The striking irony of it all

NIRMAL SHEKAR

IT was fantasy football of the sort that kids dream of in the Copacabana beach, in the smog covered maidans of Kolkata, in the din and bustle of the lanes and bylanes of Dakar. It is not something you expect to see in a World Cup, and certainly not in a semifinal contest with a place in the most coveted finals in the world of sport at stake.

There he was, with the hint of a come-and-get-me-if-you-can grin playing on his coffee coloured - deep roast, to be sure - face, making love to the ball even while moving it towards the corner flag, every bit a sorcerer, with five Turkish players following him, entranced.

Brazil, by then, was a few minutes away from sealing its place in the Cup final, but those few moments of sheer magic involving Denilson capsulised the very essence of the romance that is associated with Samba soccer.

If one man, with his sublime ball skills, can leave five pursuing opponents bewildered, even if the purpose of the magical manoeuvre has nothing to do with scoring goals - after all, at that point, Brazil was more keen on protecting its 1-0 lead - then football becomes much more than a game. Like a schoolkid living out a dream, Denilson was having a ball out there, and so were tens of millions of people watching on television.

And, when you put this in the larger picture, in the context of Brazil's struggle to qualify for Asia's first World Cup, you can hardly miss the striking irony of it all.

What is more, after all the sensational upsets, after all the talk about this being the World Cup of the minnows, we have had two of the most successful teams in World Cup history competing for the right to take the trophy home.

The picture is complete when you consider what Germany itself had to go through to make sure of its place in the competition. Beaten 5-1 at home by England, the soccer heavyweight from Europe had to endure the ignominy of a playoff to get to Asia.

Even after Brazil and Germany arrived in Korea and Japan, few had given the teams any chance of contesting in the final. Their track record coming in was so poor that they were largely ignored by the critics who were waxing eloquent about Zidane's France and Vieri's Italy and Batistuta's Argentina, not to speak of Raul Gonzalez's Spain.

But, in the end, not one of these teams made it even as far as the semifinals and it was left to the two teams who had shared seven World Cups between them - Brazil went into the final as a four-time winner and Germany as a three-time former champion - to decide the issue between themselves and in their first ever meeting in the competition.

Of course, compared to the wonderful attacking football dished out by Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, something that saw Brazil score 16 goals in six matches leading up to the final, Germany's performance was rather unflattering.

But with the almost unbeatable Oliver Kahn in goal, and with the sort of organisation and focus that you expect of even a fifth division league German side, Rudi Voller's men, gifted an easy passage by the draw and by the upsets that happened, grabbed their chances wonderfully well to get to the final.

But, then, quite apart from the fact that two teams that were almost written off figured in the final, overall, what an amazing World Cup this has been. If, on May 31, before the kick-off in the opening match between France and Senegal, someone had come up with a script for the four weeks that included such improbable events as France going out without scoring a single goal, Senegal and South Korea making the last eight and Guus Hiddink's Red Army beating a line of heavyweight European sides, including Italy and Spain, you might have recommended the script-writer a session with the nearest psychiatrist in town.

Lunacy, you might have thought. Then again, sport becomes such a rich spectacle only when a bit of lunacy is thrown in. Goran Ivanisevic, playing the 2001 Wimbledon on a wild card, ranked 125 in the world and aged 29, finally winning the trophy that matters, a bunch of little known African players who make a living playing in the lower reaches of French soccer, coming together under their country's banner to stun their former colonial masters... sport becomes super-sport when we witness these believe-it-or-not events.

For, sport is all about trying to bring off the impossible, so much more exhilarating when David beats Goliath. Even a so-called no hoper steps into the ring with Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson in the belief that he can knock out the superstars.

But, for all that, this World Cup has had a greater share of surprises than any other in the last 72 years. The North Koreans beating the Italians in 1966 was a one-off event. So was Cameroon's heroics two decades on.

On the other hand, consider the events in Japan and South Korea. From the moment Pape Bouba Diop scored the first goal of the championship, this has been one helluva ride for the outsiders, not the least teams such as Turkey, Senegal, Japan and South Korea.

Which, of course, begs the question: Were all these a series of accidents or, more significantly, something that points to soccer becoming a truly democratic world sport with serious challengers emerging from Asia and Africa?

