Thursday, July 15, 2010

The End of the 2010 South Africa World Cup

It's a photograph that's drawn me in all my life, first as a small, damaged post card, and later as a restored 11" by 17" blow up. The picture shows a group of men gathered in front of a wall as they look purposefully back at the camera. The men are a football team (or soccer team to North Americans), taken sometime around 1917 in Toronto. In the centre of the photograph, kneeling behind a soccer ball inscribed "Young Ireland's Gaelic FC" sits my grandfather, Tom Burden. In his early days, he was sports mad. A superb athlete, family lore suggested that, with proper training (which he never received) he might have been good enough to participate in the early Olympic games as a sprinter. It wasn't to be. (Another thing that wasn't to be, thankfully, was that he had a ticket to come over to North America on the Titanic, but his Mom took sick and he cancelled it, coming over a month later on the about the luck of the Irish!) He was also, by all reports, an extremely talented footballer. So over the last 16 years, he would have been very proud of me, because I finally GOT football [See at the end. After I posted, an Irish friend corrected me on some issues].

Living in an Italian neighbourhood for eight years (1992 to 2000) will do that to you. You either embraced the noise, the party, the carnival during World Cup or the Euro or you got the hell outta Dodge. My wife and I embraced it, so, after complaining for years that 'soccer was too slow and too low scoring,' I finally had to confront it. Once I watched a game or two from start to finish, I was hooked. My revelation was simple ('oh, it's like hockey except on a bigger playing surface and you can't go behind the net!'). By the 1998 World Cup I was hooked, so now that the 2010 edition is over I'm feeling the post-tournament blues. The wild flag waving, the fun and random conversations with complete strangers (in TORONTO, no less) about footie, the friendly horn blowing, the sleep deprivation, the sneaking a peek at games at work on until they caught on because the network slowed to a crawl and blocked us all (I resorted to the minute-by-minute game ticker). It's all finished now and won't be back for four years (or two years if you include the Euro in 2012).

The only thing I wasn't able to participate in was going to a bar and watching the game with fans (Kevin did; perhaps he'll comment). I made solid plans to do it once, but after going to my chosen establishment the day before to confirm said broadcast, the guy behind the bar was such an asshole I decided to watch it at home instead. It was the German/British game, an embarrassing 4-Nil loss by the Brits. Glad I didn't go to said bar, as it was a British one -- it would have been bad, especially since by the end of it I was mighty impressed with the Germans and I might have started cheering for them amongst a bunch of angry British fans. The Germans played a far more exciting game than the 'intellectual exercises' they have always seemed to rely on in the past. Besides, they also have the player with the best name in all professional sports, Bastien Schweinsteiger (which a German friend tells me means 'pig climber' ... er, I don't want to know where that came from). My second favourite name in this tournie? Paul the Octopus. Paul successfully predicted EVERY victory and loss for the German side and then also went on to pick Spain in the final, a perfect 8 and 0 record.

There were glorious moments that almost brought tears to my eyes, for good and bad reasons. The good? South Africa's Siphiwe Tshabalala scoring the first-ever goal in the 2010 WC. South Africa may not have moved on, but they acquited themselves well considering what all the naysayers said about their chances. They did better than France - HAHAHAHAHAH - sorry, had to get that out of my system. I'm half Irish. If you need to know more than that, go to Google and look up "Thierry Henry handball." I'll wait. Dum dee dum, la da dee, la dee da...Ah, back? Understand now? Good. The bad? Uruguay/Ghana. The illegal and obvious handball by the Uruguanian Suarez with no time left that prevented Ghana's victory, but this one I didn't mind as anyone would have done it as an instinctual response and Ghana had a penalty shot coming. What absolutely broke my heart was that Asamoah Gyan, a great Ghanian player, missed the subsequent shot that would have guaranteed Ghana's trip through to the next round. Ghana went on to lose in shootout. I still can't watch that miss without getting upset.

Uruguay was a good side, and Diego Forlán, Uruguay's striker, is an amazing and clean player, but after that I just couldn't cheer for them and was deeply satisfied when the Dutch dispatched them. Other moments: all shots of the clearly insane Argentinean Diego Maradona posturing like Mussolini on the touch line (appropriate, I guess, since he loves cozying up to dictators such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez), the previously mentioned Bastien Schweinsteiger stripping the Argentine defense bare as he charged past them to feed a teammate a ball to score a goal, the sweet-to-watch pathetic play of the overrated Portuguese player Christiano Rinaldo, Dutch captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst's absolutely beautiful goal from 30 yards out against the hissable Brazilians, the sounds of the vuvuzela, my man Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast playing with a broken arm, the emergence of Holland's Wesley Sneidjer - especially his wonderful header goal, the American/Ghana game in total, The Score's The Footie Show each night at 10pm and Spain's Andre Iniesta's very classy touch paying tribute to his dead friend and teammate with this note scrawled on his tee shirt after he scored the goal that won Spain the World Cup: "Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros" (Dani Jarque Always With Us). NOTE: If you check out my June 16th post, you will see that I predicted the winner.

There were awful moments too - bad refereeing (the Americans were robbed in two games of goals that actually got me cheering for the Yanks, and the Brits had one not called, as well), and the brutal play of the Dutch in the final game (the team I was cheering for and they acted like the Philidelphia Flyers). I could go on, but let me just sum up the glorious month-long tournament this way: even with the G20 riots (don't get me started on the whining protesters!), Toronto seemed to sorta/kinda learn to smile and like the strangers all around us for a whole month, something that seems as rare as hen's teeth around here. The whole place seemed to go footie mad, something you would only see in isolated neighbourhoods when I first started watching the game in 1994. Next time? The whole city should close down for a month so we can groove on each other and watch The Beautiful Game.

ADDENDUM: 3PM EDT. Well, my Irish friend Teige Reid tells me I may have some facts wrong. It turns out the my grandfather may have played a unique game called Gaelic Football, where the rules are rather different from 'English' football. Rules sure are different: you can actually carry and punch the ball besides kicking it (meaning if the World Cup played by the Gaelic Football rules, the Uruguanian handball in the Ghana game would have been completely legal). Anyway, I learned something new today. Go to if you want to discover the differences yourself. I still think, though, that my grandfather would be proud that I finally follow SOME form of football, even if it's the hated British game. :) 

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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