The World Cup in South Africa next year promises to be quite an event. As one of the World’s top global events, the others comprising The Olympics and The Superbowl, it can always guarantee us entertainment in abundance. For followers of particular nations, add to this rich, emotional drama, and more often that not, overwhelming disappointment.
Put the actual sport aside, however, and we are also guaranteed entertainment of another sort, this time more so than usual. As many post-modern writers (including Paul Virilio and Steve Redhead) have argued, football is fast becoming a stay-at-home spectator sport. Gone are the days of the ardent Saturday afternoon football fan. Up until the advent of The Premiership, working class supporters would save their wages to afford a season ticket to their local, beloved team, whom they would travel to watch live each week. Fast forward a decade or two and we are in an era where a Sky subscription negates this cultural event, to a point where stadia across the country are failing to sell out, even in football’s top tier.
Redhead and co. discuss the need for the “live” supporters, as they provide a backdrop, a sort of reality and way of making sense of what is occurring on our 24 inch wide screen television sets. Watch any sporting event with the TV muted, and suddenly the whole thing seems strange. Sometimes, we almost need the cheers or jeers of the crowds to validate our own views on what is going on. A fantastic goal is scored, a last minute three-pointer bagged, or a home run is struck, but without the affirmation that those present also revelled in its skill audacity, we find it hard to believe or make sense of what this means. Without the soundtrack of the fans inside the stadium, the whole thing just seems a bit dull.
And this is why World Cup South Africa promises to be anything but dull. We saw in Japan and South Korea in 2002 how, even though sometimes the sporting entertainment was one-paced and low-scoring, fanatic crowds enriched the whole experience. Video clips and sound bites of ecstatic Japanese supporters getting a glimpse of David Beckham can sum the experience up nicely. If we look at Manchester United’s recent triumphant World Club Championship matches against Gamba Osaka and LDU Quito, again the crowds were frenetic in their support of the English team and its players, club icon Wayne Rooney in particular.
These people are fans of football for not only sporting reasons, but because of the whole package. They revel in the media hype created by individual personalities like Beckham and Rooney. They adore the focus such an event gives their country, and they deliver when it comes to displaying their nation in the best possible light. The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics underlines this. It may have not been to everybody’s taste in the Western World, but there is no doubting one thing: it was spectacular. Such precision on such a large scale was almost military-like, and if England achieves one hundredth of its effect in 2012 they will have performed out of their skin.
So, to return from this tangent, spectators can truly add to sporting events, both for those physically present and those tuning in all around the world. And, to reach the point of this article, the World Cup should provide such spectacle as has never been seen to such a scale. Any viewers of The African Cup of Nations will have seen glorious images, both still and moving, of colourful, joyous crowds, cheering on not only their nation but the game as a whole. These vibrant spectators are a far cry from the English football supporter, whose attitude varies by the minute depending on their team’s performance. The Africans enjoy the whole experience, and, if their team wins, this is a bonus.
This attitude is obviously born out of low expectations, as the African nations are, on the whole, not expected to get past the group stages of major tournaments. However, the celebratory style and carnival-like scenes at these events are also a reflection of their way of life. Just like the Carnival in Rio and crowds inside (and outside) South American stadia, they dress up in an array of costumes, they bring musical accompaniment and are generally there to live in the present and enjoy the game.
Even the actual football design of the World Cup is a microcosm of the host nation’s society. Japan and Korea in 2002 chose a sleek, stylish gold design, containing a shuriken-looking shape with a martial arts feel. 2006 was Germany’s turn, and they delivered with a neat, structured, mainly black and white ball, which is usually depicted straight on, to emphasise its perfect symmetry. 2010 is a variation of the 2006 ball, but it is practically unrecognisable. The red, yellow, green and black sphere almost makes a mockery of traditional images of the football; the old, English brown laced monstrosity or the black and white hexagon design seem like boorish nonentities compared with this extravaganza. It can only add to the feel of the tournament.
This festival attitude towards football seems alien to us in the UK. But this does not make it any less appealing. I, for one, hope to enjoy the World Cup next year, regardless of – most probably in spite of England’s individual performances. The European Championship in 2008 was a cultural phenomenon many of us an unfamiliar with: a football tournament sans England and their riotous fans. And it was quite nice. We were able to watch the football and soak up the culture at a different angle than usual. It was as if we were watching a parallel universe, where the results were quite inconsequential and what really mattered was the football on show. I hope this attitude can continue when England are (surely!) back in the fray in 2020. And I believe with the crowds in South Africa, it could just do so.
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