Diary

R.W. Johnson

R.W. Johnson’s article in this issue is taken from some of his blog posts during the South Africa 2010 World Cup. More of his posts, and those of some other LRB contributors, can be found at lrb.co.uk/blog/world-cup-2010/

6 June. South Africa is being worked up by an endless media barrage into a state of great excitement and expectancy about the World Cup. The advertising tends to stress Africa, not just South Africa – perhaps just as well given the home team’s weaknesses. Ads show African footballing stars – Eto’o, Essien, Drogba, Pienaar – first in dreary English settings and then returning home to the African sunshine, where they’re met by vast welcoming crowds. It is Africa’s time, we are told. The clear message of the ads is that Africa is going to win the Cup. Portugal’s recent walloping of Cameroon and Holland’s thumping of Ghana in pre-tournament friendlies may have injected a dose of realism, but the media will continue to encourage all manner of fantastical expectations.

11 June. The death last night of Nelson Mandela’s 13-year-old great-grand-daughter, Zenani, has cast a considerable pall. She was on her way home from the big concert in Soweto when their car overturned near the motorway sliproad to Selby in central Jo’burg. I know that sliproad well and it is not at all challenging so my immediate reaction was that the driver must have been drunk. This turned out to be correct and he has been charged with culpable homicide.

While it may seem unbelievably lax for the chauffeur of, effectively, the country’s royal family to get drunk, the truth is that the number of men who partied till after midnight and were still sober at the end of it could probably be counted on one hand. This is one reason the road accident rate is six times higher here than in the UK. Drunk driving in South Africa is so common that it is hardly regarded as serious. In March the main ANC spokesman was arrested for drunk driving at 8 a.m. He was three times over the limit. It was seen as a minor offence and he has kept his job.

Within hours of the news of Zenani’s death appearing on the website of the Mail and Guardian, a reader commented: ‘Pity it wasn’t Winnie killed instead.’ South Africans tend to have a somewhat crude taste in such matters. A few years ago a party of Japanese tourists in a game reserve saw a pride of lions. Disobeying the very strict instructions not to get out of their vehicle, they got out to photograph the lions. They were killed and eaten. Within a few weeks there were TV ads featuring comical Asian foreigners saying ‘Ah so’ as they hastened to dismount from their car in a game reserve. The ad (all about insurance risks, as I recall) was thought to be extremely funny, though it was quickly taken off, presumably as a result of diplomatic intervention.

At least we’ve now crossed the starting line. The whole country is psyched up and, remarkably, tomorrow’s rugby game between France and South Africa is seen almost as a sideshow. In a country where rugby frequently leads the TV and radio news bulletins, this alone is a sort of miracle.

14 June. It should have long been obvious but is now beyond doubt: the vuvuzela needs to be banned. Stupidly, in the run-up to the Cup the local authorities and media celebrated it as an authentically patriotic piece of equipment, although doctors long ago testified that to have one blown next to you throughout a football game would leave you with permanent hearing damage. The noise is considerably louder than a chainsaw and not much more melodious and it is seriously bad for the game as well as the spectators. A stadium full of such horns guarantees that the players can’t hear the ref’s whistle or their teammates’ words and that broadcasters are drowned out. The only hope lies in the fact that the stadiums aren’t full – several thousand seats were going begging at the England v. USA match at the anyway small Rustenburg stadium and the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium in Port Elizabeth hasn’t yet been more than two-thirds full.

16 June. In the run-up to the World Cup there was a constant rumble of threatened strike action by groups keen to take advantage of this unbeatable blackmail opportunity. Now, however, we have seen wildcat strikes by the stadium security guards in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg – with quite a serious clash between police and strikers in Durban – and by bus drivers, so that fans at some Jo’burg games have found there was no way for them to get home. We are also threatened by a civil service strike, and electricity workers have rejected a 8 per cent pay offer (inflation is 5 per cent) and are demanding a fantastical 15 per cent by the end of the week or they will plunge the country into darkness. Other groups of workers are watching, poised to follow suit.

