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The ball is round

Lance
Neita

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

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Time to start pulling up your favourite living room chair in front of the television. World Cup 2018 fever is on. And, in the event you do not realise it, June 14 is almost here. Just around the corner, indeed, and before you know it, we will be enjoying a welcome relief from the anxieties and tensions being excited by the shenanigans of our world leaders.

It is a fact that people lay down arms during World Cup season, and countries at war have been known to agree to moments of peace to allow each other time to watch their team at play — even if only for 90 minutes before the guns start blazing again.

The season formally starts on December 1, when the 32 competing teams will find out whom they will play in the group stages. The final draw will be staged at the State Kremlin Palace, and the tagline for the event is: Where the stars align. Who says Russia frowns on advertising? Their copywriters say that the tagline refers not only to “the glow of the best footballing nations in the world, but also perfectly alludes to the idea of destiny as the road to the coveted FIFA World Cup is unveiled”. Hmm, Russia is going to milk every ounce of goodwill they can out of their role as hosts in 2018.

Some 23 teams, including Russia, have already secured their berths at the finals. Notably, countries that fell short included Copa America champions Chile, one of my favourite teams the Netherlands (remember Johan Cruyff), and guess who, the United States, who failed to qualify for the first time in 32 years.

I watched live World Cup action in 1974 for the first time on a big screen in a Kingston cinema. Cruyff led the Netherlands to the finals (Germany won 2-1) and received the Golden Ball as player of the tournament. I watched open-mouthed as he tackled and defended in sweeping motions that took him all over the field. I remember that golden moment when he executed a 'pop' that left everybody standing. The feint was subsequently named after him as the “Cryuff Turn” — a move still widely replicated in the modern game.

The remaining nine teams that will make up the 32 will know their fate after play-offs set for November 9-11 and November 12-14.

Amazingly, Italy is still out, and will have to beat Sweden on November 10 in a European play-off to qualify for its 15th straight World Cup.

Italy has been a regular at every World Cup since 1958. “A World Cup without Italy isn't a World Cup,” said Italy team manager, Gabriele Oriali. I have to agree.

The teams that have qualified so far are Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Spain, England, Nigeria, Poland, Egypt, Iceland, Serbia, France, Portugal, Argentina, Uruguay, Columbia, and Panama. With the exception of Iceland and Panama, all of them have been there before. Iceland piques interest, as I know of two Jamaican boys (twins) who played for Iceland in the Norway World Junior Cup in 2008. Wonder if they made it to the national team?

There remains some controversy hanging over the selection of Russia to host the games. Issues have included the level of racism alleged in Russian football, and Russia's involvement in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Allegations of corruption in the bidding process caused threats from England to boycott the tournament. This may have worked against England as the FIFA members denied them the privilege of hosting the 2026 games. The cloud hanging over Russia has been darkened further by the announcement from former, and disgraced, FIFA President Sepp Blatter that he has been personally invited by Russian President Vladimir Putin to be his personal guest. The plot thickens. Jamaicans would say, “A no lack a tongue mek cow no talk.”

Another interesting development coming out of World Cup 2018 is the award of television rights to Fox Sports. The elimination of the US national team has led to concerns that US interest will be reduced. Will this affect Jamaican viewers, or do we tune in elsewhere for full, unbridled, enthusiastic coverage. Also, as you pull up your living room chair, check your match times, as Russia's time zones are vastly different from what we are accustomed to, and the western television stations will not be allowed to dictate time schedules to the Russians.

Of course, our favourite team is still Brazil. They crashed out against Germany in 2014, losing 7-1. Both Brazil and Germany reached the semi-finals, and a close match was expected. Instead, it ended in a shocking loss for Brazil at home. We could not believe what we saw as Germany scored four goals in six minutes to lead 5-0 at half-time.

The game was subsequently referred to by the international media as the Mineirão, evoking the spirit of national shame felt in the Maracana Stadium when Brazil lost unexpectedly to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup.

Twenty-two gold medals were made with each player's name printed on them. The mayor of Rio made a great speech saying, “You, the players who in less than few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots, you have no rivals in this hemisphere. I salute you as victors.” Mark you, this was before the match.

On the morning of July 16, 1950, thousands marched through the streets of Rio de Janeiro trumpeting victory and chanting, “Brazil must win!” Brazil took the lead shortly after half-time, but Uruguay equalised midway through the half. Alcides Ghiggia scored the winning goal with 11 minutes remaining, resulting in one of the biggest upsets in football history. That was when the term Maracanazo, roughly translated as “The Maracana Blow”, first became synonymous with the match.

When the match ended the Stadium was absolutely silent. The Brazil newspapers refused to accept the fact that they had lost.

But that was not the only upset in 1950.

An England side, brimming with world-class talent such as Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Alf Ramsay and Jackie Millburn, arrived in Brazil for the series tipped to bring home the Jules Rimet Trophy and prove that a European side could go to South America and win football's most prestigious prize.

The excitement around the England team only intensified when the Brazilian press dubbed them “Kings of Football”, having won 23 out of 30 games since the Second World War.

The outcome of their second match of the competition, however, proved to be a catastrophe for English football. Playing against a hurry-come-up USA team, they lost 1-0, a result that would haunt them for years to come.

For the first 30 minutes of play England went on the attack. The goalkeeper was bombarded with shots and did well to keep them out. Then suddenly, in the 38th minute, America scored the decisive goal when midfielder Walter Bahr's shot from 25 yards was met by a lunging Joe Gaetjens who glanced the ball past Bert Williams.

There is no film footage of the goal and there is debate whether Gaetjens had been going for it or whether it accidentally hit him. His USA teammates said he had a habit of scoring such acrobatic goals. “Gaetjens dived for it. He probably never thought he would get it. If he had hit it solidly it would have gone out for a corner. I think he just scratched it with his head. It was a one-in-a-million goal”.

Football fans in England refused to believe the result. Shocked by the performance, the Manchester Guardian did not pull any punches, describing it as “the worst ever display”.

England was disgraced, and will never forget it.

There was a West Indian connection to the whole episode. On that very day, June 29, the West Indies gained a sensational first-ever victory over the English test team at Lords. That was the major story of the day back home, and so the football scandal was shunted into second place.

Next year will be 68 years since these two 1950 upsets. Taken along with the 2014 debacle in Brazil, anything can happen in 2018. The ball is round. Tell my friend Leslie Talbot that I am making no predictions.

 

Lance Neita is a public and community relations writer and consultant. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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