Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Get set for a classic World Cup

When you re-trace the World Cups you have so often inhaled like huge swigs of adrenalin there is a certainty embedded in those great and unshakeable banks of memory.

It is that there is always one reason or another to go into a new one once again with a willingness to suspend all that you have seen and felt before. You do it in the belief that maybe, just maybe, you will be consumed by what you are about to see – and that it might just surpass anything that ever happened before.

Certainly in these days of rising expectation before the 19th tournament that first took life in Uruguay 80 years ago, when the home side stunned the Argentinian invaders from across the River Plate, there is still another set of compelling questions.

Will the people of South Africa overcome all their trials, the economic iniquities, the fears of crime and a heavy hand of security, and make a live, warm backcloth to rival anything experienced in places like Buenos Aires or Naples?

Will they penetrate the corporate barriers of another, richer world with the passion for football that can turn Sunday afternoon in a township into a riotous carnival?

Will someone like Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney or Fernando Torres force us to live exultantly in the moment and not the glory of a past dominated by figures long ago installed in the folklore of their game?

There is so much of that latter commodity which the likes of Messi, Rooney, Torres and maybe the best equipped of all of the sons of the native continent, Didier Drogba, have to negotiate before they find their own place beneath Africa's winter sun.

As they attempt to do it, there will be so many of those lurking images which when you first saw them you imagined would never be challenged.

In Mexico City in 1986 it was Diego Maradona striding into an Argentinian steak restaurant like an impossibly arrogant champion of the ring. The diners stood up to acknowledge a man who had arrived superbly armed with the means to make history.

In Spain, four years earlier it had been the look of anguish so deeply etched into the aristocratic features of Socrates, the captain of Brazil, when his team, which had promised to thrill the world in the fashion of their predecessors of 1958, 1962 and 1970, had fallen so shockingly to the eventual champions Italy in the most compelling World Cup match you had ever seen and were ever likely to see in the Sarria Stadium in Barcelona.

England's triumph in 1966 is so long ago now you are sometimes rebuked for disturbing the dust of history when you recall how it was in London on the night of triumph and when Nobby Stiles did his ridiculous, unforgettable jig and the Charltons agreed that no brothers who played sport could ever have felt so privileged and Bobby Moore took the trophy from the Queen with such an affecting mixture of solemnity and joy.

Yet the greatest beauty of the World Cup, why it is always the supreme event in sport, having, with its concentrated intrigue and fascination and single challenge of mastering the rest of the universe at its most popular game, surpassed the Olympics, is that it doesn't really matter how you come to it.

You can come to a World Cup ancient with your stored-up memories, and perhaps your prejudices, or you can be experiencing it for the first time. There is the same rush of soaring expectation.

Most compelling is the fact that you know the greatest performance will demand some form of genius and extraordinary will from the man who most helps his team dominate all others.

Also, it helps hugely that the world's devotion to the game, its ready acceptance that no other sport begins to transcend so cleanly all borders of land and culture, ensures that almost invariably the host nation becomes a significant player in the drama.

If there was a striking exception, it was probably the United States in 1994, when Fifa made a commercial decision quite as rank as the one that two years later took the Olympics to Atlanta for what seemed more like a glorified bazaar than the centenary celebration of the Modern Games that would have been so much more appropriate in Greece.

Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State, sniffed in derision when questions where raised about America's ability to produce natural grass in some of the indoor stadiums. "If we could send a man to the moon," he said, "I'm sure we have a good chance of putting down some real grass." What wasn't so readily available was a culture that embraces the World Cup so obsessively in places like Spain and Italy, Mexico and Brazil, England and Germany.

The American World Cup, we were told, was missionary work on the game's last frontier, but it was a tournament that seemed somehow disembodied, floating somewhere between the rushing, uncaring freeways and the more compelling, home-grown agonies of the dissembling life of the sports megastar OJ Simpson.

Even the final, played in Pasadena's Rose Bowl, seemed apologetic, producing as it did Brazil's fourth and least distinguished triumph on penalties against Italy, after a goalless impasse. We can be sure, at the very least, there will no such disconnections here in South Africa over the next few weeks. You have to believe that for all the difficulties of organisation, all the fear that this is a show not for the people but a great monster of commercial exploitation, there will be some point where the rhythms of Africa will have their part to play.

Indeed, in some cases it may already have happened. No doubt Maradona felt its force when he was besieged by young fans in a township a few months ago when he made a rather imperious tour of Argentina's training facilities at the University of Pretoria. "Muchachos, boys, we are going to have a party," he declared.

Maradona's parties, of course, have long come without guarantees of either probity or glory but when he makes such a promise about a World Cup he is on much surer ground.

Unquestionably, Africa's first tournament has a cast list which is potentially one for the ages.

In England, we have made so much of Rooney's ability to create for himself a permanent niche in the history of the game. We have imbued him with such powers that inevitably there is the familiar worry of excessive expectations, the building of too great a burden, but then you saw him get on the plane for Johannesburg looking about as intimidated as an amiable young bull mastiff.

England may expect excessively but then rarely in the past has there been a more compellingly authentic reason. When Rooney was 16, he was described by Arsène Wenger as the best young English player he had ever seen. It is a judgement that holds strong at the dawn of the tournament and when you consider the depth of his ability, and that it is at the disposal of a man of Fabio Capello's professional nous, it is surely something to place among the more viable hopes of a football nation so long plagued by grinding under-achievement.

Where Messi's challenge is so formidable is that in the problematic leadership of Maradona there is also the presence of a man with whom he will inevitably be compared when it comes to assessing his contribution to Argentina's challenge.

What Messi is expected to do, albeit with rather more supporting evidence of quality among his team-mates than enjoyed by his coach in 1986, is prove that he is worthy of his title as the best player in the world. His talent is not in question. It is a matter of his will, his self-belief, and in Maradona there is the all-enveloping presence of a footballer who, more than any other – yes, even the greatest the world has ever known, Pele – carried his team to the biggest prize in football.

Beside this, you may say that Rooney, Torres, Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo, another who has the talent to become central to any discussion about the players who have most influenced the great tournament, are relatively unburdened by the most demanding of comparisons.

There is a suspicion here, though that the little man so bruised by Barcelona's failure in the Champions League may well have the best chance of all to become part of the World Cup's lineage of the greatest performers.

The prevailing belief is that in the end the issue in South Africa will ultimately be decided between Spain and Brazil, the best organised and most widely talented of all the contenders. But then here we come to the most magnetic of the World Cup allure.

It is the ability of a team, usually inspired by one commanding individual, to seize a moment, to smash through all predictions by the force of their belief that it is indeed their time. In these terms, the leaning towards Argentina is maybe inevitable, because however intently we scour the history of the World Cup we will not find a greater example of this phenomenon than in 1986.

When Maradona swept into that restaurant in Mexico City it was as though his feet were scarcely touching the ground. We will know soon enough if Lionel Messi is able to muster such self-confidence but in the mean-time we can only savour the anticipation – and marvel that every four years such a question, for a little while at least, carries us to the centre of the world.

Belfast Telegraph


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