They don’t call it the beautiful game for nothing. The FIFA World Cup, which kicks off on Thursday night when Brazil hosts Croatia, is, by all accounts, the most global of events. More than half of the global population will watch at least one game live. And there are many on-field clashes to whet the appetite: the finalists of South Africa four years ago, Spain and the Netherlands, face each other in the group stage on Friday night; the Rumble in the Jungle (England vs Italy play in the capital city of Amazonia on Saturday); Portugal vs Germany on Monday the 16th. Many pundits believe it is Brazil’s World Cup to lose. I don’t think they will have it that easy. Argentina, Germany and Spain are excellent contenders. Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Holland and Belgium are good bets. But if I had to put money on an outside chance, I’ll go with France. And then there are the superstars who would want to shine on the world stage. Messi, Ronaldo, Robben, Neymar, Balotelli. New stars will be born – Paul Pogba (France), James Rodriquez (Colombia), Christian Atsu (Ghana) – and some will see their last flicker (Pirlo, Gerrard, Drogba). Yet the World Cup is not only about football teams or players. All across the world, Fantasy teams are being drafted. For the next few weeks, household schedules will change. Pubs and bars will be packed, the meeting place for new and old friends. There will be tears of joy and tears of sadness. Memories will be made.
As the excitement builds for the Brazilian party, I have to admit a certain nostalgia for what can only be described as one of the most memorable sporting events South Africa would ever host. And not only because South Africa did exceptionally well as a host, but because of the vivid memories I have of the tournament. See, Coetzee, Gustav and I traversed our beautiful country in search of the beautiful game. I was fortunate to attend eight games, driving roughly 5000 km to watch the likes of Spain, Holland, Brazil, England and Italy play. I have many memories of that road trip, but two stand out. The first is of watching South Africa play France in the final group game. Even though we had to win by three goals – which was nearly impossible against a good, if distracted, French side – that day in Bloemfontein will remain vividly for the exhilaration of the crowd. I know those vuvuzelas sounded on TV like a beehive on loudspeaker, but inside the stadiums they were awesome. Especially if you had a ‘conductor’, someone, usually on the upper end of the scale, who would, during a lull in the game, stand up, turn around and start blowing on his vuvuzela with a slow, marching beat. The challenge would be to see how many vuvuzelas he can recruit to his tune. Obviously, if there were several ‘conductors’, it’s one big cacophony. But in the case of that particular game, especially after South Africa scored first, the vuvuzela beat was, for a few minutes, in complete unison in a full stadium. We were one big army marching as one for our team. I knew then that there was no way France was ever going to win that game.
The second memory is of the Dutch beating Brazil in Port Elizabeth. Because we had arrived way too early, the three of us (with another friend, Willem), had waited patiently outside the area where the players would arrive. Brazil arrived first, the curtains of their bus closed so that there was no way to spot any of their superstars. In contrast, when the Dutch arrived, we could identify nearly every player. It was then that Coetzee made eye-contact with Wesley Snijder, the Dutch midfielder, who returned Coetzee’s wave with a smile and a nod. Wesley Snijder went on to assist both goals as the Dutch clawed their way back against an impressive Brazilian team. Coetzee still believes that the Dutch should thank him for his contribution to their win.
The World Cup was not only a personal highlight, but it did wonders for our country too. I don’t deny that some stadiums remain underutilized and perhaps should simply be dismantled. And I certainly don’t appreciate the way FIFA, the organising body, goes about its business. But the airport, rail and road infrastructure that had been planned in South Africa long before we won the bid to host the World Cup may still not be complete had the World Cup never happened. And the impact of the event on the image of South Africa, and Africa in general, I believe, has been larger than we might think. We’ve certainly seen an increase in tourism, especially from countries outside our traditional markets, like Argentina and Brazil. And even though three reputable sport economists, Thomas Peeters, Victor Matheson, and Stefan Szymanski, claim in a recent article published in the Journal of African Economies that the per tourist cost of the World Cup was much higher than the government claims, I still think that on a cost-benefit analysis we come out positive. (Peeters et al. make a rather strong assumption: they ignore any tourist arrivals from other African countries. If these additional tourists are included, the numbers change significantly.) I’ve written about this before, and said something along these lines recently to CNN Money.
During the 2010 World Cup, I was still unmarried and shared a flat with a friend. I was about to leave on a four month study trip abroad, and still had to write most of my PhD. And I still had not met Jerry (our cat). How things have changed! Unfortunately, I won’t be in Brazil for this year’s event. But I’m sure that, when the next World Cup rolls along in four years’ time, I’ll think back to 2014 and reminisce about the past four years, and perhaps to the memories created during the coming four weeks. Which means that World Cup is somehow more than a sporting event. It is a beacon that maps the lives of millions of fans around the world. A beacon that, as Simon Kuper writes, we share collectively, that unites us as a global community. And that is what makes it the beautiful game.