Sports Features of 2014-06-30

Olee ole ole olee - reflections on a changing game

Olee ole ole olee – reflections on a changing game
The on-going World Cup will, once more, and without a doubt, confirm football as the world’s most popular game. Many sports organise world championships in which they award trophies but it is football that has, rightfully, appropriated the generic title “World Cup”.
Football is played on a large scale in every country in the world. But it is not the most popular game in the three largest countries in the world – China, India and USA. This has been a source of worry to FIFA, the sport’s governing body. The British brought the game to the USA a long time ago. Indeed, the US was a founding member of FIFA and took part in the first ever World Cup in Uruguay where it got bronze! But football lags behind several other sports in popularity in the USA. As if to cut off their ties to the “old world”, the US specifically decided to turn its back on the game and favoured sports that it had, itself, created. All attempts to popularize the game in the country have failed.
In China and Indonesia people enjoy watching the game (and betting on it) but do not quite like playing it. As for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, cricket has so thoroughly consumed them that they seem to have no time for any other sport. It is a bit strange why it is cricket, rather than football, that is so dominant on the Indian subcontinent. The British brought both games there around the same time. Football is a working class game (and that is not only because of all the tattoos on the players’ bodies). This makes it popular in poor countries. But not India!
The game came early to the Gold Coast. Accra Hearts of Oak boasts of being the oldest club in Ghana having been formed in 1911. But football was played on the coast even before then and there was an older club, The Invincibles, which no longer exists. The Gold Coast Football Association was formed in 1920 as one of the oldest federations in Africa. In 1922, the then Governor, Gordon Guggisberg, formed the Accra Football League. This became the Ghana Amateur Football Association (GAFA) after independence with Ohene Djan as its first Director. GAFA later became GFA when all pretence to an amateur status was dropped even if a strictly professional league was not in place.
Football became widespread in schools and colleges even before independence. The fun part was the games played in the elementary schools especially rural Ghana of the 60s. Soccer was strictly for men. The women played netball – another British invention. When one school met another, the girls played netball first after which everyone moved, en masse, to the football pitch for the real treat of the afternoon – soccer.
During the game, the girls of the opposing schools would line up behind their team’s goal posts and sing throughout the game. If the opposing team got a corner kick, the girls would sing: “Corner corner, no goal, corner corner, no goal.” And when their keeper caught a ball, they would shout joyfully in their shrill voices and sing songs about the prowess of their goalkeeper even though the shot he had just saved was not a particularly difficult one. During the half time, the players would eat oranges sliced in quarters from top to bottom while resting in the middle of the pitch surrounded by everybody. The girls would then move to behind the other goal post for the second half and continue their singing and cheering. Today, girls don’t play netball anymore. They, too, play football.
Many towns and villages in Ghana had local teams. The members contributed to buy a set of jerseys (often, they bought the material and had the village tailor sew it up). There was only one set of jerseys and after every match, these were washed and stowed away for the next match. The “stadium” in most villages was the local Middle school park. For an important game, palm branches were used as a fence around the pitch with a single gate where a fee was collected. Kids who didn’t have money would try to gate-crash by opening through the fence at unobserved places. It also often happened that when there were 10 minutes left of the game, “Gate-free” was declared and everybody could enter to see the tail end of the game.
The football we played in the early 60s had a bladder that was inserted into the leather outer and inflated with a bicycle pump. Sometimes, the football would tear along the sewing but the local shoemaker could stitch it. When the bladder got a hole the local bicycle repairer could fix that too. The bladder was pumped, the end tied to prevent the air from escaping, pushed into the leather outer and the whole contraption neatly laced like shoes. On match day, you would pump the ball, polish it with candle and leave it in the sun to dry. It became hard and shiny. If, during the game, you were unlucky to head the wrong side of a badly laced ball, you could develop serious migraine for the rest of your life!
Today’s balls are very slick technological wonders. You can hardly see the hole through which it is pumped. They also come in different patterns and colours. Since the 1970 World Cup, the official balls have had special names. It was Telstar in 1970, Etrusco in 1990, Teamgeist in 2006 and Jabulani in South Africa. This year, it is adidas brazuca. The name was chosen by Brazilian fans. We are informed it took two and a half years to develop and was tested by 600 of the world’s topmost footballers including Lionel Messi, Iker Casillas and Zinedine Zidane, and 30 teams in ten countries. It was then released to all countries that had qualified for the games. It started being sold officially in December last year after being “outdoored” in a glitzy ceremony that reminded you of the late Steve Jobs presenting his latest gizmo.
