Why football’s underdogs deserve a place at the top table and how (in football’s happy marriage) development and entertainment should never be divorced.
Few things get to my nerves, but listening to Supersport analyst Doctor Khumalo label Tahiti’s performance against Nigeria (they lost 6-1) as ‘mickey-mouse football’ certainly is one of them. Tahiti went on to lose 10-0 to Spain & 8-0 to Uruguay and like the Doc, some football fans may (rightly) feel shortchanged in terms of entertainment by Tahiti’s performances. But I believe we are just being shortsighted.
The Confederations Cup is a tournament that pitches continent against continent. As much as it is used by the host nation as a test run to hosting a World Cup, the tournament is also used to compare and contrast the differences in continental playing styles. And as Africa takes on Europe & Asia challenges America, FIFA can get a suitable measure of how far they have come in terms of globalizing the world’s greatest sport. It’s an ambitious, yet unique measuring yardstick – few other sports have continental competitions (only golf’s Ryder Cup comes to mind & even then, it is only America vs Europe).
Tahiti arrived at the 2013 Confederations Cup as rank outsiders having won their continental trophy by defeating New Caledonia 1-0 in the final. New Caledonia isn’t mighty either & if they had been at the Confederations Cup instead, the score lines would have been pretty similar. So the problem isn’t Tahiti, is it? Upon arrival, their coach said their primary aim in this competition was to score a goal. Not an overly ambitious goal, but a goal nonetheless. And that is to be expected from a squad of semi-professionals made up of factory workers, truck drivers, an auditor, four members of the same family and 11 unemployed folk. Only one player, striker Marama Vahirua, who spent last season with Panathinaikos in Greece, is a professional. In summary, it is a team made up of ordinary people, not superstars. And that is what football’s greater picture is about – it’s not just about Neymar & Iniesta entertaining us with mind boggling skills it is also about the ordinary man.
The protests outside Confed Cup stadiums have threatened to steal the highlights from the tournaments itself. When I asked Supersport presenter (via twitter), Carol Tshabalala what the protests were about, she replied “Too much money being spent on the competition & not enough in health services”. The ordinary people feel as though their basic needs are being sacrificed at the expense of luxurious events like the World Cup. They feel as though entertainment is being championed at the expense of development and basic service delivery. But, that is a story for another day.
Throughout the club season, we have been entertained by the Bayerns, Dortmunds & Kaizer Chiefs of this world. But at some point, entertainment must stop and development of football , even if briefly, must be prioritized if the beautiful game is to grow. The U-21 European championships just ended and now the U-20 World Cup taking place in Turkey – both of these singing their own tune about the importance of football development.
I understand when fans throw banter at Tahiti and make jokes about the 10-0 margins, but for a professional analyst to laugh at the champions of a particular confederation, sends the wrong message to many addresses. First & foremost, it sends the wrong message to Tahiti – that they are not a part of the world stage and never will be. Secondly, it sends a wrong message to teams in Tahiti’s confederation, Oceania – that Tahiti is a hopeless football nation and any team that could not beat them is even worse. Finally, it sends the wrong message to young people – who are inspired by the fact that a team of ordinary footballers (and ordinary people) can earn the right to battle it out with the world’s best. Laughing at Tahiti is tantamount to laughing at ourselves, and FIFA’s efforts at globalizing the game.
Tahiti’s fairytale may not be held in the same breath as, say, Ghana in 2010, but it’s a fairytale nonetheless. For a nation whose population of 180000 could fit into the (olden day) Maracana stadium, the fact that David even stood up to face Goliath is a story in itself. It may be fine margins, but I’m willing to bet that there are more people are inspired by (and relate to) Tahiti’s arrival on the world stage than there would be inspired by a 3-2 extra time victory by Spain over Germany. Sometimes the development value in football is more important than the entertainment value and that is what makes the beautiful game a beautiful union. The true balance is a happy marriage of entertainment & development, and in a world of equal rights, development must never feel sidelined.