Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Most Beautiful Game

After four very long years the FIFA World Cup has returned, this time to the land of South Africa. The land formerly besieged by apartheid, the land of Nelson Mandela, Stephen Biko, Desmond Tutu, and Lucky Dube. Some people were skeptical of this World Cup’s location in South Africa, centered around the city of Johannesburg, which has been experiencing an outbreak of crime and violence, the same violence that led to roots reggae singer Lucky Dube’s murder a few years ago. Others have said that the attention given to hosting the World Cup has ignored the problems facing the population of disenfranchised South Africans in the country. While the South Africa World Cup has not been without its criticism, I think that ultimately it is helping South Africa more than it is hurting it. I don’t think the now elderly freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, would endorse anything less.

I have been waiting for this event, the most highly anticipated in the world, since the end of the last one in 2006. The World Cup is like no other sporting event, even the Olympics cannot match the fervor and the attention that this soccer championship garners from all across the globe. Passions run deep, only 32 nations qualify to participate and only 1 will survive to be the champion. Since this World Cup began on June 11th, I’ve had to negotiate between my daily responsibilities as a teacher during the busy end of the school year and with viewing the various matches of football each day by any means necessary. Every spare moment I had would be spent huddled around a computer, listening to the radio, or finding a TV. Now that the school year is finally over, I can hang up the shirt and tie for the rest of the summer, put on one of my soccer jerseys, and enjoy the rest of the tournament on my own time without sneaking away at computers or waiting to see recorded matches back at home. Of course, the last games of the group stages are played simultaneously... now if I could only split myself in two. Thankfully DVR technology is the next best thing.

Soccer, or football as most of the world calls it, is really the world’s universal game. It is remarkably simple and yet at the same time can be played with such complexity and style that it seems beyond our scope. All it requires is something to kick, a bundle of stitched rags will do if a ball cannot be afforded. And although anyone can play the game, young and old, men and women, rich and poor, very few can master it with the grace and technique of those who become professional players. Each of these players have a story, some of the best players often come from poverty, where their one leisure was soccer, and if they are were lucky enough and skilled enough they could become professionals. Professionals who could earn millions of dollars playing on famous club teams and who could one day get the chance to represent their own country on the stage of the World Cup.

In my travels I have seen soccer played wherever I went. In the Italian village of Volturara Irpina and the small Sicilian city of Melilli where parts of my family came from, children would play in paved piazzas in the shadow of an old church and bounce soccer balls down narrow cobblestone streets. Soccer runs in the blood of the Italians, as it does in many other nations of the world. In the streets of Belmont, Port-of-Spain in Trinidad & Tobago, young boys played barefoot on the dirt road in the hills above the city. I can remember standing beside a gate and watching how the neighbor’s chickens would scramble out of the way as skilled feet danced the ball between opponents. In Bigiston, Suriname, young men played on a pitch in front of a primary school beside the Marowijne River. In this village that was part Amerindian Caribs and part African Maroons, a game of soccer was representative of two different cultures and peoples living peacefully and being united by something as simple as a friendly soccer match. That is one reason why it is called the beautiful game. The Brazilians first called it that because of the athleticism and technique involved in playing, but I believe it is also because soccer demonstrates a way of life and culture that no other game can be compared to. Soccer is a culture for all cultures.

The World Cup magnifies all of this and brings it to a fever pitch. Every four years, a number of nations from every populated continent come together in order to compete for the title of Champion of the World. They are the ones who made it through qualification rounds which began a few years ago. Almost every nation on the earth has a team and football association, but only 32 make it to the tournament. Different skin colors, diverse faces, ethnicities, and religions all come together to speak the universal language of football. All of the different team jerseys, with their bright colors, distinct patterns and insignia are emblematic of armies gathered for a military campaign. Fans wear these same uniforms of national pride as their team plays for the glory. Flags, chants, and anthems fill the stadium in support of 11 men playing on the pitch. Players on the national teams may face teammates and friends from their individual club teams who instead represent their home country during the World Cup. Nations may face former enemies, colonial masters, or even current political rivals but somehow the simple game of soccer is a unifying force and all of the differences seem to disappear in the midst of the beautiful game. Soccer cuts down all barriers and focuses the energy into a competition of sport. It is the closest thing one can find to a war, where passions flare and everything is on the line, but there is no bloodshed, there is no destruction. These soccer armies are not created to wage war, but for winning the honor of being the greatest soccer nation in the world. During each game there will ultimately be a winner and a loser, one will advance in triumph while the other team will have to end their journey with dignified acceptance. The players and fans of a national team are deeply embedded in the action and the results, while others may be neutral to some of the games until their own country or favorites become the ones to have a stake in it. Every move is watched, every second could lead to stunning goals being made, or the agony of near misses. Star players could rise, star players could fall. Games may offer edge of the seat, nail-biting action, or slow-paced unimpressive ball passing. Simply put, there is nothing like World Cup.