All the football boots were black in those days and manufactured by the German firms Adidas and Puma. Coloured boots made their appearance in the late 80s. Often there was a single player who used boots specially manufactured for him by the company. We all remember the time Anthony Yeboah appeared for the Black Stars wearing golden boots when everyone else had black boots. Then more and more players started using the special boots until boots of different colours were no longer special. Today, black boots have almost disappeared. In this year’s games, only the referees are wearing black shoes! The boots not only come in all kinds of colours, they come in different stylistic designs. Like any product, sportswear companies have always given fanciful names to football boots. Nike has had boots with names like: Mercurial, Hypervenom, Magista and Tiempo. Hypervenom Gold is specially designed for Neymar but, you see, everyone else who thinks of gold can wear it. Adidas has Predator, adiPure, Nitrocharge, and F50, which has different variants with the latest called Samba Primeknit.
There is an interesting story about Puma, Adidas’ age old and bitterest rival. In the 1970 World Cup, Pelé received $120,000 to wear Puma’s Formstripes boots. At the kick-off to one game, Pelé stopped the referee with a last-second request to tie his shoelace and knelt down to do so giving millions of television viewers a close up of his Pumas. The executives of Adidas were livid!
Puma’s latest boots are Evopower and Evospeed each of which comes in different variants and updates! It is Puma which has the marketing line: RIGHT IS PINK. LEFT IS BLUE. Mario Balotelli and Asamoah Gyan are among the stars lined up for this. That is why you see them with a pink shoe on the left and a blue one on the right. Gianluigi Buffon, the Italian skipper and goalkeeper, even matches his with a pink glove on his left hand and a blue one on the other. Yellow boots, however, seem to be the favourite colour in this year’s games. The topmost lines of boots don’t come cheap. But if you are a top star contracted to the sportswear company, you get them tailor-made for free – and receive a bonus for wearing them.
The shorts have moved from very huge shorts, to small tiny ones (Brazil in 1970) and back to free flowing semi-big ones. Today’s jerseys are tight fitting and need not be tucked into the shorts. Then names started appearing on the jerseys and the player numbers were also shown in front of the jerseys and on the shorts. This enabled the players to be quickly identified and the star system used to popularize the game. It also brought in more money. Jerseys could be sold with players’ names on them. It was not like that in Pelé’s time. The World Cup still does not have ads on player jerseys. The only other marks, apart from the player name and number, are the logos of the manufacturers and the football association. The sizes of all these are strictly regulated by FIFA.
In the old days, the referees always wore black. This necessitated the banning of goalkeepers who wore all black. Today, even the referees are wearing jerseys in all manner of fanciful colours – except black. And they come out fitted with lots of gadgets: special watches, microphones taped to their chins, spray cans attached to the shorts.
It is surprising how the rules of the game have changed over the years. For instance, it was not until the qualifying rounds of the 1954 World Cup that substitutes could be used in a game and even then it was limited strictly to the replacement of one injured player. The English League allowed substitutes only in 1960s first for injured players and then even for tactical reasons. Today, many of us cannot imagine a game in which substitution is not allowed.
One rule that has changed a lot over the years is the off-side rule (the so-called Law 11 of Association Football). The changes made to this rule over the years were designed specifically to enable more goals to be scored. Ever wondered about the logic behind the off-side rule? The rule was probably put in place only to make the game more interesting and complex, not because it is logical. Think how dull football will be without the off-side rule.
Another notable change in the game is the backward-pass rule (introduced in 1992 to prevent time-wasting) where the goalkeeper is prevented from handling the ball after an intentional kick from his team mate or from a throw in. This year, the greatest innovation is, perhaps, goal-line technology (GLT). For the duration of each game, 14 high-speed cameras located around the pitch (seven focussing on each goalmouth) take 500 3D pictures each second. A computer programme then determines if a ball has crossed the goal line and transmits this within a second to a watch worn by each of the match officials. So far in this year’s games, it has not caused any controversy and was first used to determine France’s second goal against Honduras in the group stage. The other innovation is referees marking with white spray the spots from which free-kicks are taken and the lines behind which defensive walls are built. Often FIFA experiments with new rules at lower level tournaments before introducing them to the senior game.
The professional game came late to Africa. Top division players in the 70s in Ghana still had jobs besides playing football even if most of these jobs were just in name only. Today, anybody playing the game at the highest level in Ghana must devote his time almost exclusively to it. The first “professionals” went to teams in other African countries which paid individual players better. Opoku Nti, perhaps the earliest Ghanaian professional, went from a team in Benin Republic to Europe. In the late 80s, the league clubs in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey recruited players cheaply in Africa. This opened the way for them into Europe proper.
This had a positive effect on the African game especially in international tournaments. Then the large group of African immigrants in Europe contributed players to the African effort. Tony Baffoe was, perhaps, the first foreign born Ghanaian to play for the Black Stars. But not all the children of the immigrants in Europe want to play for their parents’ countries. In this year’s world cup, three top players who could have played for Ghana chose to play for their parents’ new countries. Jerome Boateng (Germany), Mario Balotelli (Italy), Danny Welbeck (England) did not wear Ghana’s colours. When Ghana took on Germany, two blood brothers, once again, played against each other for two different countries! Ghana’s World Cup squad had players from 13 different national leagues – the greatest of any of the 32 teams in the tournament.
