A Ghauri Sight
May 25, 1998
Samba, But In Slo-Mo
July 13, 1998

Crunch Time

THE conquistadors are still to storm Bastille. But half way through the greatest soccer show in the solar system, the jury is out: will France ’98 live up to the hype? Few of the 48 matches thus far stick out in the mind’s-eye. Few of the 32 teams have provided any dramatic twists to the tale. Few of the 704 athletes have produced moments of ecstatic individual brilliance. But that was the prelude. Now the real thing is on. Will the true magic of the World Cup unfold before our eyes?

Arguably, the story so far has been a bit slow in unwinding. The likes of Romario, Roger Milla and Diego Maradona are taking their time in arriving on the scene. The goals haven’t been raining down upon us, although a lighter ball was supposed to be doing exactly that. And there has been such a lot of obstructing, shirt-pulling and holding—and such a lot of bad refereeing—that some are calling it the dance of the elastic jerseys. All the action, it seems, seems to have occurred off the field.

Diehard fans insist that this World Cup has seen qualitatively better football than US ’94. There have been few cakewalks for the biggies. There have been just four goalless draws. Every finalist has had a chance. But look at the last 16 lineup and you’ll see how wide the gap is between soccer’s haves and have nots: all four Asian finalists are out; only one of the five African sides is in. So what gives?

SAYS Simon Barnes of The Times, London: “This World Cup has moved away from historical precedent. First round shocks used to be a Cup staple in the past. Not this time. It’s partly because of the megalomania surrounding the tournament. With the number of teams increasing from 24 to 32, matches are becoming more mismatches. They probably thought that more teams would mean more democracy. It doesn’t work that way.”

That comment came before Spain was torpedoed out of the Cup by default. But, on the whole, this has been a bit like cricket’s 1996 World Cup, when the format of the tournament was expanded to allow a surfeit of participants—all in the name of encouraging more teams with the ultimate dream of expanding the game. The result was several boring matches for over a fortnight. The action hotting up only as the Test-playing nations entered the last eight stage. Then it was all over in a flash.

In a way, that’s how it’s going to go in France ’98—the final baby of outgoing FIFA president Jose Have lange, the original Jagmohan Dalmiya. The final lineup so far has produced a host of predictable encounters. The frenzy, more on field than off, will presumably hot up as the second round gets under way. And then it will all be over in a trice.

Says Ian Ridley of The Independent: “Apart from lenient officials, the worst offenders are the emerging nations in this World Cup. There has been much patronising drivel about how they brighten up the competition but some of the tackling by the Iranians, Tunisians and Moroccans has been brutally amateurish. There is little sign of the quality of football improving. Teams can organise themselves better with foreign coaches, but in reality, they have demonstrated only patchily, the quality necessary.” But then the commentary has had racist overtones.

Few of the stars expected to set the stadiums ablaze have really been provided the fuel by their opponents so far, probably in itself an indication of the quality of football on view.

The allegedly unstoppable Ronaldo has been stopped in this World Cup. At least so far. In Brazil’s last group match with Norway, which they lost 1-2, it was Bebeto who scored, and Ronaldo got just half a chance in the entire game, so successfully had the Norwegian defence choked him off. Brazil’s alchemy machine continues to hum along without Ronaldo’s predicted brilliance.

Perhaps he is coiling himself up for the tougher rounds to come. Perhaps he might, ultimately, get his slingshot to the Hall of Fame. But time is running out. Right now, it’s Gabriel Batistuta and Ariel Ortega of Argentina, Christian Vieri and war horse Roberto Baggio of Italy, Thierry Henry for France, Michael Owen for England and Marcello Salas of Chile who are having a ball. Vieri, 25, already has four goals to his credit; Batistuta the first hat-trick.

And none of them is short on self-confidence. Batistuta, who started off as a grape-seller in his father’s farm, scored the most goals (4) in the first round: “We’ve not come to France for the experience. We’ve come to win.” Victor Ikpeba, Nigeria’s African Footballer of the Year, who scored his side’s only goal against old foes Bulgaria, wears his country’s colours on his sleeve: “What we achieve, we do not just for Nigeria, but for Africa and all the black people.”

For many of the lesser players, long used to living under the shadow of the stars, the World Cup has provided a stage for their theatrics, while the big guns have been studied at length and silenced. Like “Ice Giant” Vieri, who scored three goals in Italy’s first two games, and a fourth against Austria. The media’s obsession with Roberto Baggio and Alessandro del Piero has left him seething. Says he: “Alex and Robby are great but at times people forget that there are other players too.” Adds Batistuta’s comrade-in-arms Ariel Ortega, a welder’s son: “It doesn’t matter to me if someone says that I played badly. What I cannot accept is people saying that I am a small-time player.”

Having scored three of Chile’s goals out of four in the first round, Salas is on the brink of bettering the South American country’s record of 29 goals in 48 matches. Says Salas’ striking partner Ivan Zamoranno: “Ronaldo told me before the World Cup that Chile won’t make it past the first round. My dream is to play Brazil, win the match and then exchange jerseys with Ronaldo.”

