The best thing about this World Cup


THE best thing to happen to the World Cup was not Brazil (and please sit down and stop shouting).

Of course, Brazil were the best team, and the most deserving of victory (Germany, alas, does for the senses what Calmpose is wont to do). Of course, Brazil were, in varying measure, clumsy, beautiful, stylish, individualistic, selfish, dazzling. Of course, Brazil played (no, make that composed) soccer as we dream it, and no doubt historians will one day discover that when Michelangelo was re-painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel he too was wearing a yellow jersey.

But we have become accustomed to the samba, its beat drums inside our heads; we have travelled this journey through the years, we have tasted this magic from Rio. If you half-shut your eyes that could be Rivelino (without the moustache) not Rivaldo, Gerson not Roberto Carlos, Carlos Alberto not Roque Junior, and in some ways that is a compliment. They have advanced a tradition not betrayed it. Beauty can never be boring, but still there was a certain familiarity to Brazil, a sense that we had seen this before.

The best thing about this World Cup was not even its harmony, though even after a month it is stupefying, is it not, that we did not hear of a riot, a knifing, a restaurant vandalised. Asian gentleness has disarmed the thugs, and whoever believed that possible?

A million South Koreans gathered in a square, danced, chanted, swallowed their semi-final loss and picked up their rubbish and went home. A weeping British fan cloaked in a flag reached out and embraced a Brazilian spectator after their 2-1 loss. Another Brit was taken home, so I read somewhere, by a Japanese family, put up for the night for no cost and handed a lunch box for next day's match. Desmond Morris' The Soccer Tribe may well be due for an update.

No, the best thing about the World was South Korea. And Japan. And Turkey. And Senegal. (And also a Mexican you can't remember who scored a headed goal that defies description and the imagination. And a Paraguyan, unfortunately named Arce, whose free kicked goal was the first and the best of the tournament. And...)

The best thing about the World Cup was simply its newness. New teams, new heroes, new memories. Of all gifts that is the most powerful and poignant. We are surprised, but in fact we should not be.

Soccer's standing as a global religion, a universal faith, has over time required no hefty debate. It is the simplest game to play, thus the most popular.

It is an old truth, but we forgot the obvious corollary to it. This passion must one day translate, this desire take root and abundantly flower, and in places we have conveniently ignored. Men in Korea, in Turkey, are not content making heroes; in time they seek to emulate them and become heroes themselves.

Through the years we have romanced South America and embraced (parts of) Europe, and soccer seemed eminently satisfied with its status quo. All sports have their hierarchy, and looking beyond Brazil and Argentina, England and Italy, France and Germany, was best left to the unwise.

Yet other countries have invested heavily in soccer and one day they were due a return.

The only thing the South Korean soccer bosses forbade Guus Hiddink was a motorcycle (he is a two-wheeler enthusiast) and provided him with a car and driver, so concerned were they with his well-being. Everything else, from his reworking of the Korean football structure, to his bullying of the team to become harder men who found losing unpalatable and not a matter of karma, to his apparent willingness to talk about his love life (we are more subtle in Asia about such things), was allowed.

In Japan, foreign players have been seduced to the J league for years and listening and watching and imbibing. In Senegal, the French coach changed his name and married a Senegalese woman, as if further proof were required of his devotion. They were Africa's most gifted team but our memories still held tightly and faithfully to Cameroon.

Their time was coming and it has. Soccer was heading for a shake-up and it has come. And thank you Lord for it.

There was something almost moving about cheering for a bald man not called Zidane but a Sassy Turk named Hasan, something liberating in the truth that heroes are not limited, as we once thought, by their geography.

There was something exhilarating in watching a player snake down the wing, slithering past the best players in the world like a thief through the crowd, and saying, who is this, and thus being welcomed to the marvellous world of Diouf.

There was something achingly beautiful in watching the Koreans, powered by some invisible cause, harass one player, then hound the next, running as if for their lives. There was something uplifting in their refusal to give, in their unbreakable glue of teamwork.

They did not have 90,000-pound weekly salaries but they had heart; they did not have reputations but they had purpose; they did not have a tradition but they found the nerve to create one. The worshippers have become the worshipped. We began by chanting Raul's name, but now Hong Myung Bo has become our hymn. How can soccer get any better than that?

And there is one thing more. Soccer's passion is not restrained by artificial boundaries, or the razor wire of borders, or language, and it is why a Bangladeshi will wear French colours to work and Indian lanes will be festooned with Brazilian flags. It is wonderful this trans-continental affection. But wonderful too is the reality that Asia doesn't have to look so far anymore; it has found its teams at home.

We will never be as clever as Brazil in India. Or as physically imposing as Germany. But we could, one day, hope to be fast, and relentless, and organised. South Korea, in particular, has given us that. It has told us that there is no such thing as the no-hoper.

Always we tell ourselves: anything is possible in sport. Sometimes, to believe that, we need a reminder. Now it has come. And if that's not the best thing about this World Cup, then what is?