A New Idol: FOOTBALL [Archives:1998/26/Focus]

June 29 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf,
Professor of Economics,
Sanaa University.
The world is going crazy these days. ‘What about,’ you ask. ‘The World Cup Football matches,’ I tell you.
Indeed, just look around you.
Let me use the Yemeni people as an example. No hunger, no fatigue, no fear will keep them away from the television screens. You will see family members of all ages huddled together around the set. Those persons who do not have television sets make arrangements to watch the games with friends. Those who have ordinary-size sets, look for places where there are large screens. The games are always there, on everybody’s mind.
Football or soccer or kurat al-qadam (in Arabic) is about physical agility. It is about good reflexes. It is about good anticipation. And it is about coordination and team playing.
Over a period of ninety minutes, 22 players (11 on each side) have their eyes on the ball, literally. And they keep it moving, each team attempting to score as many goals as possible.
But football is more than a game which drives spectators to frenzy. It is about human feelings.
Note the following:
1. Kick it:
When a person sees a ball rolling towards him/her, he/she will instinctively kick it. You can’t ignore it. Think for a minute. How many times have you changed the direction of your walk to meet a ball?
Tonight, as you watch the games with friends or family members, note how many times their legs keep moving with the ball.
2. Team Spirit:
In football, however good you are, you need your mates. You cannot succeed alone.
Of course, an excellent player will always stand out; in that he/she will make the best of a situation. But at the end of the day, it is team-work that brings victory. In football, you have to balance individual competition with group cooperation.
3. Hard Work:
In football, as it is in other human endeavors, what carries the day is hard work. It is the individual and team that trains harder that is able to do better on the field.
That is why, players spend long hours to get ready. Of course, luck plays some role, but within limits.
4. Passion:
Soccer is a game that overwhelms you. Have you ever passed by a stadium as the games were on. You definitely must have heard the crowds cheer with enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, when passions are taken to extremes, it can lead to many sad situations. Fans can become unruly and ugly, either when their team wins or loses. Alcohol adds to the lawless behavior of over-zealous fans.
5. Women’s Football:
At last, women have caught up with the game. Football had been an exclusive male business. Women were even frowned upon when they showed enthusiasm to the game. Now this is no more. The game has now become bi-sexual.
We have many world-class female football players. Yet, it is still a male only, or a female only game. Maybe, one day not too far away, there will be matches pitching female teams against male teams. Or better still, there will be mixed teams.
Football also has some political overtones. That was clear in the match that brought Iran and the USA together. US President Bill Clinton made a special speech on the occasion, and the Iranian leadership, following Iran’s victory over the USA (2-1), was able to make rather conciliatory gestures to the ‘grand satan’.
History is full of other instances when politics and football mixed. But no one can forget that Honduras and El-Salvador went to war in 1969, with the background of the fierce soccer competition between them.
The World Football Cup Games break all records. Football is possibly the largest peaceful human engagement in our modern times.
When you realize that most television stations are transmitting the same message, you know it is what the public wants. I was surfing the channels a few evenings ago. Of the sixty or so channels at my disposal, I could only count four channels transmitting something else. The rest aired the games. There is a unified transmission on television channels, when the matches are on. Try it tonight. Surf the channels. You will see, there is the same picture. We are all hooked on the football matches in France.
Once the 64 World Cup matches are over, it is estimated that some 37 billion persons in combined viewing would have watched the games. This means that every person on this planet – man, woman, adult, child and enfant – would have watched an average of at least six matches.
The money spent on the games is another record-breaker. From the enormous money the players earn to the huge advertisement costs, to the mind-boggling expenses people are ready to incur to watch the games live, it is all record-breaking. France has invested more than US$ 1.4 billion to simply upgrade, improve and revamp the football grounds and facilities in the ten towns hosting the matches.
Indeed, humanity has a new idol.