Shehan Karunatilaka – The Beautiful Game

In Asia and other countries afflicted by World Cup time difference, everyone has their strategy. Sleep at 8 and wake up for kick off. Never happens. Set video recorder and watch match in fast-forward. That’s cheating. Read the match report and pretend to have stayed up. Guilty, your honour.

All these machinations, to catch a glimpse of the beautiful game. But is the game really worth staying up for? Is the game really all that beautiful?

It certainly is when Lionel Messi figure-skates past defenders.  Or when Germany’s youngsters launch a counter attack. Or when Diego Forlan conjures a goal from thin air.

But at 2.30 in the morning, when you’re yawning yourself awake – trying to watch two teams not score for 120 minutes, it is anything but pretty.

We’re all used to this. The 2006 final is best remembered for a head-butt to a chest and for featuring two teams that no one cared about.

This year’s affair was the first final in history not to feature Brazil, Argentina, Germany or Italy. Everyone expected a clash of new ideas. Spanish artistry vs. Dutch ingenuity. The poets vs. the philosophers. But there was neither poetry nor philosophy. Just cynical play, a few dirty challenges and as Dutch legend, Johan Cryuff described, “anti-football.”

At around 2.30 a.m. Spain manage to squeeze in yet another 1-0. Asphyxiating the Dutch through ball possession. No flamboyant Bavarian-style 4-0 drubbings here. Just a last minute goal to put the game out of its misery.

This isn’t a complaint. A World Cup is rarely about its final. In fact, we’ve grown to expect an anti-climax. While purists may complain about the tournament’s lack of drama or substance, the 2010 World Cup did offer a few moments to rejoice about. Though perhaps not enough to keep you from snoring at 2.30 a.m. on a school night.

Only one team remained unbeaten. New Zealand. 3 games, 3 draws. Glorious stuff. Though the fact that we’re celebrating draws says a lot about the competition.

Forget the final, for a neutral fan (and let’s face it, if you’re from the subcontinent that’s all you’ll ever be) it’s the group stages that make a World Cup.

There were a few goal-filled thrashings. Portugal pranced around North Korea for a 7-0, while Argentina conquered South Korea 4-1 with fluid footwork.

The Swiss undid the Spanish early on, while Slovakia dispatched Italy in the second best game of the tournament. France imploded under the weight of its collective ego, while England ran out of excuses.

Favourite joke: The England team visit an orphanage in Cape Town. “It was heart-breaking. All those sad little faces. With no hope for the future,” said Jamal, aged 6.

Before the group stages there was The Hype. The Hype creates the myth of beautiful football.  Nike’s epic commercial “Write the future” did the rounds and got us all excited. We saw the heroes of the game performing superhuman feats in slow motion. Little did we know that each one would be cursed.

Drogba got injured, Ribery sulked, Cannavaro struggled, Rooney did nothing. Ronaldo slipped in the second round and Ronaldinho didn’t even make the squad. Nike weren’t to know. In fact, none of us knew anything. Except for an octopus named Paul.

The Oracle Octopus was perhaps the only true winner of the World Cup, picking 7 out of 7, including Germany’s loss to Serbia and their unexpected 4-0 triumph over Argentina. No professional pundit has ever come close to a 100% strike rate.

Paul the Octopus has retired from the predicting racket with his record intact and has just hired a PR agent. This is not a joke. An octopus’ lifespan is 3 years and Paul won’t be around for Brazil 2014. He’ll have to live out his days starring in TV ads. This week, Paul chooses between Coke and Pepsi. Next week, McDonalds and Burger King. Someone who doesn’t have 8 legs is going to become very rich.

While all sport is predictable in the medium term – in the long and short term, it is a mystery. For all we know Honduras could beat Spain tomorrow. And the USA could lift the cup in 2030. The 2-legged pundits don’t know who will make the next round and neither do we and that is why we endure the 0-0 draws, why we tolerate players pretending they’ve been shot every time someone nudges them. That is why we stay up late.

We’re looking to see that magic, that unexpected reversal. We want to see the Nike ads commercials come true. Superhuman footwork and art directed goals. We refuse to believe that for a lot of the time, the game can be far from beautiful.

It’s just as well that the carnival comes every 4 years. By Brazil 2014, I predict we will have forgotten about the boring games, the pathetic failures and the ear searing vuvuzelas. We may remember Robert Green’s butterfingers, Suarez’s heroic handball, Maradona playing the Godfather and the German coaches in their matching cardigans. But chances are we won’t remember who came third.

The World Cup bronze remains the most insignificant of medals and the 3rd/4th playoff is traditionally the most underwatched game of the competition. That, my friends, is a damn shame. Over the last 20 years, we’ve watched and cheered for Croatia, Turkey, Bulgaria and Korea battling with the big boys during the semis. And then forgotten they ever played.

The Uruguay-Germany match was everything the final should’ve been. Open, fast-paced and filled with twists and goals. Arguably the two most exciting teams of the last month, battling for a prize no one cared about. For many, this was the game of the tournament, and deservedly so.

Germany were the best team of the competition, dispatching Australia, England and Argentina with flair and skill. Uruguay’s Diego Forlan, notorious flop for Manchester United, was voted the tournament’s best player. The 3-2 thriller was a joy to watch.

If there is a lesson, it is this. Never book your tickets for a World Cup finals. Watch the games no one cares about. As evidenced by the performance of England’s “Golden Generation” and the Nike “Write the Future” alumni, football can crumble under expectations. So watch matches where there are none, go in with none and you might find out what’s beautiful about the game.

Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep Matthews, a novel about Sri Lanka and cricket, won the Gratiaen Award in 2008. Random House India will publish the novel in 2011.

About these ads

6 responses to “Shehan Karunatilaka – The Beautiful Game

  1. I agreed with you..the Uruguay-Germany watch was the match to watch… Excellent stuff from both sides and complete entertainment really!!! Honestly, I stayed up and watched the 3rd-4th playoffs but missed the finals and read about it in the morning instead! Perhaps my loyalty towards Germany may be a reason..But somewhere I also knew..just knew that the finals won’t be worth losing my sleep for! :P

  2. written like a genuine fan. i like to watch first round matches for all the new talent that emerges!

  3. kudos to you sir, for putting in words aptly what a million of us felt during the final passe of the world cup. thanks for writing this piece, with just this one i have become a fan of yours :) keep writing

  4. beautiful piece…like the beautiful game.
    though i may not agree with certain points, being as much as a fan of the game and having as strong viewpoints…but very nicely put.
    In the words of Facebook, Soumitree Ghose ‘likes’ this article. :-)

  5. Well written. But football is just not about goals. The football which you have talked about is more like a popular music, which may be popular but it lacks the depth. The beauty of the game is not only in goals, its in the style of play, which Spain established in this world cup. A clean crisp football, artistic football devoid of fouls barring few exceptions.

    On the other hand Dutch had the task of defending probably the best midfield ever assembled. And so they had to be dirty. I am dutch fan since ’98 and really found this final one of the most thrilling in the kind of football played. Johan Cryuff may be right, but only those in arena know what is going on. Ask Zidane.

  6. I strongly disagree to your points. Football is not just about goals, it’s like saying Cricket is all about 4s and 6s and a bowler has no use in it. Defenders and teams’ defense matters as much as attackers and their goals if not more. Football is about team organisation, team work, tactics, moment of madness, moment of magic and a lot more. Yes for neutral/new watches goals and party tricks are the only things of interest but not for the football fans. And to finish off Germany were not the *best* team of the tournament. A team scoring more goals isn’t necessarily the best team.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s