Recently two football greats passed away prematurely. I want to pay my respects to two players who have brought so much to the game.
When I was a youngster of 17 years, the 1982 World Cup really put a spell on me. That year the full range of glorious football possibilities was made clear to me as Brazil offered up what is considered the best team never to win the World Cup. The lynchpin of that team, and the team that was almost as good in 1986, was a central midfielder (also a medical doctor) called Socrates. For me Socrates stands as one of the all-time greats of Brazilian football; his stature is only dimmed somewhat by the fact he never won the big prize.
His goal against the Soviet Union in 1982 (scored against one of my favorite goalkeepers, Rinat Dasayev) was a tour de force of football skill and ability. Socrates picked up a sloppy clearance from the Soviet defence in midfield, sold two outrageous dummies to bewildered Soviet defenders, and then unleashed a spectacular drive into the top left corner of the net (it bounced in off the crossbar for even more spectacular effect). It was one of those goals that makes you shout out for both joy and amazement. What a goal!!! His goal against Italy later on in the tournament was a masterpiece of anticipation and off the ball running. He was one of the best back heel passers in the history of the game. A simple search on YouTube will bring up footage of this beautiful footballer, which I never will tire of watching.
It was a case of “doctor, heal thyself” however, as Socrates loved his cigarettes and booze as much as he loved football. Hence his early demise at the age of 57. For giving me unforgettable memories of the game, and for being one of the last great practitioners of the Brazilian beautiful game, (he hated the way the Brazilian team played in the 2010 World Cup), I say thank you to Socrates.
The loss of Gary Speed was the real shocker. This man, who was a model professional footballer, shocked us all when he committed suicide a few weeks ago now. Rather than having the sublime and unworldly skill of Socrates, Gary Speed was the man who exemplified the highest levels of professionalism and effort in the history of the English Premier League. He won the last English First Division championship to be played before the EPL with one of my favourite teams, Leeds United. He went on to play for Everton, Newcastle, Bolton, and ended his career with Sheffield United. It was during his time at Newcastle that Speed really caught my attention. Speed had a brilliant head for the game, which is why he lasted so long at the top levels. His smart passing skills, his economical use of the ball, and his goalscoring abilities made him the complete EPL midfielder. He also had the work effort and toughness that football managers dream about in a player. He played for and coached his national side, Wales. Speed was the kind of player we football purists enjoyed watching no matter what team he was playing for.
Speed outwardly seemed calm, cool and collected as you like, yet his tragic end told another story, of a soul so tortured he felt he had to end it all at the young age of 42. It just proves that while we expect our sporting heroes to be as tough as steel, they all have complex emotional lives which make them just as vulnerable as the rest of us to such things as depression or other psychological illness.
I spent many a happy occasion watching and admiring the great Welshman. I want to thank him for bringing me many hours of football pleasure, and for being a player I will always fondly remember.
Today the Japanese women’s team won the Women’s World cup in a manner which reaffirmed the beauty and power of sport. This team of underdogs fought like tigers to defeat supposedly superior teams which were predicted to beat them. They did it through skill but also with sheer determination. Today they beat a United States team on penalty kicks after a 2-2- draw through extra time. The American team was technically superior, but they could not stop the spirit of this extraordinary Japanese team.
I could not believe what was happening before my eyes as Japan came back after being down a goal twice. I had counted them out of it twice but they came back. The second goal to tie it up in extra time was a superb effort from Homare Sawa off of a corner kick. She flicked the ball on at the near post in a deft manner to confound the American defenders and their superb goalkeeper Hope Solo. It was the goal of a master footballer, who was awarded with the player of the tournament and the golden boot for the most goals scored.
No doubt this will give poor Japan something to celebrate after the terrible natural and nuclear disasters which have shaken that nation to its very core. It was very touching that the players carried a banner after the match thanking the world for its support after the disasters. Apparently the Japanese coach showed footage of the players of the disasters back home to inspire them to win the final. No doubt they have inspired their nation.
