The entire world seems to fit in his shoes. The boy, with his skinny legs and too-large black shoes, runs the field again and again, changing flanks, changing rhythms from a slothful trot to a jaguar, prying his way through a wall of defenders with speed, guile, and acrobatic art.
In the dying seconds of a 0-0 World Cup Final the ball comes to his feet. He flips it with his left foot and pops it with his right – a trick he practiced long into his childhood nights — sending the ball above his head in a crazed, spinning arc. The defender has lost sight of the ball and this is all the time the boy needs. He pivots in a tight, small circle around the defender and as the ball is dropping he strikes it with a thunderbolt of a volley, sending the ball into the upper-right corner and safely out of the goalie’s reach. The boy thrusts his hands in the air. He is bringing the World Cup home. The crowd carries him off on their shoulders.
That is what I imagined was going through the boy’s mind as I watched him play on a vacant South Texas field of dirt. The volley had sent the ball bouncing and rolling into a dry irrigation ditch and it took the boy a full five minutes to retrieve it. Once he returned he walked to the spot where his World Cup winning move began, took a quick look over his shoulder as if locating his imaginary defender, and practiced the move again, this time hitting the ball low and away from the ditch. As he turned to go after the ball I could see the joy and wonderment in his face.
The 85-year-old Nelson Mandela, on hearing his beloved nation was awarded the 2010 World Cup told reporters, “I feel like a young man of 15.”
“It is 28 years,” Mandela said, “since FIFA took a stand against racially divided football and helped to inspire the final story against apartheid,” referring to FIFA’s 1976 banning of South Africa from the world’s biggest sporting event after the Soweto uprising. “While we were on Robben Island, the only access to the World Cup was on radio. Football was the only joy to prisoners.”
During the apartheid years, racial designations segregated football players, confining most to townships where they often played barefoot. Now the World Cup is coming.
Critics and others wearing intellectual clothing often tell us that to watch a game of football is to be a pawn in a media conglomerate’s attempt to fleece us of our rights, ability to think, and, more importantly, our money. But this flips the equation on its head. Football is not loved because it is shoved down our throats. It is fed to us because we love it. There is something deep within the game itself that draws people throughout the entire world, across every swath of difference, to it.
Others try to understand football’s world popularity in terms of tribalism, an outdated, base impulse emanating from the reptilian node in our still woefully unsophisticated brain. Similar to religion, so the argument goes: football and its tribalism will be swept into the dustbin of history once we have evolved as a species. A quick look around tells me this isn’t going to happen any time soon, but more to the point this paints an incomplete picture. It is the fact that so many people are drawn to football that the communities are formed.
Part of football’s beauty is its simplicity. The toddler exploring the world through her feet and balance has developed the skills needed to play the game. Put a small ball at her feet and you have the game that is a thread connecting her to the boy in South Texas to the barefoot player in an African township. It is this simple joy that transforms football into a universal art of humankind.