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[OPINION] More than the beautiful game, football is the beautiful monster

It’s just a game. Just 22 men chasing a synthetic ball for 90 minutes, feigning mortal injuries in their overzealous bids for glory and brand endorsements. But it's more than that. Some may even call it the great soothing of the fragile male ego to reinforce a sense of entitlement.

But that would be letting football off lightly. It’s a world unto itself. A paper-thin dome of make belief and hyperbole. It consists of twisted ankles and skewed logic, where a feather’s touch can strike down a player like a sniper’s bullet, leaving him at death’s door, but a celebratory pile-on leaves only blushes at the degree of male fondling. Go figure. It’s a world of extremes where the sublime and the ridiculous co-habit in a maelstrom of unlimited cash and gentlemen’s agreements, carefully orchestrated by Fifa Inc.

In the real world, the only soccer team worth praying for and spending money on over the past month should have been The Wild Boars, the Thai soccer team who didn’t dive. Too soon? Never mind, we’re all going to hell anyway, because hundreds of migrant workers may die while building the shiny futuristic stadiums for Qatar 2022. We’ll pay for that. Every one of us. We’ve created this beautiful monster called world football and we feed it with every cheer, Budweiser (only) beer, and every office betting pool. But the world needed a good news story, and the Thai boys’ rescue provided us with that. As did France’s march to victory, a day after Bastille Day.

For a day, at least, we can forget the fact that Donald Trump will never leave our timelines or the damn petrol price. We can dream of what it must be like to be Kylian Mbappe today - son of immigrants, but full-blooded Frenchman, and still only 19-years-old. To Trump, Mbappe must be the anti-Christ. To billions more he is a teenage superhero, with the world at his feet, and about to be paid gazillions of dollars for his talent before he burns out at 25. Just a game, they say.

It’s impossible to deny the beauty of what has transpired in stadiums from Kazan to Kaliningrad.

Cristiano Ronaldo set the stage alight with THAT freekick against Spain. We thought the tournament had climaxed too early with such a garish display of skill. And yet Ronaldo’s bender barely made the top ten best goals of the World Cup. There was Nacho’s screaming half volley in that same match, and Frenchman Benjamin Parvard’s replica shot in Kazan, only with more flair and backspin. There was more to come from German midfielder Toni Kroos’s late, late show against Sweden and even Kieran Trippier’s strike that put English hearts on a high – before the inevitable English come down. There was Ricardo Queresma's audacious curler to sink Iran, Denis Cheryshev’s thunderous shot against Croatia, and Belgium’s team goal to deny Japan. Too many to mention.

This World Cup in Russia was different from others before it. It was a tournament that saw the elite given a bloody nose by lesser football nations. They stormed the palace and headed for the prized jewels with a sense of purpose.

It was a tournament where the underdogs found their voice, and the meek found strength in the dying minutes of the match of their lives. A tournament of upstarts (or start-ups) like Croatia, Russia, Mexico and Japan who faced down the conglomerate talents of Argentina, Spain and Germany.

And as we scramble to draw a comparison between events in Russia and real-world geopolitics, the shaking of the superpowers and the rise of the minnows, we lament Africa’s showing once again. But even worse is the analysis of that failure, as if Africa is some giant, homogeneous black bloc.

“No African country made it out of the group stages”. Yes, and only one CONCACAF country made it to the group stages. What’s your point, exactly? Egypt’s problems are not the same as Nigeria’s or Senegal’s for that matter.
Some racism never changes, but we move on. It’s just a game, right?

Best game of the tournament? There are a few contenders. Spain versus Portugal still stands out, as does France’s demolition of Argentina. Mexico beating Germany is up there, as well as Croatia’s staggering win over Argentina. The day Belgium’s zwierig dansje triumphed over Brazil’s samba won’t easily be forgotten. But the one that will remain etched in my mind would be Korea Republic’s transcendental victory over the defending world champions, Germany. Remember the name Cho Hyun-Woo. It will go down in history as the goalkeeper who repelled Germany,
and ultimately sent them packing. It was as if the Germans had been hit in the crotch. We were shocked and horrified, and yet amused at the same time.

What we didn’t find amusing was Neymar’s caterpillar dance. Instead of seizing his moment of greatness, he became an internet meme. Still, the Brazilians, as always, brought the beautiful game, only this time it wasn’t theirs to own as Belgium and France proved.

And speaking of France, we must now address them as “World Champions France”. Their victory will be assigned many meanings, depending on your worldview. They’re second and third generation immigrants, a dirty word in some parts of the world. They are French, and they are (mostly) black. They are the victors in a worldly and inclusive sense, and their triumph shows that it’s never, ever just a game.

Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. He’s a writer and digital media expert with nearly 20 years in journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianEphraim

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