Meanwhile, the football goes on, rather boringly for the most part. One of the chief delights of the South African TV coverage is Terry Paine, the former England player, who lives here and is a prominent commentator. Terry – often known as Sir Terry, because he has a MBE – speaks with the unaffected prejudices of the 1960s. He was clearly affronted by the sight of the Brazilians being frustrated by the scarlet-clad men of North Korea and so we got such gems as ‘and now Robinho’s sinuous swerve is blocked by yet another red robot.’ No one has asked Sir Terry what he thinks about the threatened strikes but it might be very entertaining if someone only would.

26 June. South Africa’s exit from the World Cup – the first time ever that a host nation has failed to get through the first round – hasn’t punctured the buoyant mood here. Partly because of the victory against France; partly because it was, deep down, always expected; partly because the team was so low-ranked that it did well to be competitive at all; but also because France and Italy and all the other African teams except Ghana also went out. If such a fate could befall two of the last three World Cup winners, it was no disgrace.

But while South Africa’s exit has caused a sales slump for flag sellers, everyone is cock-a-hoop that other things are working so well. The fan who barged into the England dressing-room uninvited was charged in court yesterday morning, showing an unusual expedition and firmness on the authorities’ part. In the case of other crimes against visiting journalists or fans the police have been efficiency itself, capturing burglars, returning stolen goods, sending the villains promptly to jail and generally making the justice system work like clockwork. (There is a growing demand that this ought to be their normal behaviour – an impossible dream.) The Homecoming Revolution, an organisation which tries to get émigré South Africans (mainly white professionals) to return home, reports that the combination of World Cup euphoria and austerity measures in the countries they’ve gone to will result in an increase of at least 39,000 returnees this year and 120,000 next.

27 June. This is, as far as I can ascertain, the first time that the ANC government’s avowed Pan-Africanism has ever struck any kind of chord. Continental solidarity is not an easy thing. Now England have gone out, will the English support other European teams such as the Germans? Unlikely. In Latin America the only leader who seems to believe in continental unity is Hugo Chávez, which is to say someone whom most other people do not wish to unite with. Often Latin Americans give the impression that language is still the key, so if their own team goes out they would side with Spain or Portugal; a problem in the forthcoming game between Brazil and Portugal, the Lusophone world championship, as it were. And I very much doubt whether South Koreans, with their team now out, have transferred their loyalties to Japan. Most Koreans, north or south, would support Mars against Japan.

28 June. Tim Noakes, the director of the Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, has done thorough tests on sportsmen suffering from long-term fatigue due to being over-played and has shown what a major disadvantage this constitutes, with at least a 20 per cent fall-off in performance. In particular, Noakes showed that even though an athlete might rest between games, get adequate sleep and remain fit, none of this could prevent the build-up of fatigue over a season. Despite the greed of the South African Rugby Union and its tendency to arrange more and more international tours, Noakes’s warnings were heeded before the last rugby World Cup, and the national squad was given a protracted rest before the tournament. South Africa went on to win the Cup easily. However, for such lessons to be learned and acted on requires the sport’s governing body to put the interests of the national team above those of the clubs. This isn’t an easy matter and what we seem to have ended up with in rugby here is the clubs predominating most of the time, often producing tired national teams, but in a World Cup year the Union steps in and the priorities are reversed.

2 July. As we get to the final stages of the World Cup it’s worth looking at the track records of the major football nations. To hear the hullabulloo from the losing English camp one would think England was one of them but actually it has only made the last four twice (one win and one fourth place). This compares with the other six winners as follows:

 Wins2nd3rd4th
Brazil5221
Italy4211
Germany3431
Argentina22--
Uruguay2--2
France1121
England1--1

This is the 19th World Cup and Germany (or West Germany) has made the last four 11 times, although Brazil is the only country to have played in all 19 tournaments. History suggests that Germany’s progress at England’s expense is neither a fluke nor the national tragedy it’s been seen as in England. It’s par for the course. But England is not the only country where reactions to football failure have been disproportionate. Nigeria tried to ban its players from international competition for two years (it was told it couldn’t do so by Fifa, which has a strict rule against government intervention in the sport), and Sarkozy is conducting an inquisition into the French team’s failure. The only surprise is that Silvio Berlusconi has not named himself captain of Italy.