Paraguay’s extrovert goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert has emerged as one of the personalities of France ’98, taking the penalty shootouts. And the Dutch are revelling in the return from injury of their celebrated forward Denis Bergkamp.

SURE, there have been some stunning setbacks. South Africa, widely predicted to become the first African team to enter the last 16, has been upstaged in its quest by Nigeria. Their ouster means four of the five African countries are going home after the first round—Cameroon, Morocco and South Africa appeared to have justifiable gripes over referees’ decision in their crucial games.

Cameroon especially, because a goal by Francois Oman-Biyik against Chile at 1-1 was disallowed by the referee who ruled that Patrick Mboma had fouled Ronaldo Fuentes before Mboma passed to Biyik. But the ruling seemed extraordinarily harsh. Said Cameroon coach Le Roy after the match: “We were eliminated on an incompetent decision. If this is what football is about, I hope FIFA chief Sepp Blatter was watching because there wasn’t a shadow of a foul.”

In the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde, black fans attacked white owned businesses in retaliation for what they saw as anti-African soccer bias. “What we saw is not a World Cup competition. It has been a festival of scandal,” sports minister Joseph Owona told the African Nation. Counters Barnes: “This is the first World Cup where the refereeing could be said to be in favour of the beautiful creator rather than the violent destroyer. The minnows earlier used to stifle the game in midfield, conceding fouls. Not anymore, hence the game is now loaded against them.”

Otherwise, though, much of the action in Coupe du Monde so far has been non-soccer. The marriage between a Brazilian girl and a Norwegian boy on the same ground where their countries met a few minutes later. Then, even before the tournament had entered its second week, the Nike-Adidas joust had entered the next round on the streets of France. The swoosh-shoe maker was asked to take off its Eric Cantona posters that said, “Young people of the world, football is calling you. Come and join us.” An anti-racist group complained the ads were fascist.

The official shoe itself hasn’t been having much of a run. All the players on Adidas’ rolls—Paul Gascoigne, Patrick Kluivert, Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro del Piero—are having a bad time here.

Then the Austrian players created a bit of a sensation when they were asked not to take beta-hydroxy-beta-methyl-butyrate, the special dietary supplement which is being investigated by the IOC for alleged alcoholic properties. Then, Brazilian coach Mario “The Old Wolf” Zagallo offered “porn-viewing” by his players as an explanation for his side’s surprise loss to 1-2 to Norway. The same man, earlier, had said that sex wasn’t taboo—even during a match.

And then, of course, there was the ticket sale scam—and hooliganism. “All that I know about morality and obligations I owe to football,” philosopher (and former goalkeeper) Albert Camus once said. Evidently, he has few followers among the neo-Nazis, the Hooligan les Anglais, and the Argentinian Barrasbravas who have come to France. Soccer hooligans have slugged it out so among themselves and with police, that FIFA is now calling for tighter controls. England is planning five-year travel bans and tax scrutinies of persons convicted of football offences as part of its clean-up.

The losing teams are already into their clean-up act, getting rid of coaches who couldn’t deliver. All Spain is screaming for the head of Javier Clemente. Saudi Arabia sacked Carlos Albert Parreira. Ditto South Korea. Tunisia’s Kasperczak, South Africa’s Troussier and Bulgaria’s Bonev left on their own. The US’ Steve Samson and Japan’s Takeshi Okada too are on the way. Still, in spite of the cool start, the controversies and the clean-ups, few are willing to hedge their bet on who will walk away with the World Cup. Even the great Pele will only go so far as to predict that Argentina will be in the semifinals.

Only six teams have held the cup in all its history, two of them (Uruguay and England) 32 years ago. But if the form in the last three decades is any indication, it’s a toss-up between Brazil and Italy, Germany and Argentina, with an outside chance for France, Holland… although some feel the hosts may have peaked too early.

Brazil, of course, is the hot-favourite. But their super-cool confidence bordering on arrogance, may prove their undoing. “We are a great team. The only thing we lack is humility,” says captain Dunga. Adds Roberto Carlos: “Without respect for rivals, even the greatest teams lose.”

So, while the head screams for the holders, the heart pines for the underdog, Nigeria. Here’s a country as poor as India—possibly poorer—without the wherewithal for technology or the infrastructure for the game. Yet, here’s a nation holding its own in the big, bad World Cup. The first African team to enter the last 16, it was the first African team to win the Olympic gold. In Atlanta ’96, the Nigerians beat Ronaldo’s Brazil 4-3 in the semi-finals, and Ortega’s Argentina 3-2 in the final.

“Everything convinces me about this side because these players on their day can beat anyone. They have got great talent and they play all their matches to win,” says Nigeria’s Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic, who has thrice taken unheralded countries into the second round. So, will the Super Eagles pull it off in their eagerness to remove Africa’s stigma of being the only continent never to have been given the honour of hosting the tournament?

The boldest prediction comes from Danny Baker in The Times, London. “Brazil will NOT win the World Cup,” he proclaims bravely in a perforated box-item in the pages of the newspaper. And then adds: “If I’m wrong, you may mail this box to me and I promise to eat every one.” Any senders?

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