Power Of Football

Last updated : 31 July 2007 By editor

James Lawton in the Independent

'The next time somebody tells you football isn't worth the chequebook it's written on, that it is rotten beyond redemption, just show him a picture of the kid. The Iraqi kid, that is, the one who for once is smiling despite the clatter of gunfire; smiling because his team have just won the Asian Cup.

'We don't know if he is Sunni or Shia, Kurd or Arab. We just know he is a kid who loves football. The world, if anyone making such a mess of the place cares to look, is full of them.

'You see the power of the game wherever you go. Youngsters play in the slum streets of Africa and Asia and the poorest corners of Europe and the Americas and even the former minefields of Bosnia and the killing fields of Cambodia, but you take it as much for granted as the sunrise. Then you are reminded of its capacity to stop the world for 90 minutes when you see the smile of the Iraqi kid and ask yourself what else could put the misery of his ravaged country on hold, however heart-breaking the brevity of the interlude, quite like the universal game.

'Of course there are too many wounds in Iraq to be healed by one night of euphoria - there were at least 120 serious new ones when a car bomb went off among fans celebrating out in the street the semi-final victory over South Korea, and there were also 50 new graves to dig - but if football will never on its own stop hate or war in the Middle East, no more than it did in the trenches of the First World War after the fabled Yuletide kick-about by German and British soldiers, it will always be capable of a profound comment.

'It will always make for itself the point that in its beauty and freedom of expression, when it is played beyond the cheating and the corruption that have been heaped upon it so relentlessly in recent years by those who profit from it most, it sends the powerful message that even sworn enemies have more in common than they may think.

'For those who know and love the game there is no revelation in the picture of the smiling young Iraqi, only huge reinforcement of the view of the great writer Albert Camus that he learnt more about life and character while playing in goal for the University of Algiers than he ever did hobnobbing with the Left Bank literati.

'Because down the years football has attracted so much avarice and indiscipline and arrogance the temptation to assign such memories to a gilded past has maybe never been stronger. But then it is always the way with football that when you least expect glory, it produces a force, and a spontaneity, to lift almost any heart. It did in 1998, when a brilliantly organised World Cup was won by the "rainbow" French, inspired by a Zinedine Zidane who grew up in the most notorious high-rise slum in Marseilles. Brazil became the glory of world football when it finally absorbed brilliant black players represented most perfectly by Pele.

'Maybe, then, it was more than a random fact that the coach who inspired an Iraqi team riven by ethnic and religious rifts to victory over the sumptuously accommodated and meticulously prepared Saudi Arabians just happened to be a Brazilian. Jorvan Vieira said that he had fulfilled his contract by "bringing a smile to the Iraqi people". He had used something beyond the means of any politician. He had released the power and the magic of the world's greatest game.'