Fifa’s rule has, in fact, often been transgressed. The most striking case occurred in 1938 when Austria qualified for the World Cup’s final 16. The Anschluss then took place, Austria was absorbed into Germany and simply vanished as a country, so the World Cup had to make do with 15 finalists. Similarly, Czechoslovakia, the USSR and Yugoslavia have all made the last four but will never do so again.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to imagine that sport and politics can be kept apart. We all know about Hitler’s triumphalist Berlin Olympics of 1936 but it is not often remembered that the Axis Powers hoped to stage a complete Olympic takeover. The 1940 Olympics were to be held in Tokyo and Mussolini tried hard to get the 1944 games for Rome (though London won). Hitler told Albert Speer it would be all right to build an outsize stadium for the 1936 games because ‘every Olympics after 1944 will be held in Berlin’ – possibly the earliest hint of Hitler’s plans for world domination, and of his timescale for it. Doubtless, his plans for the soccer World Cup would have been similar.

Hitler asked Speer what the world record was for a stadium’s capacity. Speer said that the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome had held 270,000 but that no modern stadium exceeded 200,000. Well, in that case, Hitler said, you must build a stadium for 500,000. Speer did his drawings and began to build the stadium (the foundations, now ruins, are still there), though he felt he had to explain to the Führer that no matter how he designed it, it was impossible to build a stadium that big in which everyone could watch the games: the spectators at the back would be too far away to see. Hitler was stupefied: who on earth cared about the spectators?

3 July. When I was four my father decided to teach me about football. He had been a star of the Lancashire Combination league, scoring 120 goals in one 40-game season, after which Liverpool signed him. I asked him about the 120 goals. Well, he said, it’s not as good as it sounds. Ten of them were penalties. I asked how many penalties he missed. He looked surprised. None, he said. No footballer should ever miss a penalty. Never ever.

I was useless at football compared to my father, but I remember that lesson well. It comes back to me powerfully after the Ghana v. Uruguay game, with the chances Ghana threw away – the last-minute penalty fired high and then the poorly taken penalties in the shoot-out. Of course, one could argue that Suárez’s deliberate handball should have been punished with the award of a penalty goal, but I can sympathise with a referee who did not want that decision to be the one to decide a quarter-final.

4 July. Whatever happens next, this has been a good World Cup for Europe. It’s not just that the Dutch and Germans dispatched Brazil and Argentina – the latter almost a rout, presumably costing Maradona his job (Dunga has already gone) – but three of the last four are from Europe. This despite the early exit of Italy, France and England. This matters in Fifa politics, and Fifa has more members than the UN: 207 have already entered for the 2014 World Cup, whereas the UN has only 192. This is not just because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sneak in separately from England. The same thing goes on elsewhere: thus China is a Fifa member but so are Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau and Mongolia. And while the UN is always badly in debt, Fifa has billions in the bank.

The big issue is the number of World Cup finalists drawn from the various regions: currently, 13 from Europe, four or five from Asia, one or none from Oceania, five from Africa, three or four from North and Central America and the Caribbean, four or five from Latin America, plus the host nation. The 54 African nations push continually for greater representation but in fact it will go down from six to five in 2014 as Brazil replaces South Africa as hosts, probably also bringing Latin America’s total up to six. In practice Latin America’s optional extra place is permanent, for it depends on a play-off with the far weaker Central American nations: in 2010 Uruguay merely had to beat Costa Rica to qualify.

The real anomaly is the weakness of the Oceania and Asia groups against the overwhelming strength of Europe. Among the runners-up in Europe this time were such nations as Russia, Austria, Croatia, Turkey and the Czechs, all of whom have quite distinguished histories as World Cup finalists. And there’s a long list behind that, including Hungary, Poland, Belgium and Ukraine. Many of these countries are either rich or rapidly getting richer and they are already major targets for World Cup TV. Given that all the rich clubs are already in Europe, there is no doubt that the economic, as well as the footballing, logic would be to increase the number of European finalists even more. If soccer were run like cricket this is certainly what would happen, for given that the money and the big TV audiences are all in India, international cricket increasingly revolves around that country.

Fifa can but be envious of that situation, so feeble is its Asian section. The only decent sides come from Japan and South Korea. None of the Asian giants – China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam or Malaysia – are any good at all. Even including the Middle East in Asia doesn’t help. Moreover, the extra spaces Fifa made available for the Asian countries have gone to New Zealand and Australia, which was not at all what was intended. Sepp Blatter staked his Fifa career on getting the African vote by promising them a World Cup – a winning gambit because Africa has 54 votes. But Asia is the future and the world game has to grow there if it wants to remain a world game. Blatter is paid a lot more than Ban Ki-moon, has greater resources, more real power and would clearly not swap his job for Moon’s, but he too has his problems.

