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Friday, June 11, 2010
World Cup fandom is not much fun

Ernst Bouwes

The biggest show on earth? That must be the Olympics - with the involvement of every nation and where each sport showcases its best competitors. Nothing beats this athletes' funfest. The immaculate broadcasting makes it probably the most enjoyable two weeks for any sports fan around the world every four years. There is little stress when you are watching it on television. For every one of your country's medal contenders messing up his chances, there will be another coming up within the next hour or day. Opportunity knocks at so many disciplines that the disappointment never lasts long. Compared to the magnitude of the Olympic Games, the World Cup has less going for it. Only one sport with a limited amount of nations. The tournament drags on for a month and it sports only male competitors, most of them tired after a long season. As a football spectacle it hardly ever meets the inflated expectations. In fact, if your nation is involved, following the World Cup is in short a mixture of hope and an imminent fear of death. The fortunes of a team can turn on a sixpence and are usually devastating. Just look at the leading football story in the Irish Times this Wednesday. It is about the negative effects of the tournament on daily life in South Africa, insinuating that it is a good thing the Irish team will not participate. You can forgive them for cheering for every minute Thierry Henry has to stay on the bench during the upcoming games of France. For Henry, this World Cup might be a nightmare. First the global outrage over his cheating and now he will likely only play a bit-part in the tournament. Maybe even not at all. Unable to spin his fraud into something positive like Maradona's cheeky 'Hand of God', this act will forever stain his name. Along with Ireland some other 170 nations did not make it to South Africa. Their inhabitants are now looking forward to enjoying the World Cup, like we all look forward to the Olympics. They may support one team or the other and easily switch alliances as soon as these go out. For them the tournament starts no earlier then this Friday. For football fans living in the 32 participating countries life has been hell since about April. During the last weeks of the league season all they could think about when they watched their countries' stars was 'please watch out', 'no tackles', 'no tomfoolery', 'stay fit'. Spare a thought for the poor Germans who were watching the FA Cup final in early May. They were witnesses to a football crime, the likes of which Alan Shore of TV's Boston Legal would be all too happy to sink his teeth into. The captain and spearhead of their national team, Michael Ballack, was heavily injured by a reckless tackle by one of Germany's opposing players at the World Cup: Kevin-Prince Boateng of Ghana and Portsmouth. How they must have laughed when the same player missed a penalty less than half-an-hour later. Still, Germany was in shock from the news that Ballack was sidelined for months and would not compete in the tournament. Unfortunate others like Westermann, Adler and Trasch followed the Chelsea ace. Looking at the line-up with Trochowski, Ozil and the recently-relegated Arne Friedrich, it would be a miracle if the team will reach its customary place in the quarter-final. Leading football magazine kicker highlights the upcoming exit of coach Joachim Low this week as if it is already aware of the lost cause. In England, the nation follows Wayne Rooney's every step with baited breath, while life stuttered to a halt in the Ivory Coast when Didier Drogba broke his arm last week. But no country has been dealt such a cruel card as Paraguay, whose top striker Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head by criminals in Mexico. They had a break recently when the profilic Dortmund-striker Lucas Barrios favoured Paraguay over Argentina and was subsequently selected to compete for them in South Africa. Last weekend, the Amsterdam Arena was heaving under an unprecedented farewell party of the Dutch team. They were beating Hungary 6-1 and the 'Big Four' - Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart and Arjen Robben - played brilliantly. Within seconds the excitement was replaced by a tense silence after the Bayern star fell to the turf while holding his thigh. With a nonsensical backheel he injured his hamstring and for the rest of the weekend a nation flipped once every hour over the text-headlines, anxious for news from the hospital. Robben will probably 'only' miss the opener against Denmark on Monday, but the Dutch fans suffered a pre-tournament taste of the way good fortunes can so quickly turn bad. However, the anxiety won't leave once the World Cup has started. In every minute of every match, fate can rear its ugly head. Be it an injury, a yellow card or even worse, a red. You start with two wins when your coach decides to play the second string to rest his stars ... the ensuing defeat means a draw against the tournament favorites. Tournament over. Or you win the group by a landslide, but you meet a survivor from a group of death. Tournament over. Later in the tournament, every second counts. Your nation does unexpectedly well in the quarter-final and then suddenly the ball hits an innocent arm in the box. Tournament over. A mistake by your keeper or a miss in front of an open goal from your striker. Tournament over. A missed penalty in the shootout or a miscommunication of the offside trap in extra-time. Tournament over. An unlucky offside decision or a dive of an opponent which fools the referee. Tournament over. And we as fans have to endure all this. When our team goes out, there is no cup or league to concentrate on or a next season coming up. It is another four years waiting and you can only hope your team will be as strong but just a bit more lucky. Because winning the World Cup is 50% quality and 50% luck. Or as an ex-pro cyclist recently said about the increasing difficulties for the peloton during Paris-Roubaix, the Tour de France or the Giro: "Sometimes you cannot fathom that there is a winner at all."

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