Who called it the ‘Beautiful Game’? There are many claimants but the one who made it synonymous with football was the legendary Pele with his autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game. Tonight when France plays Croatia in the World Cup Final, will we see the beautiful game? Or will we see football for what it really is?
When Pele helped Brazil win three World Cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970, there were certainly moments of pure magic, moments which have become shining examples of the beautiful game football can be only when it is allowed to be. Pele is a legend, and his feats on the field are transcendent. What they transcend is the ugliness of what happens for most of the 90 minutes (or more) on the field. Does Pele himself remember the 1966 World Cup, when Brazil was eliminated in the first round? Does he remember the fouls that hobbled him, the deliberate tackles, more physical than skilful, meant not to take the ball from him, but to make sure he couldn`t get near the ball? Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders are said to have almost literally crippled him which made Pele vow he would never play in the World Cup again. It was only intensive national pressure that made him change his mind in 1970.
Footballers at the highest level do things with their feet which defy logic: they dribble and they feint, they seem to be going in one direction but go the other way, they seem to kick the ball but leave it momentarily behind, only to quickly retrieve it… But someone like Maradona did all this, but better, and quicker. But was he allowed to? You might think that statement naïve: after all, as much as the objective of the forward is to score, the objective of the defence is to prevent the goal. The question is how. Does the full back thwart the on-rushing forward by a wonderful sleight of foot, a magician trumped by a magician, or does he use a Professional Foul? Yes, they even have a name for it, so cynical has the game become. Maradona, like Pele, looks back at the game through rose-tinted glasses, otherwise he would remember that in 1981 as a 20-year old playing for Barcelona, he was given a broken ankle by the opposing defender. Or he would remember the 1982 World Cup match against Italy, where he was brought down by fouls a record number of 23 times!
As you would expect, since even the toughest of athletes are made of flesh and blood, professional fouls result in broken bones. Belgian mid-fielder Axel Witsel playing a club match against Polish international Marcin Wasilewski, suddenly sprinted towards Marcin, leapt over the top and came crashing down onto his leg with such force that it snapped into two, the lower part hanging off the upper. Or Peter Cech, kneed in the head by Stephen Hunt so hard that he needed emergency surgery for a fractured skull. There`s a player`s damaged vertebrae, jaw, broken four front teeth (all from one single tackle), or the attack on ManU`s David Busst in 1996, which was so bad that television replays blanked it out and play was stopped for 15 minutes to clean the ground of blood. Busst, of course, never played again. These injuries are deliberate, not accidental. They show the black heart of football.
It`s worse off the field. There is the racism of the fans, so bad that racial slurs, monkey-noises and worse are inflicted on players even of your own side! The general hooliganism runs so deep that the game and rowdiness are inextricably linked. They now try and ensure that supporters of rival teams stay on opposite sides of the stadium, but there have been instances of young men coming to grounds fully equipped with metal rods, flares and even fire-bombs. The 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus resulted in riots that left 39 dead; in a game in Egypt 79 were killed and the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy (made worse by an inadequate stadium) resulted in 96 deaths and 776 injuries.
And who runs the ‘beautiful game’? Hooligans in suits. For years, rumours of corruption and cronyism have swirled around FIFA, the body that controls football all over the world. When inquiries were instituted a few years ago, skeletons began to tumble out, and haven`t stopped their death-rattle ever since. Sepp Blatter, FIFA`s President from 1998 to 2015 had to step down while 11 other officials pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and corruption. Former FIFA President Joao Havelenge and other high officials are now being investigated too. Sums totaling 150 million dollars have been mentioned – these are for apparel contracts, for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, and notably the 2022 tournament to Qatar (where it`s really too hot to play, but with money lining several pockets what did temperatures matter?)
Those of us who watch football know if can be a beautiful game. But too many rogues and rowdies run it and watch it and play it. If we could only get rid of them.