First published on 16 June 2010.
Bali, June 2006, the island lashed by uncharacteristically wild winds and heavy rains that blanketed the mountains in deep, dark heather-grey cloud, bending palm trees and flattening rice; staining the sea a menacing charcoal and lacing its edges with spumes of bright white surf. Man and beast sheltering in the face of such unrelenting weather. Amidst it all an epidemic sweeping the island, one that no vaccine could have prevented nor medicine cure. Not bird flu, dengue fever or typhoid. World Cup Fever had struck. There was nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. There was simply no escaping it.
I may be British, and soccer seen as our national sport, but I have to admit that I am a cricket and rugby girl at heart. I have no difficulty watching men dressed in white hit a small red ball with a piece of wood, and then run between two more pieces of wood whilst their opponents chase around on the grass beside them trying desperately to get them ‘out’. Be it a hard and fast limited overs game or the strategic dance of a test match I really don’t mind. I love it all. And as for rugby, well, what girl doesn’t like to see big strapping men in tight shorts run up and down a pitch tossing and catching a pointy-ended ball? Scoring tries and kicking poetic drop goals. A tactical game that is as much brains as it is brawn and one I think is a delight to watch, either at test level or local. But as for soccer…well, I just have to admit, I have never got the point.
I am lucky to have been to rugby and cricket matches on several continents and shared the delights of those games with others of many nationalities but I have been to just one soccer match. In the late 1980’s, in London…Chelsea playing Millwall at home at Stamford Bridge. Those familiar with British football will recognize that this particular local derby would be one of high tension and aggression, however to me it was just another football game. It was only upon seeing the riot police with batons and shields and mounted policeman on horseback doing crowd control outside the stadium that I began to wonder what I had let myself in for.
In truth, I do not remember much about the match. I cannot even remember who won. What I do remember is the noise. The infamous songs sung on the terrace. I remember the energy in the stadium – so intense it was all but visible. I remember the vast quantity of missiles thrown onto the pitch – cans, bottles, rocks and toilet paper. And most of all I remember being terrified out of my skin. Just back from seven years in South Africa, well versed in self-defense, quite a tough cookie really and yet here I was, at a football match in England, reduced to mush.
In those days fans were not segregated as they are now. As the game vacillated from one team’s advantage to the other fights broke out on the terraces. Bare knuckle fighting is the providence of men and despite the violent times I had recently lived through I had never seen nor heard men in fisticuff fights before. In my memory the males of my species were punching and kicking each other half to death all around me. I recall the jeering and rivulets of blood flowing down several angry faces near to me. Since then it has always struck me as ironic that an outwardly aggressive sport like rugby generally engenders such well-behaved supporters and yet a supposedly non-contact sport like soccer seems to attract such hardened thugs and trouble-makers into its midst.
I have never been so glad to leave a sporting arena as I was that day. It was nigh on two decades ago and I have never again been to a soccer match nor watched one on TV. So you can just imagine how delighted I am when, every four years, the FIFA World Cup arrives somewhere on the planet.
Which brings us back to Bali in June 2006 and the World Cup in full flow in Germany. Impossible to go anywhere on the island without seeing billboards telling us all who is playing when and with what players on their teams. Bali brothers rising sleepily mid-morning having been glued to the television until the early hours. No conversation possible without at least passing reference to who had won the night before. After seven days I was consoling myself that one week was gone, just three more to go.
Then I went on a journey into the hinterland of Bali, around the stunning rice terraces near Gunung Batukaru: Ancient art carved into the steep hillsides. An area where original Balinese rice is still grown and traditional crop rotation practiced. Burnished copper cows pulling iron ploughs serenely back and forth through the rich, dark volcanic mud, working alongside rusty, noisy, diesel-powered ‘Japanese Cows’, both coaxed forwards by wizened nut brown men in conical rattan hats. Bali’s wonderful balance in evidence yet again.
As we drove I pondered football. More specifically a comment a friend had made over breakfast the previous morning. That a young Iraqi boy had said in an interview that he and his family felt safe at the moment. When asked why he replied,
“The World Cup. They won’t bomb us while that is on. They are all too busy watching.”
A comment borne of innocence perhaps, but profound nonetheless.
It got me to thinking about my bias against soccer and how once every four years, perhaps most especially this particular year in the midst of so much natural disaster and man-made violence, soccer united the world. Black, white. Christian, Hindu. Male, female. Rich and poor. It mattered not. This was an epidemic of global proportions that recognized no boundaries. But unlike other epidemics it did not leave death and destruction in its wake. Isolated pockets of trouble, yes, but for the most part it brought only unity and common focus.
As these thoughts were rolling around my consciousness we came into Pandak, a typical Balinese village. Traditional architecture, temples in abundance, mangy dogs roaming the streets. Little warungs in the shade of big trees. The main road running straight as an arrow down the hill, lined with tall bamboo Penjors swaying in the breeze, still standing from the festival of Galungan several weeks before.
It was not this scene that took my breath away, however. It was the flags. Tens ands tens of flags representing the teams playing in the World Cup. Some of them were small, just a metre wide, others were twice, three times this size, all tied to bamboo poles reaching high into the sky. Taller than the Penjors, a veritable rainbow of colour. It appeared that each family had acquired the flag of their favourite team and raised it outside their house. Brazil and Argentina, England and Germany, Australia and Japan, and all points in between. Ancient Balinese tradition and international symbols of sport dancing side by side to the rhythm of the wind. Stunning in the enormity of their message.
That in a world riven by earthquakes and famine and wars amongst men of all nations there was hope, there was togetherness, there was widespread delight. All borne on the back of World Cup Fever. An epidemic of unity that had swept around the globe because of grown men on a large grassy pitch kicking a round black and white ball from one end to the other in an attempt to score goals. Four years on, in 2010, with the World Cup once again on our doorstep the same truth still holds.
Maybe there is something to the game of soccer after all.