Whether teams like Senegal, South Korea and Japan will continue to make a big impression in the years to come, not the least in Germany four years from now, is open to debate. But the accident theory is a lot of rubbish.

Yes, South Korea was indeed helped by inefficent officiating, not the least against Italy and Spain. And Spain, more than any other team in the competition, might have felt cheated. At least one - if not two - of the disallowed goals in the quarterfinals was a clear winner. The referee and linesman were so mediocre and inefficient.

But corruption? Well, you can't be sure. In fact, that is really a case of stretching the point. FIFA itself is so faction-ridden that any little evidence of corruption would have surely come to light by now with elements inside the world football body attempting to capitalise on it.

And it is ridiculous to blame Hiddink's inspired young men or even the Korean fans - who added so much colour and a new sound track too to this event - for what happened on the field. They cannot be held responsible for something that was not in their control.

What did we expect them to do? Refuse to play the semifinal against Germany?

No matter all this, the matter needs to be addressed with some seriousness by FIFA. While nations from Asia and Africa might have emerged as football powers, the officials from these continents may not have the experience and skills neccesary - at least not yet - to handle big matches on a big stage.

And FIFA, in the name of democracy - actually it is done for votes more than anything else - should not rope in inexperienced men and put them in charge of important World Cup matches. The harm done to Italy, and particularly Spain, cannot be undone.

What is more, for all the athleticism, skills and enthusiasm that the Koreans brought to the pitch, their success story in this World Cup will always carry an asterisk, clouded as it has been by the officiating blunders.

Of course, predictably, in the Italian and Spanish media, there were plenty of conspiracy theories floating around. Said one Spanish journalist: "A few days ago I thought this was the best World Cup ever. Now I think it is a scandal, it stinks. It's the worst."

Then again, emotion-charged finger-pointing is not going to get us anywhere. FIFA has to conduct an elaborate post mortem and make sure that the next edition of the great event in Germany is not marred by such scandalous events.

For, it would be such a pity if the wonderful memories of Asia's first World Cup were to be tainted by accusations and counter-accusations. There is too much at stake in football's showcase event for the officials in FIFA to dismiss the so-called "mistakes" as insignificant and accidental.

Yet, the event was not without its silver lining in its climactic stage. And, predictably, these came on the field itself. The manner in which Brazil fought back to beat England was at once thrilling and soul-lifting.

By far the best of the four quarterfinals, the England-Brazil encounter was billed as the final-before-the-final. If it lived up to its billing, it was largely because of the genius of the little smiling assassin, Ronaldinho.

Here again, Ronaldinho's sending off for a "foul" that hardly merited such serious action once again highlighted the need for FIFA to tighten up when it comes to officiating.

If the refereeing was perhaps the worst we've seen at a World Cup, then what of the standard of football?

Frankly, it was below par for the most part, and this had a lot to do with the fact that many heavyweights - France, Portugal, Italy - failed to make their way through to the business end of the championship.

The point that has often been overlooked vis a vis the demise of these teams is this: the fatigue factor. Too many top players, including Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and several others, looked jaded and injury-prone because they were coming off the long, taxing European season.

On the other hand, players from teams such as South Korea and Japan looked fresh and eager, having trained almost like club sides for several weeks before the event.

In the event, for all the excitement and thrills, in terms of pure quality, this World Cup may have fallen short. And the presence of Germany in the final is a sure pointer to this.

The team has one truly great player in Oliver Kahn, the best goalkeeper in the world, two or three opportunists, not the least Miroslav Klose, who can fetch goals and a rather strong willed defence and midfield. But genuine class from top to bottom? You must be kidding.

Who did Rudi Voller's team face while getting to the final? Saudi Arabia, Republic of Ireland, Cameroon, Paraguay, United States and South Korea! Not a single heavyweight.

That's perhaps the luck of the draw but even if this German side goes on to win the World Cup, it would hardly be ranked in the same league as Franz Beckenbauer's 1974 team or, for that matter, even the one that triumphed in 1990.

Yet, you have to give the Germans their due. Time after time - not the least this time - they come up with 11 players who can rise above their individual shortcomings and form a formidable collective, driven by sheer will power and immaculate organisation. Nobody can take that away from Germany. Not now. Not ever.

But if you are a hopeless romantic, like many of us are, then you can say: To hell with team-work and organisation. Give me the individual brilliance and inventive genius of Brazil any time.