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The Cup of Spirit

If the primary purpose of a tournament held every four years for four intense weeks is merely to prove which nation is the best, it would be better not to have the Fifa cup at all. There is enough soccer played throughout these four years for anyone to come up with a perfectly legitimate conclusion as to who the leading nations are in this glorious game. 

If then the objective of the Fifa World Cup is to showcase the skills of the players and parade their rare competencies on a world stage, again there is enough on show at both club and national level on a regular basis to know who the best players are and what indeed their prowess is. 

So what is the Fifa cup about then? To me, it is the culmination of a four-year-long wait to have all the world’s skills in one place and to pit lesser players and lesser nations against their much better endowed and better trained counterparts; usually from richer nations. 

It’s a stage where players are counted exactly for what they are, players. They are not super heroes or demi-gods as they are allowed to be otherwise. It is a platform where the passion of the mind, the zeal of the nation and the exuberance of the spirit is tested and judged. 

That is why grown-up red blooded Irishmen cried when they saw France qualify for Fifa 2010 at their expense through the convenient “hand” of Thierry Henry. That is why all of England was in uproar when the irrepressible Maradona killed the nation’s and Gary Lineker’s dreams through the divine “hand of god”. 

That is why that mercurial centre forward from Cameroon, Roger Milla, still occupies so many soccer crazy hearts. 

I was in Lagos when Nigeria contrived to lose to Greece on June 17 and Kita became a four-letter word overnight across that soccer-crazy nation of 150 million. I saw the sadness in that beggar boy in Lagos and the anger in my driver Chris. I saw work at the corridors the next morning taking a beating as well-heeled, suave and smooth Nigerian corporate executives shed tears with their security guards and liftmen at their swanky offices. Those very same people who hardly ever exchange morning pleasantries and who usually thrive in an invisible class divide. 

I was in London on June 22 when the busy Pall Mall Road had no taxis to board at about 3pm as I vainly tried to get one. At least 10 of them whizzed past empty but their drivers were looking firmly ahead, focussed on perhaps reaching a pub and a TV screen. I saw students and tourists across Oxford Street glued to makeshift TV screens and using their cellphone radios to follow each and every minute of their “do or die” match against Slovenia. 

One had to see the faces of the South Africans in that cold night when their darling team’s goalkeeper was red carded in the game against Uruguay for what in their view was a dubious decision and resulted in the disintegration of their team on that fateful match on June 16. 

Yes that’s the same very nation whose only qualification for being on this coveted world stage was their host status, who rallied themselves out of their despair and mounted an unprecedented challenge on the French citadel on June 22 — not to merely salvage pride but to actually try and win convincingly, to somehow qualify for the round of 16.  

It’s a tribute to the nation that they came so close.  It was heart-warming to see South Africans of all races and all levels come together over what truly looked like a national tragedy of rainbow proportions. They came to win in soccer and went away winning the war of the minds. 

Yes that’s the Fifa cup for you.  

The same stage where France disintegrated at the altar of super-egos, dissension and arrogance. Did those paragons of self-righteousness never spare a moment to wonder about that little boy in front of the Champs-Elysees wanting and waiting to gloat over his country’s moment of glory and triumph? 

Yes it’s the Fifa cup — the very place where the pride of the British lion was almost lost in spite of having such fancy names and skills in their ranks. 

Nations like Ghana — whose aggregate GDP is perhaps dwarfed by the combined earnings of the players of some of the teams from Europe — are in the second round through sheer hard work and liberal doses of what I call the “mind over matter”. 

It is the reason that lesser nations with no discernible brand names to tout and money to fund ambitious programmes make so much headway and bat far above their standing in tournaments such as these. The undoubted superiority of each individual player in the mighty Italian team was humbled by Slovakia, which wasn’t even a nation till a few years back because they cared enough to make it happen. 

It is the reason that the US, mighty in every other way, continues to make such significant inroads into the world of football. Its large immigrant population cares and loves their adopted country enough to make their own sport from their own countries a symbol of American prowess in a hitherto uncharted domain. 

New Zealand drew all their three games with mightier opponents not because they could but because they wanted to be counted ever so dearly. 

That is why the whole of Africa will weep for Nigeria and root for Ghana. The essence of being in all of us is embedded in the deeper crevices of love, affection and in the opportunities that come from the irrational exuberance of wanting to belong and wanting to be counted. 

The lesson to take from all this is simple. The future of human civilisation lies in the moral fibre of its people. Good old principles of nationhood, the pride to wear the national jersey and to thrive in a spirit of mind over matter are very much alive and on abundant display.

That is why the emerging world has such a future. You can see it in the eyes of those impoverished masses from the streets of Lagos to the inner cities of Europe as they rise above despair and work towards hope and cherish each small moment of glory that comes their way. 

History has shown that it’s the people who make a difference and so shall it remain. 

Look at this great big force emanating from the emerging millions, those masses of humanity craving to belong and you will continue to believe with good reason that our children’s future is, after all, in extremely good hands.