Thursday, June 10, 2010

Let the Game Begin

S A J Shirazi

This article appeared in daily the Nation, May 30, 2010 issue

The stage is set for football lovers for the biggest event in history of the sports where teams from 32 countries are going to battle hard to prove their worth. FIFA World Cup 2010 is being played in South Africa, from June 11 to July 11, 2010 and football fans have already gathered there to watch the thrilling game and the rest are glued to different media channels to find what is happening.

The passion for Football is certainly sweeping every one in Pakistan this time, particularly the sportsmen and the youth. In addition to conventional media, Pakistani football fans are going online to find all sorts of information about the championship, including multimedia content such as brief video clips of stars and highlights from games from earlier championships. Many Internet sites have sprung up which are reporting each and every thing about the World Cup. "The hype this time is of an entirely different order," says Zahir Khan, footballer and a student in Business and Information Technology.

Earlier football fan frenzy started when the 18 carat gold FIFA World Cup Trophy was taken on whirlwind global tour jointly organized by FIFA and a beverage company where it received an unprecedented welcome. Commencing on 21 September 2009, from Zurich - the home of FIFA - the Trophy Tour has undertaken an exciting journey, making history along the way by visiting 50 African cities from Abidjan, Ivory Coast to Yaounde, Cameroon. The Trophy was greeted by passionate football fans in 34 countries around the world, from established football nations including Brazil, Italy and England to countries where fan enthusiasm is growing such as New Caledonia, Malaysia and Kazakhstan. FIFA World Cup winners including Pele, Lothar Matthaus, and Christian Karembeu have shared in the Trophy Tour experience along with fans around the world who have enjoyed the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour celebrations. Not only that, welcoming the magic of the FIFA World Cup to their countries, 44 heads of state have made time in their schedules to greet the prestigious Trophy's arrival.

The tour gives an idea that FIFA is cottoning on to the idea of an equivalent to the Olympic Torch for football. Two years ago, instead of being carried by athletes to the Olympic Games in Greece, the torch made a tour of all the countries that had hosted the games. This year, the World Cup trophy was taken from country to country before it finally reached in Germany. It is not just visiting the countries which have hosted the tournament, but the idea seems to be along the lines of Olympic Torch.

Pakistani fans are very alive to the World Cup and are looking forward to it. When asked about their favorites, many replied, "Brazil is the favorites to win the World Cup. Spain will try hard for the top honor, but Brazil is the main candidates because of their players' abilities and because of their recent performances. Aamir Bashir says, "I have no doubts that Brazil will be at the top. I wish to be at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg where the final will be played on 11 July 2010, but it is costly for me."

"Being a Pakistani, I expect Pakistan to play and win," said Kamran Mirza, “but when Pakistan is not playing, I will still watch the game with concentration and enjoy without accompanying tension and verbal duel of traditional rivalries as are seen in Indo-Pak cricket series.”

“We Pakistanis are used to kind of sporting atmosphere, with fans rapt to the game, extremely cheering for players and teams," says Taha Riaz, player and an ardent football fan, "It is always a joy to see international tournaments and understand the game. Seeing my favorite stars at their best improves my own game." That is why football fans from around the world will watch the World Cup even if their own teams are not participating.

Tahir Abbas, an ex army football color holder has his 15-year-old son Mubarak who has got the love for the game from his father. Most of his friends play the game in a satellite colony where they live and have a football ground nearby. "I will certainly be following World Cup," he says enthusiastically. I asked him how many of his friends would be following the World Cup. "Oh, about 20, and my father has invited them to come a watch the matches at our home," was his answer. His father told, "Mubarak's interest in football is due to my own passion for the game mainly and our stay in cantonments where this game is regularly played.

Tahir Abbas is disappointed that our country is not participating in FIFA World Cup in South Africa. For Pakistan he says, "as far as the future is concerned, we have great potentials. Some talent hunt, some sponsorship from public and well as private sectors may take Pakistan in next championships."

Great supporting events have different impact on economies too. Remember closed bazaars and low turn-out in offices and educational institutions on the eve of India Pak cricket matches across the country in the past. South Africa will have upward economic surge due to large number of foreigner fans coming to watch World Cup in the country. On the other hand it is feared that the World Cup finals might have negative impact on some economies. During the 2002 World Cup (May 31-June 30), the Stock Exchange of Thailand slipped 4.34 percent. In Singapore, when England played Nigeria at the last World Cup, turnover on the market plunged and the Straits Times Index fell 11 points on a lack of buying interest.

"This time we are expecting dwindling sale during the Word Cup. Which is why we are putting up big screen TVs for the customers to sit and watch the game," says manager of a reputed café on M M Alam Road, Lahore. "Football fans are already enquiring about when we will put up a multimedia for the Word Cup as we do for cricket," he adds. Many other cafes and posh eating joints across the country are putting up bigger screen televisions to attract the Word Cup enthusiasts.

Athar Mahmood, good football player of his own time and father of two promising football players says, "Football is one of the greatest and most powerful filed activities. It is an economical activity as well. The amount of money and trade passed during Word Cups is remarkable. So many sports retailers, shops, transport channels and restaurants do good business during the championship; football creates many potential jobs for those who have that unique gift. Football gives our children hope and dreams. In places such as Brazil and even Cameroon, people love the beautiful game. We too should encourage others to become involved in the game. I can see footie fever striking Pakistan like cricket, hockey in near future."

Representation of Pakistan – once a credible ‘footballing’ nation, grinding its way into Asia's top 10 with players in demand from league clubs in different countries - in the 2010 World Cup is limited only to providing the hand stitched "Made in Sialkot" balls for the game and the attendance of few officials at the opening ceremony.

Unlike cricket that can be played on streets, football game needs wider grounds. And there is dearth of open spaces and grounds in our cities. That is one of the reasons that this game has not been popular in the past. But "football craze is picking up here too. There are many ardent fans who are looking forward to the Word Cup, for entertainment if nothing else," says Waqar Haider, manager marketing in an international concern who was on Lahore School of Economics team in his own times. Sports are often referred to as the world's finest form of entertainment. They are healthy social activities that hold the attention of an audience as well as its participants. "Football does it best," Waqar adds".

I am going to spend my time immersing myself in the world's most amusing and impulsive drama: Word Cup 2010. You are invited.