Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The USA (and other third world countries)

Simon Barnes in The Times:

WHEN SPORT mirrors the real world, it frequently does so in a bizarre and distorted fashion. How else would you get the United States in the third world? For the world of football, like the real world, can be readily divided into three and, as with the real world, it is the third one that demands the best care, attention and love that the first and second can offer.

Soccer’s first world is Europe. This is where the game began, where its first skills were developed, where its culture and its philosophy took shape, where its commercial possibilities were recognised. There are 14 first-world nations here at the World Cup and if that seems a lot, plenty have missed out: Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary, Romania, Russia.

Soccer’s second world is Latin America, starting at Mexico and working south to Tierra del Fuego. Here, the European game was taken, reinterpreted, redeveloped and, most would say, reached its highest form of expression — whether you are talking about potency or mere beauty — with the 1970 team from Brazil. There are six teams of Latinos in Germany and that’s without Colombia and Uruguay.

Football, then, was a war between these worlds: the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the poetic. The best team in the world has always come from one or other of these worlds.

There was a time when the World Cup was invariably played in one or other of these worlds and, generally, whichever world had home advantage won. And if you wanted to have a gathering of all the best footballing nations in the world, you might as well stop there. You could say that bringing in teams from anywhere else is counter-productive, lowers standards and produces a lopsided competition.

But as with the real world, the third was clamouring for recognition, for a fair chance, for an opening-up of the closed shop. The expansion to a 24-team competition in 1982 and then again to 32 teams in 1998 brought third-world participation in the World Cup to a level a good way beyond tokenism. They were the years that Fifa, the world governing body, legalised hope.

There are five African nations here, four from Asia, and then there are the United States, Australia and Trinidad & Tobago. At the weekend, six third-world teams were in action and five of them put on stirring performances, the US holding Italy and South Korea doing the same with France, Japan drawing with Croatia. Ghana beat the Czech Republic. I was at the Brazil game to see a marvellously spirited Australia side lose 2-0, and they were a shade unlucky to do so.

The World Cup needs all this. It needs more than excellence, it needs the feeling that footballing people have gathered together in one country from all the four corners of the earth. Togo and Australia are as important as Brazil and Germany. Trinidad & Tobago matter as much as England — and, indeed, they have embarrassed England and given Sweden a bloody nose. Without the third world, the World Cup is just a football tournament. As it is, this is a tournament that means the world.

Pele once famously predicted than an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000.

Yet it hasn't happened, and the 2006 quarter-final line-up now contains Brazil, Argentina and six European teams,

The footballing third world still has a way to go.

The gap is narrowing – as it should do since the majority of the best players from Africa, Asia and America all play for European clubs – but it’s narrowing a lot slower than people thought it would.

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