Today’s match between Portugal and North Korea has stirred memories of the encounter between the two teams in 1966. Today the South African Communist Party formally wished success to North Korea as fellow Communists but what mattered more in 1966 was that North Korea played its matches up in England’s north-east and their plucky performances – especially the victory against Italy – won the hearts of Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough fans and they flocked to cheer them on. That game was more of a contest than today’s 7-0 thrashing: North Korea led 3-0 before Eusébio scored four and Portugal won 5-3.
Eusébio is still a name to conjure with here – yesterday’s City Press carried an article accusing Europe of ‘soccer colonialism’, with Eusébio a prize exhibit alongside Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and other stars born in Africa but ‘stolen’ by Europe. There was no mention of the fact that Eusébio went to Portugal of his own free choice, that he was happy to stay there, that he was paid and treated far better there than he would have been in his native Mozambique, and that his soccer skills were brought to a higher level by European trainers and competition. The article displayed a powerful sense of victimhood, but it is highly doubtful that Eusébio would regard himself as a victim of colonialism. Perhaps England should be lamenting the players it has lost through emigration to Australia and New Zealand, but although things are at a pretty low ebb in the England camp no one seems to have thought of this excuse yet.
But it might be wise to brace ourselves to hear more about ‘soccer colonialism’ for the large-scale exit of African teams at the first round is likely to stir such grievances yet again, particularly since Fifa has made it clear that any chance of increasing the number of African qualifiers in future will depend on African performances now. Of 2010’s six African qualifiers, only Ghana seems likely to go through, so the argument will doubtless turn in favour of more teams from Asia – it already seems odd to have a world event lacking Russia, China and India. But the key moment will, of course, come with tomorrow’s France v. South Africa match which is likely to see the exit of the hosts even if they win. For while the willingness of South Africans to enjoy a good party even after that should not be doubted – rather as England enjoys Wimbledon every year well after all English players have been eliminated – the atmosphere will nonetheless change, for the coming of the World Cup has been the realisation of a dream and Bafana Bafana have been very much part of that dream.
At present their hopes hang heavily on the extraordinary ructions in the French camp following the expulsion of their key striker, Nicholas Anelka (an interesting case for the soccer colonialism lobby, that). In truth anyone who has followed Anelka’s career knows that he has left club after club in acrimonious circumstances, so his departure is less of a surprise than the reaction of the French camp as a whole. The larger point, of course, is that Uruguay and Mexico only have to draw 0-0 for them both to go through at the expense of both South Africa and France, a result one could easily imagine being agreed over a beer. But for locals the drama still fastens on the France v. South Africa contest, with everyone hoping that the French will continue to fight among themselves. It may not be enough. One thinks back to the episode of the Goon Show in which the British army in North Africa have to play football against the local Arabs and, in an attempt to guarantee victory, Major Bloodnok and Moriarty manage to pass large quantities of alcohol into the normally teetotal Arab camp. ‘The result was a foregone conclusion: British garrison, 12; Drunken Arabs, 68.’