Even though there are only four black African teams in this WC, the percentage of black players on parade is greater than their percentage of the world’s population. Many European teams are featuring black players. When Belgium met Algeria, there were more blacks in the Belgian team than in the African side. Indeed, the Belgium team has 15 players who could have chosen to play for another country if only they had wanted to. One of these, Adnan Januzi of Manchester United, could have opted to play for Turkey, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and, probably, England. The Central and South American teams have lots of black players. Ecuador had so many blacks I was shocked. Costa Rica, Honduras and Colombia have more blacks in their team than their proportion in their respective populations will warrant. Even Uruguay has one black player. Argentina and Chile, as usual, feature no black players. Brazil’s racial composition is in a class of its own. This country, with more blacks than any other in the world except Nigeria, has only 10% of its present national squad made up of “real” whites. The rest are of black and mixed races. Yet Brazil is a very racist country that doesn’t even acknowledge that fact. Most of the spectators you will see in the stands will be white or a shade of that colour. Blacks cannot afford the tickets to the matches.
There may be many black players in this year’s WC, but only Kwesi Appiah and Stephen Keshi are black coaches. Most of the blacks actively participating in the games will be players. There will be hardly any on the technical team or in the management of the game.
FIFA has introduced many more competitions apart from the World Cup. There are Under 20 and 17 tournaments for men and women, Olympic Tournament for men and women, FIFA Club World Cup, FIFA Confederations Cup, FIFA Futsal (indoor), and FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. There are others you’ve never heard of: Olympic Youth Football Tournament (for boys and girls) and FIFA Interactive World Cup (which has been played almost every year since 2004). Each of these is keenly contested and brings in millions to FIFA. The world governing body earns billions from its sponsors, TV rights, computer games rights, and other things you cannot even imagine. One of the reasons why FIFA is so keen to woo the American public to the game is the billions it can make in that market.
FIFA controls everything when it comes to its marketing strategy. It controls the size and the position of the trade mark name on the jerseys. Even the size of the federation logo on the jersey is controlled. The sizes and positions of the player names and numbers are all strictly controlled. Player names on jerseys started appearing in the USA games of 1994. Incidentally it was something copied from American Football which had been using it since the 60s. The advantages are clear as a marketing ploy: television fans can easily identify the names of their favourite stars and more jerseys can be sold to fans.
This year’s games will also see many awards – Budweiser Man of the Match, adidas Golden Ball, adidas Golden Glove, adidas Golden Boot, Hyundai Young Player Award, and FIFA Fair Play Award. Each of the sponsors pays millions to have their names attached to the awards.
This is the most tech game of all. Note how the individual players are introduced on television. They turn around and clasp their arms. It syncs perfectly with the video games that FIFA is going to make money out of. (FIFA 15 will be released in September for PSP, Nintendo, Wii and Xbox devices.) There are numerous cameras to view the action, especially the goals, from every imaginable angle. These are transmitted directly to the internet so everyone can replay the action as many times as possible. The FIFA website and apps contain all the latest statistics of each game played. On the television screen, when a player is substituted, you will be able to see how many kilometres he has run at what average speed, how many passes he has correctly delivered or wrongly sent and how many shots he had made at goal.
One of the most serious challenges facing the modern game is the corruption that has plagued it. This is a direct result of the big business nature of the game. Where there is a lot of money to be made in a sporting event, there is bound to be an ugly side to it. This is true for all big business sports – Boxing, Formula 1 and Indian cricket. FIFA is a huge beehive of corruption. The British press has had some quirky interest at playing agent provocateurs in exposing third world crooks in the game and are behind the recent alleged bribery accusations against Ghanaian football officials and the Qatar bid suspicions. “The spirit of the game” is virtually gone from football with so much money at stake. It is estimated that FIFA (which has more members than the UN) will earn some 4 billion dollars from the games in Brazil. Charges of graft against FIFA are often linked with the lack of democracy in the organisation. The ruling clique is virtually responsible to nobody – not even the country in which the organisation is incorporated. There are no term limits, which is why Blatter, at 78, still wants another term. The post is “sweet”.
Football’s other big problem is racism. FIFA has been fighting this but racism in football is just part of racism in the society. As long as there are people in society with racist beliefs, this will also be found in a game like football which attracts people of all types. The fact that blacks have succeeded at the topmost level of the game does not prevent them from being discriminated against.
These days, parents in Ghana no longer frown on their kids playing truant after school and playing football instead of coming home to help in pounding fufu for the evening meal. The greatest parent fear in bygone days was that the kid might “break his leg” playing football out of which nothing would come, anyway. Today, many parents pay to send their kids to football academies as they see the mothers of football stars rolling in lots of cash. But only very few of these kids will ever make it into the big game leagues where they earn millions – if they do not break their legs before then.
Through all the turbulence, football has remained a very important affair. And this reminds us of the unforgettable words of the late Bill Shanky, one-time Liverpool manager: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
It sure is…
Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)