Football unites, football divides

Beautiful-game Italy's Emanuele Giaccherini in action with Belgium's Eden Hazard | Reuters
  • The world, and its sports, have to be vigilant at all times because, ever since the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, sports and pleasure have been targets for mass murder

With apologies to those who remain convinced that to be the world’s greatest sportsman a person has to be born with a cricket bat in hand, the growing global attraction with football gets harder to ignore by the year.

Football unites, football divides. Even in India, viewers can decide whether to watch televised games from the European Championship in France or the Copa America Centenario currently being played in the USA.

Actually, the Euro is for real, though its start has been marred by horrific crowd violence and by the pervading terrorist threat. And the tournament in America is false. The Copa is South America’s cup, but this was not the year for a scheduled Copa America (which was won by Chile barely one year ago), However, the marketing men spotted an opportunity to make big bucks by staging an extra “Copa” to celebrate 100 years of the event—and to play it not in South America but in the United States where the big brand companies will pay the most for it.

So far, the one truly pulsating game has been Argentina versus Chile in front of 69,451 fans in Santa Clara, California. But even there, some fans complained that they paid to see Lionel Messi, and Messi because of back injury didn’t play.

That, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is sport. The injured cannot perform.

Messi came back, to score three times in 30 minutes against Panama which—like Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico and the US—are all team from North and Central America invited as guests to beef up the numbers in the South American cup.

Meanwhile, Brazil, the most decorated soccer nation on earth, are out of the Centenario before the second round began. Brazil was eliminated on Sunday by a ball knocked into the net by the hand of Peru’s Raul Ruidia—a handball so blatant that almost everybody in the stadium knew it, except for the referee and his assistants.

Brazil can, and will, claim that a cheat’s goal knocked them out. But Brazil, coached by Carlos Dunga, is a betrayal of the The Beautiful Game. Under Dunga, creativity is replaced by energy and industry, which is like putting artists into a straight jacket.

So the centennial tournament is not only out of schedule, it has now lost a champion who goes away crying foul.

Europe, surely, must do better? It was in France that FIFA was founded. So too were the World Cup and the European football championship. Many of us were looking to the French to carry on, if they could, the proud tradition of Michel Platini leading them to win the 1984 Euro on home soil, and then Zinedine Zidane inspiring Les Bleus to win the World Cup in Paris in 1998.

It might still happen. Dimitri Payet, with the most beautiful of goals and with cute passes and movements in midfield, set the 2016 tournament alight in the Stade de France last weekend.

Alas, darker forces are afoot. This European tournament is being staged in France, where Islamic terrorists murdered 130 people last November. The victims were enjoying a Friday night out, at cafes, at a rock concert and, at the football stadium in Paris, although the bombers at the Stade de France blew themselves up without getting gaining entrance to stadium where France and Germany played a friendly match.

To abandon the European Championships would be to abandon the fight against terrorism. To go ahead meant investing whatever it takes to secure 10 stadiums in nine different French cities, as well as the traditional “fan zones” where up to 100,000 people without tickets for the games congregate to watch on massive screens, to fraternize, to enjoy the wider sense of what playing sports among 24 nations over one month means.

These “fan zones” in my experience have sometimes been worth stepping out of the stadiums just to sample the joy, the sharing, the multi-nationalism that these events bring out. A beautiful game, indeed, at the best of times.

But France 2016 is hardly so carefree. The world , and its sports, have to be vigilant at all times because, ever since the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, and one German policeman, were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the stadium, sports and pleasure have been targets for mass murder.

It cannot be put any gentler than that. The US State Department issued a warning last week to its citizens concerning the “risk of potential terrorist attacks throughout Europe, targeting major events.” Days later, one terrorist shot dead 49 innocent American citizens at a night club in Orlando, Florida.

This, we know from Mumbai to Paris, is now universal. Imagine, then, what kind of people go to a football festival to commit wanton violence in the streets and in the stadiums that France, already stretched to the limit by the fear of bullets and bombs, has to throw police resources into to try to stop hooliganism terrorizing the people.