By the time I have gotten around to writing this, the group stage of the World Cup is nearly over, with the final games of each group being played simultaneously for fair play in determining who will emerge out to the Round of 16. Earlier today the United States advanced from and won their group during the last few minutes of stoppage time added at the end of the match. That one goal made the difference and might ultimately help the U.S. finally have the opportunity to be taken seriously as an international soccer nation. So far, other nations have advanced too, including some of the usual big names like Brazil and Argentina. On the opposite end, other teams have already been eliminated, among them most of the six African nations that qualified for the World Cup. It is rather heartbreaking to see because this is the first World Cup held on African soil and African teams have always been the underdog in comparison to the European and South American giants. A few days ago, the host nation South Africa, who almost had an amazing chance to make it out of the group against all odds, was eliminated. They joined Cameroon, and Nigeria who also had one last chance to make it, and nearly did. The other African teams seem to be joining them soon, all but one, the Black Stars of Ghana. After two successful matches Ghana was at the top of their group, and although they lost their last first-round game against the soccer titan Germany, they were still able to advance out of their group with 2nd place. On their backs, Ghana will be carrying the hopes of all the African continent and the African nations that were eliminated. The strange irony of it all is that Ghana will now have to face the U.S. during the Round of 16 knock-out game. My heart will be torn while watching that match. Yet, I can only imagine the feeling being all the more intense for Ghanaian-Americans, like some of my friends and students, who love both of their nations. The World Cup often overflows with surprises...

I’m looking forward to about two and a half more weeks of World Cup soccer, it all ends on July 11th after a month of competition. Surely there will be disappointments, but there will also be glorious triumphs. Hopefully my allegiance is on the right side, at the right time. I’m looking for something good to come out of the USA vs. Ghana game... though I’m not sure what that should be yet. I’m looking for gli Azzurri, the Italian national team, to live up to their reputation as the defending champion of the world. Finally, I am looking forward to watch some lovely soccer being played by Argentina and other top teams. In the end, may the best and most deserving team win the World Cup title for the most beautiful game. One thing is for certain... it only gets better from here!

Something special will happen in South Africa, and there is no better place for it to happen than this land of struggle and reconciliation. I wonder what Lucky Dube would think. I wonder what Stephen Biko and all those who lost their lives in the struggle against apartheid would think. Different nations, united by one spirit, one culture, one language... the most beautiful game: Soccer, Football, FĂștbol, Calcio.

Forza Azzurri! Viva Italia! (... and Ghana, USA and Argentina!),

Thursday, June 10, 2010



Together we sit in different
Corners of the classroom
From different corners of
The earth and its nations
Yet united we have come to
Uproot the grisly tree that
Once bore a strange fruit
And in its place transplant
The lost legacies pulled up
From the Atlantic seafloor
Stolen from the African shore
Of Ghana, of Togo, of Benin
By pirates of the Caribbean
Behind closed doors we have
Discovered the harsh reality
The untold, the unheard of
Forgotten cold case mysteries
Replaced with a history coated
In refined plantation sugarcane
Because it’s easier to swallow
To accept and follow their ways
Forgetting the days of slavery
The shackles and chains of events
Of struggle, of sharecropping
Of segregation and emancipation
Of education and innovation
Rebellion, protest, and progress
While searching for our own voice
As Douglas did, and then DuBois
Truth and hope were muffled by
Noise of nonsense and white lies
But our eyes are now open wide
With a newborn awareness we
Tune into a different frequency
Listening to the musical notes of
Reggae, jazz, rhythm and blues
Reading Angelou and Langston
Hues of color evoked through
The souls of these black folk
In order to give us a memory
Us, the students of lost legacies
Now, known as kings and queens
Knowing we can achieve all things
And carry it back to our corners
Teaching each of our nations about
The African story, the American story
The Human story... Our story

(c) 2010

Livicated to the students of my African-American History class, 2010.