The unifying force of the World Cup

The unifying force of the World Cup

It was what I had come to Brazil to watch.

When the ball was crossed from the left, Colombian striker James Rodriguez was exactly where he wanted to be.

But it arrived too high for him to kick and too low to head.

He let the ball bounce off his chest, contorting every muscle in his upper body so as to cushion the impact.

That sublime first touch was matched by the violence that followed when he swivelled and unleashed his left foot at the now descending ball.

For a moment, time stood still, every player on the pitch rooted to the ground, eyes fixated on the travelling ball as it hurtled towards goal.

Everyone except the Uruguayan goalkeeper, who was already airborne, hands outstretched to meet the incoming missile.

But he could only feel the rush of the afternoon air as the ball flew past him, just inches below the crossbar.

At that moment there was no place on earth I would have rather been than here at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro with 72,000 World Cup fans.

I had just seen probably the best goal I will ever witness in a country where football is a religion in a stadium befitting that status. It had taken me 48 years to make the journey from the day I first heard of the World Cup.

That was in 1966 and the news came in a letter from my first pen pal, a 12-year-old English boy, in his first correspondence to me.

England had just won the World Cup in London and what a celebration there had been in the country, he wrote.

I wasn't impressed.

I hadn't heard about the competition, didn't know a thing about the game and couldn't understand what the fuss was all about. It would be the first and last time his country would be world champion.

But my interest was stirred and the conversion was completed when I went there to study, in a city called Leeds where the football played was - in the words of one of the legendary coaches of the period, Bill Shankly of Liverpool Football Club - more important than life and death.

It wasn't, of course, but try telling that to Mr Shankly or his counterpart, Don Revie of Leeds United, a team I spent many Saturday afternoons watching.

It was a different game then, unspoilt by the obscene money that global television has brought, when players stuck with their teams for life and no one would even think of joining a rival club.

Here in Brazil the changes that have taken place have been no less dramatic.

The best Brazilian players - Neymar, Oscar, Willian, David Luiz - now play for the best European clubs.

The country was rocked by widespread demonstrations against the staging of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games and the billions of dollars being spent, when much-needed investments in education, health care and public transportation remain unaccounted for.

Brazilians against football? It was unheard of in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is it about the World Cup that makes it so compelling, attracting a massive global following?

The football that has captivated the crowds here in Brazil and millions more on television has lived up to the billing; the excitement in many of the games is indeed heart-stopping.

Germany vs Algeria might have ended 0-0 after 90 minutes but it was the best goal-less game I'd seen so far. Until Belgium and the US slugged it out to the same scoreline.

But more than the football, the World Cup is the United Nations for the common man.

He doesn't understand the General Assembly and the Security Council and couldn't care less about all those UN resolutions.

But give him 11 of his countrymen in their national colours at the World Cup and he comprehends completely what is at stake.

It is a magical moment when the two teams emerge from the tunnel behind their giant national flags and line up to sing their anthems.

At the Maracana I heard Colombian and Uruguayan supporters sing their anthems with a gusto from deep down their bellies, full-throated and defying.

I have never ever heard Majullah Singapura sung like this.

It may also be our collective imagination but at this world stage, don't they also play like their country? The Germans organised and disciplined in their approach to the game, the Americans direct and spirited, the Nigerians physically strong but unpredictable in their application.

And the Brazilians?

The futebol they play when at their very best is like no other.

I heard on BBC radio that in this country the ball is considered a feminine object. Here it is a beautiful girl and when you have it, you kiss and caress it before passing it to the next player.

Put this way, you can see why they move their body and especially their pelvis when they play the Beautiful Game samba style.

But football isn't football without the accompanying joy and sorrow from winning and losing.

And when it is an entire nation that experiences these ups and downs, it is hard to argue against the unifying force of the game.

When Brazil lost to Uruguay in the final game in 1950 in Rio de Janeiro, the national grief and recriminations lasted several years.

Its much expected win was meant to herald its arrival as an emerging country on the world stage full of hope and promise for its people. It was the year the Maracana stadium was opened, a monument to the new Brazil.

Will it mean as much to the country this time round?

I didn't get the sense from talking to people here.

Even a taxi driver fancied the Germans over his own team.

The two countries will meet at the semi-final on Tuesday.

Expectations are lower especially after Brazil needed a penalty shoot-out to see off Chile in the first knock-out stage.

Perhaps the country is more confident now about its place in the world, having grown to the seventh-largest economy and also one of the fastest expanding.

It doesn't need its football to proclaim its arrival.

That's real progress.

This article was first published on July 06, 2014.
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