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- The old civilization plays with the wisdom gained from history

At last it is over, the frenzy stretching over more than four weeks. The imposing stadia in South Africa are finally deserted, humanity is learning once more to breathe normally.

Mere cynicism will nonetheless not do. Howsoever briefly, the world had gone off its rocker for one full month. There are admittedly some weighty reasons for this temporary disequilibrium of the mind. Football has proved to be a great leveller. It has evidently drawn in its spell the rich and the poor, the stuck-up and the humblest of the humble. The aura of briskness and speed appeals to the snobs, while the grit and endeavour it calls for excites the imagination of the stragglers in society. It is, besides, one game needing little investment, apart from the outlay on the spherical ball with the inserted pneumatic device. As long as space offered by the village common is not interfered with by predators, football will continue to belong to everybody. Its drawing power also makes mincemeat of political geography. Excitement over the 2010 Fifa World Cup underlined that objective reality.

The mega occasion has ended, not though its — what shall one say — aftershock. The big assumption — to many, the certainty — of a Latin American nation lifting the Cup this year was belied. Neither Brazil nor Argentina could even make it to the semi-finals. Of the four teams that qualified, three — Germany, the Netherlands and Spain — were very much from Europe; the lonely presence of Uruguay in the list was a sort of consolation prize to Latin America. Some pundits may suggest a different taxonomy. The semi-finals, they could argue, distributed the honours evenly between the Teutons and the Latins: Spain, after all, is the mother-country of what is described as Latin American ethos. Such sophistry will have few takers though, the new generation over there have nothing but disdain for the legacy of the conquistadors. The report card of the 2010 semi-finals therefore will still read: Europe 3, Latin America 1.

The final was the clincher. The pretenders had all been eliminated, two European countries made it a demure domestic affair. At most, history buffs will possibly offer the sardonic comment: the old Spanish imperium has settled scores with its former possession which gave it the slip four centuries ago.

It will take a while for millions across the continents, who had taken for granted that for now football glory and Latin America are synonymous, to become reconciled to the 2010 World Cup dénouement. The Brazil and Argentina teams were star-studded. Some of their top players are each a global celebrity; they are hired by different clubs in England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany for the league tournaments regularly taking place in Europe. The skill and dexterity demonstrated by these players have made them almost living legends. The coaches of the Latin American teams have equally formidable credentials. They have the reputation of being outstanding strategists. They had, ahead of the 2010 Cup, prepared meticulous blueprints about how their respective teams would organize their defence and plan their offensive manoeuvres against each possible rival country: for each country, a separate blueprint. They went further. To thwart each individual player of the rival contesting teams, they had a distinct, different mapping of strategy. Nothing was of any avail; the Latin American countries came, in a heap, to a sticky end.

How could what was inconceivable still eventuate? By sheer happenstance, a stray sentence in a sad-reading Maigret story by Georges Simenon hits the eye: “Miserliness is a characteristic of a mature civilisation.” To Simenon, miserliness is not just penny-pinching; it implies prudence and circumspection too. Maybe here is the clue to explain the puzzle of the 2010 World Cup outcome. If that Simenon statement is true, its reverse should equally hold good: extravagance is an outstanding trait of a new civilization. Latin America is a young civilization. Its people, irrespective of whichever particular country they belong to, are by temperament carefree, adventurous, daring to the extent of impetuousness. Life is to a great extent a grand sport to many of them, and a sport is of course just that. They are all the time ready to have a tryst with risk and uncertainty. The dividing line between valour and bravado therefore ceases to exist; it was in fact never there in their metabolism.

Does not this could-not-care-less approach to life and living get reflected in the way the Latin Americans play their football? They feel intensely passionate about the game. Passion has a mystique of its own; it invites total involvement. Players and watchers get symbolically related by a strange communion of emotions. Football is transmuted into frenzy; the Latins are in love with frenzy. The game is marked by speed; speed is akin to wondrous adventures. Speed at the same time suggests the expanse of space — space which needs to be conquered within fractions of seconds. As the ball is hurtled from one end to the other, speed comes into focus in its role as conqueror of space. But, then, tagged to the conquest of space is that other specificity, penetrating the citadel of the goalpost guarded by the adversaries.

In terms of sheer talent, players in the Brazil and Argentina teams were miles ahead of those constituting the European country teams. The former have captivated the crowd by their performance in the European leagues. Once they don national colours, exuberance spills over. They are no longer playing for a foreign club in exchange of a fee, but for the glory of their nation. An extra dose of commitment flows into their veins. But this commitment — and the frenzy that accompanies it — can also be their undoing. Passion is ruling sovereign, the players, supremely confident of their strength and capability, are determined to apply their capital stock of self-confidence to perform feats that would raise their country to the highest pedestal in the comity of nations. One thing leads to another. Self-confidence begets a feeling of invincibility, and goads the players into taking enormous risks. They are so audaciously sure of themselves that they tend to be a shade absent-minded in guarding their ramparts. On some occasions, the incorrigible instinct for risk-taking and the out-of-this-world quality of daring win out. Where these fail to click, as in this year’s World Cup fixtures, countrymen and bystanders witness a great fall.

The new civilization has lost out to Simenon’s misers. Spain and the Netherlands represent an old, weather-beaten civilization. Both have a past as great trading nations who pioneered the concept of colonialism. They have trudged through centuries of spring, summer, autumn and winter: and are loaded with experience. Experiences teach one to be careful and methodical, to conserve whatever assets one has, to watch every step one takes. Their football mirrors the wisdom of what they have learnt from history. Their players have learnt to be less than flamboyant; they have also learnt the craft of combating the flamboyance of a rival team. And as misers, the European teams are extremely reluctant to concede goals. Just compare the total number of goals country teams from the other five continents scored in the 2010 Cup against the countries of Europe with the aggregate number of goals scored by the latter against the former; it is quite a revelation.

The saga, of course, need not quite end here. Over time, even a relatively new civilization, chastened by the slings and arrows of fortune, matures. It is a question of time, Latin America — and the other continents — may yet arrive. History is not yet ended; 2014 beckons ye and all.

It would no doubt have been seemly to stop here. But a harrowing question keeps nagging the mind. What will this year’s host country, South Africa, do with its gorgeous, now-empty stadia, into which such huge investments have been sunk? The stadia are no answer to the worklessness of thousands and the accumulating urban squalor it spawns. The razzle-dazzle of the World Cup notwithstanding, the frighteningly dominant reality of ‘the rainbow nation’ is in fact mirrored in the Gatherings Act which frowns on assembly of more than 15 persons in any urban area: crowd shouting hoarse for goals is all right; a crowd shouting for food, jobs and shelter plainly is not.

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