season. That is some comeback. Redemption is not necessarily the word all would use, but if ever the phrases about sinners who fell down and got up again meant anything, what Suárez did with his career fits.

The chance of getting to the World Cup final is an enormous prize and Maradona and Suárez both showed the lengths to which some can go to try to ensure that.

We hope for a clean, fair contest.

The tournament, however, is mired in controversy. Some of it lands on the organization. FIFA is flawed deeply. Brazil did not seem ready to handle the task and to the end that impression stays, with stadiums not ready, and pitches not ready. Brazil is in uproar over the cost of the games, and protests have been rife, culminating with airport staff striking on the eve of the tournament. In some senses, the football may seem to be a sideshow. But, the current sideshow needs to be spectacular. We are already looking at controversy over the next set of games, with the winning bid by Qatar shrouded in accusations of bribery and corruption, and FIFA boss, Sepp Blatter, under a barrage of criticism. He is likely to be booted out. Only someone who does not have the health of the world game at heart could have condoned the World Cup going to Qatar. Save your arguments!

The British media, who know the Middle East well, are on the hunt. The US media know a gory story when they sniff one. CBS posed the following points about Qatar:

‘How could the World Cup go to such a miserably hot place, a place so lacking in infrastructure that hundreds of thousands of desperate workers had to be brought in from Nepal, 2,000 miles away, to work in deadly conditions? The high in Qatar on Monday is expected to be 113 degrees. It’ll be 115 on Tuesday before a break provides a respite, with highs Wednesday and Thursday forecast at 105 degrees. With lows in the upper 80s.

Workers are dying over there, more than 200 from Nepal alone in 2013, with more than 4,000 migrant workers projected to die in Qatar by the time the football cathedrals and palaces are in place.’

Many shark are swirling around FIFA.

But, can we just have some football, please? I hope so I am not totally optimistic about the quality of matches. Teams are all well prepared. Many have players who ply their trade in just a few places at club level and know each other well. The dour midfield battle is now the order of the day. When I was a boy, playing with three forwards was the norm. Now, one may be a luxury. What?! We had 4-2-4 being a winning formation. Now, the desire to neutralise rules, and 3-5-1 or 3-6-0 formations are common. But, we know goals can come from anywhere and anyone.

We have the perennial battle for the best striker. Messi? Ronaldo? Who really has a good team in good form? That’s a tough one. Can a European team win in Latin America during the World Cup? Will Africa implode again? Nigeria and Ghana have shown now enough times that they have the talent, and now the organization, to take the trophy. Cote d’Ivoire have tempted and flattered to deceive.

Germany, normally all vorsprung durch technik, have been sputtering.

England, not really looking the part since 1986, but nearing a bliss point this year with some exciting young talent, some of it with Jamaican roots–let’s hail the diaspora.

Football looks like the world. Top club teams often have many more foreigners than nationals. National teams are no longer look racially homogenous. Black players pop up in almost all European teams, whether they are the offspring of immigrants (as in England), or the imports from former colonies (as in France or Belgium). Other ethnic mixes are there, whether from countries that have been part of the national blend for longer (as in Turkish-heritage players for Germany), or from new blending (such as ethnic Greeks and central Europeans playing for Australia). Looks tell litle: looks at the all-Italian Mario Balotelli; look at Sweden’s Henrik Larsson

Henrik Larsson, the dreaded Swede

Henrik Larsson, the dreaded Swede

Jamaica does feature on the field, but as noted earlier, we’re there in the shape of players with roots in the island. Jamaican fans have taken up their familiar positions, as jumpers on bandwagons. Flag waving is about as much as most people will do. Many want to show their pride with other statements, such as wearing other nations’ colours. In the world of social media, people have changed their ‘profiles’ to reflect team preferences, with name of picture changes. We are nowhere near the best in playing, but we may get close with watching. Our local TV  broadcaster, CVM, have the exclusive rights to show the games. However, they have had a lousy record in the past with transmission quality. I am not a tolerant person when it comes to televising major sporting events. If you mess up, I will take it to you. I did in the past about Caribbean coverage of the Olympics. It caused a stink, and rightly too. The US coverage wont be my concern. If we joke, I will look to choke.

But, let’s all get on the Kumbaya wave. I do not like vuvuzelas but that’s what we have left over from South Africa. I want to hear horns and drums as are often played by African fans, especially Nigerians and Ghanaians. I want the singing and chanting, now in different languages and with different tunes. Both Brazilian and Argentine fans are good at keeping that going for a whole game. English fans can too, but will be massively outnumbered. It would be great to be able to add chants from the comfort of my TV watching position.

Please, referees, remember that the rules are mostly simple and if applied consistently will make most people happy. No grandstanding. No need to wait for the 2nd harsh foul to issue cards: send signals early. Goal line technology will feature for the first time in World Cup.

Social disputes aside, we have the makings of a great tournament. May the best team at least make it to the final.

I want true memorable moments of great football, like Pele’s headed goal to open the account for Brazil against Italy in the 1970 final:

Forlan’s free kick against Ghana has to be there as one of the all-time great goals (see the video above).

But, give me one moment like Roberto Carlos’s free kick against France. Cynical foul gets dealt with by a free kick. Carlos takes the ball, and chooses very carefully the exact face that he wants to hit (watch the meticulous placement). He then takes a run up that is more like a cricket fast bowler, and the commentator is setting up the precise action. Then he arrives and kicks the ball. Watch it a thousand times and you will feel sad for the goalie, at least a little.

That’s all I want. A moment of magic.

 

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