On June 17, I was sitting in Jakarta, reading through an important manuscript sent to our publishing house, Mainstay Press, from far-away Ghana. It was written by Manu Herbstein, a South African/Ghanaian novelist, and it was called “Ramseyer’s Ghost”. This piece of magnificently crafted political fiction deals with the worst nightmares of a not too far away future, with a world collapsed under the unwisely applied strength of a sole empire and global business interests.
I was totally absorbed by the book, but then my reading was interrupted by loud howling, coming from outside, from dark alleys and makeshift stores. I had no doubt that another match of the World Cup had just begun. Turning on the television set, I realized that the Ghanaian Black Stars were facing the national team from the Czech Republic, the country where I grew up.
I put the manuscript aside and turned on the television set. My first intuition was to cheer for the Czech National Team, for some unexplainable reason, considering that I felt no particular affinity with the country of my youth. That’s how it always is with football: it evokes strange and irrational feelings; it elevates to tremendous global significance the quite prosaic goal of sending a ball between two vertical bars and one horizontal one.
I couldn’t support the Czech team for long – it was obvious that they were playing establishment football, supported by an elaborate but hardly creative strategy. On the other hand, Ghana was fast, determined, their game chaotic but beautiful to the extreme. A few minutes after watching I realized that for this West African team it was not just about football: it was about showing the world that their nation should be taken seriously, that it can compete with much richer countries further north.
Ghana won and it deserved to win. I returned to the manuscript and much later, at night, I wrote an email to Manu Herbstein, congratulating him on the victory. “Watch out when we play the United States,” he responded. He also sent a link to an article, a very nostalgic piece, written by his Ghanaian friend Dr. Thaddy Ulzen, Professor of Child Psychology in North Carolina. It began with a poetic description of the event:
“I took out the paint brush, dipped it into the can of white paint and began to transform my ball. It was now white against the green luxuriant tropical grass of our Kumasi backyard. I looked at my ball. It was now real. It was no longer that brown leather sack children kicked around. It had become the mature white ball that the pictures of the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times told me the Black Stars of Ghana played with.”
Dr. Thaddy Ulzen then finished his piece on an upbeat note: “Our Black Stars, Godspeed to victory! You are already winners. You have turned old men into boys again and woken up the dead! Long live a united Ghana.”
The Black Stars then became “my team”, maybe due to the manuscript of the political novel written by Manu Herbstein, maybe because of the hope that Dr. Ulzen put into his piece, or maybe simply because they played so differently, with such zeal and determination. I cheered when they took the United States apart and I was saddened when they were defeated by Brazil.
But what was really so attractive about Ghanaian football? Above all, it reminded me of my childhood in Europe, when as neighborhood kids we played for glory and with passion, not thinking the game could open doors to unimaginable riches. Players from Ghana were, no doubt, enjoying the game, ready to improvise, take risks. It’s how football used to be in the earlier days and it’s how it is, in Europe, no more.
As the football drama was unfolding on the television screens worldwide, business analysts began discussing the tremendous profits registered by the multinational companies. Adidas versus Puma, the sale of flat-screen television sets, a predicted boost to the stagnating German economy and an expected increase of retail sales by approximately 2.5 billion dollars (more than the size of the entire economy of Togo and almost one third of the GDP of Ghana); these were the topics which began to dominate sport news.
Football stars, bigger than life (often even bigger than movie stars), worth tens of millions of dollars, were parading on the front pages of news, fashion and women’s magazines. With the exception of Brazil, almost all of them were employed during their “normal life” by European clubs – tremendous business ventures.
These pampered and spoiled supermen with superb diets and training, medical support and constant monitoring then fought against men from countries which (at least some of them) didn’t even have decent stadiums in their capital cities. To those who were longing for the illusion of the fairness of the world, the World Cup was nothing short of an impressive and grandiose spectacle. To others, more familiar with reality, it was an embarrassing and sad event. Matches were probably not fixed (although who knows, these days), but their outcomes were somehow predictable.
Men and women in poor countries like Indonesia (whose team never made it anywhere close to qualifying for any World Cup) dropped their daily routines, hoping that at least small sparks of glory being shed on a daily basis all over the green grass of top-notch German stadiums would brighten their monotonous and oppressed lives.
As billions of dollars were being made by private companies and “sponsors”, hundreds of millions of men and women began to believe that what they saw on their screens was about honor and glory, not about a tremendous advertising campaign.
Several important daily newspapers even began to comment on the fact that the World Cup returned “healthy nationalism” to the German nation, previously burdened by guilt from the Second World War. Hard to argue with that: I watched the Germany – Sweden match in a nationalist German pub “Beim Otto” in the middle of Bangkok. As the German team appeared on the screen, the crowd rose to its feet, shouting “Germany above all!” in a scene not unlike that from the old musical “Cabaret”.
At the end, Italy became the world champion. Corporate executives counted their profits, probably laughing all the way to the bank. Poor people all over the world returned to the economics of survival. Some of them probably realized that after the party was over, Italy’s victory had no impact – positive or negative – on their lives.
Less then one week later, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli military patrol and Israel sent its navy and air force against Lebanon. If the World Cup was to promote peace all over the world, it squarely and patently failed.
An Italian sports tribunal delivered a verdict which effectively paralyzed national football in the country which just a few days earlier brought home a shiny World Cup. The terrible match-fixing scandal showed that today’s football is about business and money and not so much about sport and fair competition.
The country’s most successful team, Juventus, was fined and punished with relegation to Italy’s second-tier Series B. Down went also Fiorentina and Lazio. AC Milan, owned by Silvio Berlusconi, was heavily penalized.
But Dr. Thaddy Ulzen was probably right: in Ghana, the honest and honorable battle of the Black Stars turned old men into boys. It also probably shamed many players, teams and organizers from the rich countries, reminding them how football used to be.
In Europe it could have had an opposite effect, turning intelligent boys into very old and cynical men.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, political analyst and journalist, co-founder of Mainstay Press (http://www.mainstaypress.org) – publishing house for political fiction. He is presently working in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at [email protected]