The quality of women’s soccer has grown exponentially. This World Cup saw some fantastic goals and football which swept away the distinction between men’s and women’s football. This was good football, period.
For the Canadian team, this World Cup was a sobering exercise. We have fallen behind because others nations have developed their women’s football at a faster pace than we have. The performance of the Canadian Women’s team was simply not good enough. We must improve or we will embarrass ourselves as hosts in 2015. Time to bring back the spirit of Vancouver 2010. The Olympic model we used for Canada’s extraordinary success in Vancouver 2010 should be brought to the Women’s soccer team. Lets go for gold in 2015!
I love the World Cup, but more recently the World Cup has lost some of its lustre for me, and it is not the tournament that it once was.
There are a number of reasons why the World Cup is not so special as it once was. For one, there is the decline in the importance of the nation state. Secondly, there is the decline of chauvinistic national identities. Thirdly there is the migration of human populations, meaning Brazilians and Africans are now playing for countries like Germany. Fourth, there is the fact that players are exhausted from their club duties when they show up to the World Cup, meaning the quality of play can be poor because players are not at their best (England’s lack of a winter break showed through in South Africa). Lastly, there is the generic international style of football which means most teams play a brand of football which is essentially the same. While these changes have their positive social aspects outside of football, the effect on football is that the World Cup is not as interesting as it once was in the past, when unique regional styles of football were played by teams that barely knew each other. There was also a political intrigue of east verses west in the World Cup before the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.
Some of these changes above are also effecting football at the club level, but in my view club football is now much more interesting than the World Cup. Club football is played by players who play and train with one another week in and week out. They know each other intimately, resulting in a more intuitive style of football. The players also make their real money in club football.
International football is played by players who do not know each other as intimately because they train together rarely, and simply do not play together that often. While there was some very fine football played in the World Cup, (especially Spain, who played a style which is a carbon copy of FC Barcelona) there is more depth and interest in club football.
I am starting to get excited about the new season in the English Premier League, which is for me, the finest spectacle in world football. There are many things that bother me about the Premiership, especially the vast gulf between the resources of the top teams and the bottom ones, but it still gives me a thrill to watch the games, which are fast paced, physical and played with a pride and effort which is inspiring. Each game in the Premier League means something, whether it is a battle against relegation, a battle for the title itself, or a battle to qualify for the Europa League or the Champions League. Each team has something to fight for, whether they play at the top or the bottom of the league.
Each team has its own rich history and fanatical fan base, which sings songs of praise for their heroes. I can’t wait for it to start.
Come on you Irons!
Thank you South Africa for a wonderful World Cup!
South Africa heaped shame on the doubters by running a very successful World Cup, which ranked behind only Germany 2006 and USA 1994 in ticket sales. South Africa has shown the World what Africa can achieve, and that Africans can host and execute not only a world class event, but one of the biggest events in the world. I for one, am delighted by this.
South Africa achieved a political miracle in the early 90′s, making the transformation from a repressive apartheid regime into a thriving democracy, embracing for itself the ideal of a “Rainbow Nation”. Nelson Mandela and Willem De Klerk negotiated a peaceful solution together and won the Nobel Peace Prize while they were at it. Mandela took over the leadership of the country after a fully democratic election. Now they have achieved an organizational miracle in hosting a wonderful World Cup.
Mandela dreamed the dream of hosting one of the world’s biggest event, the World Cup. The World’s football authorities responded and gave it their stamp of approval. Many doubters thought they could not do it. Africans could not host a world Cup, it would be a disaster. How wrong they were, and how proud South Africa can be.
While hosting the World Cup will not solve all of South Africa’s political and economic problems, it does show all Africans and the World what they are capable of achieving by working together. This is the factor the cynics can never see because they only look at the balance sheet of such events, not at the human spirit.
For the spirit of South Africa, I believe this World Cup will pay rich dividends in the future which are incalculable.