English hooliganism which had been held at bay since the 1990s through deeply committed policing, resurfaced in Marseille before the game against Russia. For three nights, English men and youths, often inebriated, fought street battles with police who responded with tear gas and water cannon.

Then a more sinister element arrived, the Russians. So-called soccer hooliganism manifests itself in a deeper form in Eastern Europe where it is tied up with racial hatred and homophobia. Before and after England played Russia on Sunday (a 1-1 draw in Marseille) the violence was horrifying.

We saw even before a Marseille prosecutor pointed it out, that England’s trouble makers were stupid with alcohol but some Russians were a different breed. They wore black clothing and sometimes black masks. They were physically powerful men, some stripped to the waist in the manner of President Putin’s he-man photographs of recent years.

French authorities said that 150 of these individuals attacked without discrimination. They didn’t care if the victims were men, women or children. They kicked one 50-year-old British man into a coma, and he was gravely ill in hospital after a police officer gave him CPR on the floor where he lay in Marseille’s old port.

The Russians, the English, and in other cities Germans, Ukrainians, Northern Irish and Poles all appeared to be there for the fight as much as for the football. And given that France is under emergency lockdown, trying to sustain a 51-game tournament in the face of pronounced terrorist threat, even the mildest of aggressions seems irresponsible.

Nobody knows what violence might trigger, literally, in this situation.

And the games play on. France narrowly, nervously came through the opening game thanks to Payet, a player from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean who was not even rated in France until he had an extraordinary fine season in England with West Ham United.

Now, the French call Payet their magician.

Sport can do this. Croatia has a midfield player, Luka Modric, who has won Champions Leagues with Real Madrid and who marvelously stroked Croatia to a hard fought win against Turkey at the other Paris stadium, Parc des Princes.

And when we talk about football creators, who does it better, in tournament after tournament, than Barcelona’s quiet man, Andres Iniesta? He has been called Saint Andres after his winning goal for Spain at the 2010 World Cup final, and at the start of this week he turned goal-provider with an angled pass into the goalmouth for Gerrard Pique to head the winner against the Czech Republic.

With Spain winning, Germany winning, and France winning, the three nations at the top of the bookmakers’ odds all made their mark on the opening round of games.

So, too, did Italy. This was written off, in Italy, as the worst Azzurri team the country has sent to a major event in 50 years. But anyone who follows the Italians knows that they are mean and dangerous when people doubt them.

Italy arrives at tournaments wearing pessimism like a cloak. They draw in opponents, flatter them, and let them think that poor, weak, aging Italy can barely stand, never mind outrun them.

Belgium, known as the Golden Generation because they have so many coveted individuals, were led to believe that they would beat Italy in Lyon. They, and the legion of admirers from all over Europe, were drawn into Italy’s web.

First, Emanuele Giaccherini, a Tom Thumb player who stands just 1.67 metres struck through the Belgian defence with a darting run and a devastating low shot. Then, after the supposedly aged Gianluigi Buffon, 38,and his again reportedly elderly defenders had squeezed everything that Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and the other “Golden” Belgians tried against them, Italy broke away right at the finish to hit Belgium with a second goal, from Graziano Pelle.

Belgium 0, Italy 2. It was the first unexpected result of the Euro. Italy, with Andrea Pirlo retired and Alessandro Del Piero last seen running his 40 year old legs for the Delhi Dynamos, was thought to lack inspiration. With three other midfielders injured, there was nothing Italy could do but give Giaccherini his chance to prove that size doesn’t matter, heart does.

Italy proved that team work, desire, and planning is everything. Belgium is finding how difficult it is when the sum of your parts, no matter how gifted, do not gel together.

All that might be turned around as the tournament progresses. And whoever comes good in the end, it will be the second most important legacy of this Euro.

First is that, by the end on July 10, we are talking about sport and its values, rather than the fears that are self inflicted by people who call themselves fans. And above even that, by a communal spirit among 2.5 million fans that transcends the fear of fanatical intervention.

For all those reasons, the European Championship is far, far more important than the Copa America Centenario breaking new commercial ground in the United States.

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Topics : #football

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