Monday, 10 July 2006

A Black Sheep Ending to a Clean Carnival of Football and Friendship - My World Cup 2006 Journal (Part 13 – End)

As the Italians held aloft the FIFA World Cup in the sparkling night of Berlin earlier today, representing their hard-earned fourth coronation to mastery of global football, curtains finally went down for the world's most significant sports gala.

The final between France and Italy was very well played, as probably one of the most spectacular and interesting matches in this World Cup. Despite the relatively old lineup in both teams, all players in the pitch demonstrated the highest standard of football with minimal disruptions of corner kicks and throw-ins. It somewhat reminds me of the centennial encounter between France and Brazil 20 years ago, which also coincidently ended with a penalty shoot-out.

Frank Ribery, Lilian Thuram and Eric Abidal in the French squad had an incredibly resourceful presence. Thierry Henry showed excellent commitment and persistence throughout despite his suffering from a worrisome strike in the head in a clash just moments after the final showdown began. Meanwhile, Italy had a wonderful showcase of teamwork that outshone individual glamour, although captain Francesco Totti had a disappointing finale of his career in the national team.

Apparently what was even more disappointing was the unexpected sending-off of Zinedine Zidane in the second half of extra time. His stunning attack at Marco Materazzi's chest earned him a red card that impulsively concluded his football career. Zidane's sending-off in his last appearance in the football pitch left behind not only a dirty spot in his personal profile, but also an irreversible mistake that counteracted to the French struggle for World Cup championship.

My jaws dropped open when immediate playback last night showed how Zidane thrust his forehead into Materazzi's chest and knocked him down. Nobody was prepared for that. I can still remember how the thousands of football fans grumped together in surprise, unwilling to believe that this would have happened to a talented and experienced player as Zidane.

I couldn't believe my eyes as well. I have heard so much about how good a player and a philanthropist Zidane is. His appearance last night again proved himself one of the greatest players in French, European and world history of football. Off the pitch, he donates half of his astronomical sum of income to charitable organisations around the world to help those in need. How could someone like him possibly have such an impulsive but meaningless response to whatever provocation he might have encountered, especially in such an important tournament and his last dance before retirement? I really don't understand.

A final note on the Germany World Cup should be congratulatory to the host that made the world's most popular sports festivity a safe and enjoyable one. It was fantastic to see how people from all over the world enjoyed football together in cheers and laughter, living up to the slogan of "A Time to Make Friends". Concerns prior to the tournaments that this World Cup would have become a target of terrorism and football mobbing proved to be somewhat overstated. But perhaps it is precisely this kind of vigilance that has provided the strong foundation for flawless security planning and implementation throughout the event.

Football fans from this part of the world may share some of my disappointment that few surprises were seen in this World Cup - in terms of performances by national teams from Asia and Africa. Previous miracles of unexpected victories over traditional football powers were not repeated in Germany. This was particularly disappointing when so many Asian and African footballers are now playing in world-class leagues in Europe and exposed to the highest standard of football, but they seemed to fail to bring this back and share with their national teams. This is undoubtedly the result of a complicated combination of factors that needs to be addressed with well-thought strategies and a sense of urgency, if the Asians and Africans are truly serious about making good strides in their football.

Globalisation was also one of the buzzwords in the Germany World Cup. People say that national glory does not seem to be the key element in World Cup tournaments any more, at least not as important as it should be. This erosion of nationalism in football makes the World Cup much more boring than it used to be. People also say that globalisation of football, meaning the wealthy clubs can now spend billions of dollars to set up a dream team anywhere in the world, the thirst for national glory at the World Cup has been receding. National boundaries are no longer meaningful, and, more importantly, the talented players have been exploited so ruthlessly in the local leagues and championships that they are too exhausted to play in the World Cup.

Very true indeed, but the so-called globalisation is far from being global. I would say it is actually a kind of post-modern European exploitation at best. The wealthiest and the most powerful football clubs in the world are all located in Europe, and it is also these European clubs that buy and sell the top cream of football players around the world for profiteering as if the players are lifeless stocks themselves. The domination of European powers in the semi-finals was yet another proof of the extension of European imperialism - something that even the long-recognised football kingdom of Brazil could not resist, let alone rebut.

The editorial of Ming Pao Daily today also made an excellent point. The failure of Brazil and England, despite their squads of stars and overwhelming support of fans, was largely attributed to poor coaching and leadership. Coaches like Sven-Goran Eriksson and Carlos Alberto Parreira devised ineffective strategies that failed to bring the best out of their players. They also failed to motivate players that had been playing for different clubs in various countries and thus had little time to spend together as a team. Most players were left to play on their own for individual pursuits, among personal conflicts and internal struggles, and I shall be surprised if teams like these, if they were teams at all, could achieve anything meaningful in international tournaments.

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