At the world cup it's important to eat the right fast food and drink the appropriate fizzy beverage, a sentiment that for some of us seems to have crossed over into the football itself. The packaging is flawless, you feel hungry and thirsty with anticipation, you begin to wolf it all down enthusiastically, but gradually you feel like it’s not quite as satisfying as you’d anticipated and you’re not sure you want to keep going until the end.
If you did make it as far as watching the final the sporting endeavour was utterly overshadowed by an act of raw violence apparently egged on by foul-mouthed abuse. When we reminisce about past world cups we think about Hurst’s hat-trick, Banks’s save, Cruyff’s turn, Maradona’s dribble, Bergkamp’s volley and Carlos Alberto’s piledriver. All major tournaments have their Hand of God and hot-tempered sending off, but this one seems to have plumbed a new low for the overall tone of cynicism, petulance and lack of sporting ambition.
Zidane’s assault came in the wake of a popular victory over pantomime villains Portugal who survived their war with Holland to depose England who weren’t above a bit of hair pulling themselves while mein host appealed for and applauded bookings before getting involved in a scrap with the Argentinians. The Ukrainians looked frightened to score and the Brazilians like they’d forgotten how to. The victorious Italians belied their reputation to become the fairest and best team out there only to step back into one of the biggest scandals in football history.
In 2002 everyone blamed the poor competition on players being too drained from their domestic seasons to shine in the summer. This time, even with a nice break beforehand, the established stars rarely shone, few new names emerged to supplant them and defences were on top to the point where only one striker scored more than three goals and the world’s pundits were clutching at straws to find a partner for him in their tournament dream teams.
Picture of Zizou's admirers via choudoudou's Flickr stream.
Now, some of us will watch football until the last pitch is dug up for a new skyscraper, but many of the sport’s sponsors rely on its appeal to far more casual fans, the same people who, at least in this country, were drawn in during the nineties by an increasingly glamorous and exciting spectacle. Yet despite months of eager expectation it’s hard to find anybody now who’d describe this, football’s greatest show, as much better than “OK.”
Great efforts were made to avoid a repeat of the blocks of empty seats seen in Japan and South Korea four years ago as it doesn’t present the right image to the world’s viewers, but football’s organising bodies resist broadcasting’s influence on themselves to the point of sacrificing the plausibility of their own sport. While the world gasped at Zidane’s brutal assault many were more astonished that, under the gaze of dozens of revenue-generating cameras feeding millions of relentlessly advertised screens watched by billions of captive customers the sport’s governing body had to furiously deny to its last breath that a touchline official had seen the crucial incident on television.
Other sports see embracing modern technology as a legitimate way to fight back against the insidious success of gamesmanship, reward the perfect timing of an attack and remove the bitter taste of honest but blatantly incorrect calls by officials. Plenty of spectators watching referees in Germany become overwhelmed by the volume and subtlety of attempts to browbeat and deceive them are ready to take their chances with live video evidence. It’s not perfect in all situations and it’s not the answer to all sport's ills, but surely competitors and supporters alike would be pleased that as much justice as possible was being seen to be done? It might even persuade teams to try to win by scoring a few goals for a change, a future driven by the Zidane headers of ’98, not 2006.