7 July. Yesterday’s game between Holland and Uruguay was the last in Cape Town – tonight’s semi-final will be in Durban and the final in Jo’burg. Quite probably Cape Town’s many visitors in the last month failed to notice that they could still drive on roads named after Hendrik Verwoerd or even on a main boulevard named after Oswald Pirow, a prewar cabinet minister who became an open Nazi. This is not a comfortable situation for many Cape Town residents, who would like these names removed, along with others such as Settlers’ Way and Jan Smuts Drive. But there the problem starts. Smuts was clearly a racist but he was also South Africa’s greatest prime minister and his statue still sits outside Parliament. So, many whites who would be happy enough to ditch Verwoerd and Pirow would like to keep Smuts and, as descendants of settlers themselves, say that you can’t get rid of Settlers’ Way without implying that a substantial segment of the population is illegitimate. Which, of course, is exactly how the apartheid law against racially mixed marriages made the Coloured (mixed race) population feel.

8 July. The press here seems flummoxed by the failure of the players who were much vaunted pre-tournament to shine – Messrs Ronaldo, Rooney, Messi and Kaká – so somewhat half-hearted attempts are being made to promote Miroslav Klose and Arjen Robben into the vacancies. Football fans seem to demand stars to personalise their dreams and attachments, though most fans choose their team first and then who to idolise within it, roles which naturally change down the years as players come and go. This makes the objective assessment of players very difficult. If you ask the average manager who was the best player he ever saw, he will normally choose either someone he played alongside when young or someone in the team he manages, or seek refuge in saying that there are so many good players it’s hard to choose. I once heard Bill Shankly asked that question and, quick as a shot, he replied ‘Denis Law’, the sort of remarkably honest choice you might have expected from Shankly: he had never played with him or managed him, on top of which Law was a thorn in Liverpool’s side.

The real star of this World Cup has undoubtedly been the German coach, Joachim Löw, who has produced, from a team which was wholly unsung and given little chance when its captain, Michael Ballack, got injured, one which has swept spectators away with its style of lightning counter-attack. Most teams at World Cups, having achieved a two goal lead, will sit on it. Not Löw’s team: they just kept going and have scored four goals three times. Before the tournament Löw picked Spain as favourites but for the semi-final he apparently refused to let his team practise penalties, saying they would win in normal time. He had not reckoned with the infallible predictions of Paul the octopus or, indeed, with the strength of the Spanish midfield. Germany without Müller lacked a vital spark.

For all that, I suspect we are going to hear more of Löw, who is that interesting phenomenon: a superb coach and tactician who was not an outstanding player himself. A lot of his football was played in the lower divisions of the Bundesliga. And like most of the best coaches he had to learn through often bitter experience. He was sacked as coach of Karlsruher in 2000 and, moving to Turkey to coach Adanaspor, got sacked again in 2001. He took Tirol Innsbruck to the top of the Austrian league a year later but the club immediately went bankrupt, so he lost his job once again. However, in coaching school he happened to meet Jürgen Klinsmann and when Klinsmann was appointed Germany’s coach in 2004 he immediately sent for Löw, having been deeply impressed by him as a tactician. Together the two men took Germany to third place in the 2006 World Cup, after which Klinsmann resigned, leaving Löw to take over. Third place looks likely for Germany again, no mean feat with such a young team.

Löw points to the fact that of the four teams in the semi-finals, 28 players play in the Bundesliga, more than any other league. He expects this will mean that big European clubs will raid the Bundesliga for signings; a mistake since what makes the Bundesliga strong is that many of its teams have been working hard on team systems of play rather than individual brilliance. That was not enough in last night’s semi-final as Spain ground out the same sort of remorseless but marginal performance which put out Paraguay and Portugal. In the end the Fifa rankings were right: Germany was ranked 6th, Holland 4th and Spain 2nd. Logically, Spain should now be favourites but anyone who prefers a bit of dash will be rooting for the Dutch.