Saturday 22 October 2016

You know what? Football just makes everything better

Published 27/06/2014 | 02:30

Uruguay's Luis Suarez reacts after clashing with Italy's Giorgio Chiellini
Uruguay's Luis Suarez reacts after clashing with Italy's Giorgio Chiellini

This time four years ago, most football fans were in a state of mild despair. The first ball had been kicked two weeks earlier in South Africa and all the dire warnings of the potential problems posed by that tournament were coming true.

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Thanks to the Jubulani, a football that flew with all the grace and aerodynamic precision of an inflated condom, we hadn't seen any decent goals, previously world-class players were becoming visibly enraged as each simple pass went 10 yards awry and, on top of that, there were the vuvuzelas to contend with. What could set the atmosphere for a match quite like the sound of a million angry hornets taking over a stadium?

Like many fans, I'd taken a few weeks off to watch the start of South Africa 2010 and, by the third day, that was becoming an increasingly pointless waste of holiday time. The football seemed to get worse, the sound of the vuvuzela had become almost painfully unbearable – although not as painful, or as unbearable, as the pointy beards who thought these cacophonous bugles were some intrinsic part of the local culture – and the whole tournament was in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own crapulence before it had even moved out of the group stages.

In fact, there's a very good chance that this day four years ago saw you shrugging your shoulders stoically and hoping that, now things had progressed to the knock-out stage, the 'real' World Cup would begin in earnest.

Even that simple, reasonable wish proved futile and while there were a couple of decent games, we saw the final South Africa truly deserved – brutal, boring and a 120-minute torture session as the Dutch spat on their great legacy with the kind of tactics that saw Johann Cruyff openly declaring his shame.

In fact, four years ago, some people were even arguing that the standard on offer was so threadbare that international football had now been eclipsed by the Champions League. And let's be honest, you don't need to be a dewy-eyed sentimentalist who still dreams of jumpers for goalposts to be horrified by the prospect of the ultimate achievement in sport – appearing at a World Cup – being usurped by the exciting but mercenary CL.

But Brazil 2014?

What a difference a location can make. There were plenty of reasons to be fearful – could the protests turn ugly and force the cancellation of the whole thing? Was it really a good idea to send players to a part of the jungle so infested that they had to take potentially catastrophic anti-malaria drugs? (I once had a bad reaction to Lariam and it was like a bad trip that went on for a year.) Would the romance of staging a tournament in the spiritual home of all that is great about the game trump the rank cynicism and corruption of the governing body?

Well, no, no and yes are the obvious answers – this is a tournament that has soared in our imagination and elevated our spirits despite Fifa rather than because of it.

In fact, if you accept that football has replaced religion as the opium of the masses, then Fifa are the Catholic Church of the game. But just as there are plenty of lapsed Catholics who still believe in God, this tournament has reminded us of why we love this game so much.

And it's not just those of us who come from a traditional footballing culture. The Americans, and their fans and their media, have long been a laughing stock, what with their mangled phraseology and garbled understanding of the game.

I still smile every time I think of one American commentator at a previous tournament who became positively orgasmic at the sight of a 'PK in the red zone!'. But they are a fine team with incredible fans and it would be good for the game, and plenty of Irish players, if the American league could really take off and sustain itself in a proper, viable manner. With an estimated 20 million, at least, tuning into yesterday's match between the USA and Germany, soccerball is not only capturing the imagination of more Americans than ever before.

So much so, in fact, that it's now a genuine threat to people like that renowned thinker, Anne Coulter, who is not alone in her conviction that football is some gay, socialist, United Nations plot to turn God-fearing Americans into cissy boys who speak Spanish. Or worse, French.

In fact, just about everything that could have gone right has, so far gone right and the last few weeks have exceeded even our most fevered and unrealistic hopes. Four years ago, we were scratching our heads and trying to think of one memorable game. This time around, I can think of two, off the top of my head, that weren't cracking matches.

The fact that the delightful Luis Suarez (the shifty South American shoulder snacker can consider yesterday's nine-match ban a slap on the wrist) managed to prove that yes, he really is that freakin' bonkers, merely confirms that the Gods of football have a wicked sense of humour – athough he may have single-handedly damaged the game's chances of expansion in the States.

After all, the sight of someone biting an opponent and then pretending he had hurt his teeth is hardly going to convince our colonial cousins that they should play proper football, not the brand of super-sized Crips versus Bloods gang warfare they so mistakenly call football.

There's an old saying that 'everything tastes better with bacon'. But these last few weeks have surely proved that everything is better with football.

God, it's good to be in love again...

Ian O'Doherty

Irish Independent

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