I have a hard time getting interested in professional sports anymore. I don't know whether it's because of the hypocrisy of the owners and league officials who have instilled the “win at all costs” attitude in their players, and then are the first ones to crucify the guy caught for using steroids, or the cynicism of the players who mouth platitudes about the fans being important, but will ditch his former team for some extra money.
More than likely it's a combination of both. It doesn't matter which league or which sport, all the big ones seem the same. To make matters worse, the American college system shows symptoms of the same sort of illness — young men and women encouraged to sacrifice their bodies at a young age with no thought of what's going to happen to them in the future.
I don't mind that it's run like a business as that makes sense to a degree. But due to the astronomical amounts of money required to run a professional sports team, a lot of them end up being the personal playthings of wealthy men who don't necessarily have the interests of the fan base at heart. Even worse, as is the case with the Toronto Raptors and The Toronto Maple Leafs, is having ownership to which the bottom line is more important than winning.
They expect their players to play at almost any cost, but aren't willing to make the same commitment where it matters most for ownership. What should the fan who fills the seats game after game feel if he knows the hundreds of dollars he shelled out for tickets are being considered the return on an investment for a pension fund instead of a means to upgrade the team in the hopes of winning a championship?
As a typical Canadian boy, I played hockey and dearly loved the game. I used to live and die with the Montreal Canadians dating back to the days when the winner of the established Eastern division would play the helpless patsy from the West for the Stanley Cup. By the time the 1970s were wearing down and the Canadians were winning their fourth cup in a row before handing the reigns over to the New York Islanders, it had become more a reflex to cheer for them than out of any real interest.
For some reason though, there were still two sporting events at the time that managed to hold my interest and could keep me glued to a television screen: The Winter Olympics and The World Cup of Soccer. In recent years, even the Winter Olympics have begun to lose their appeal as they have become tainted with the same stains of corruption as the Summer games.
I remember reading a George Orwell piece where he argued against the idea of having international sporting events. He said they only served to exasperate any existing nationalist tendencies on the part of the fans instead of creating the intended goodwill between nations. But in truth, that's what lends the World Cup of Soccer so much of its interest to an outsider like myself: the passion the supporters have for their teams.
Sometimes Mr Orwell's fears come true as there have been some horrific riots in the past during international soccer games. Examples of that type of silliness came to the foreground this year when downtown Stuttgart became something of a war zone.
But it's that same passion that first got me hooked on the World Cup back in 1982, when the Italians won. I don't think Toronto had ever seen anything quite like it before; tens of thousands of people pouring into the streets and celebrating. With each victory, the celebration grew louder and more exuberant until their joy was so infectious that people who had never watched a soccer match in their life were sitting in front of their television screen, desperately trying to figure out what was going on, while cheering for Italy.
Ever since then, I’ve been hooked. I have even started following the results of the qualifying matches two years ahead of the Cup. That's the time when every country still believes they have the opportunity to be one of the 32 sides that will qualify to compete for the right to say they won the World Cup.
Maybe that is part of the appeal of this event as well; it is genuinely a World Cup with countries from all around the world competing. Soccer does not require any special expensive equipment, just a ball, shin pads, and shoes, so even the poorest of countries has the chance to field a reasonably competitive team.
Look at this year for example where teams from Togo, The Ivory Coast, and Trinidad and Tobago all made it to the round robin. Although there was the occasional blowout, most sides offered quality competition for their opponents. In fact, African teams have been responsible for some of the bigger upsets in recent history. One has to only look back to the last World Cup where Senegal beat France, ensuring they wouldn't be repeat winners, let alone make it out of their own group.
It seems like everybody loves an underdog, except, of course, if your side has to be playing them, and will cheer them on hoping against hope for a victory. All of us were able to share in the Senegalese joy of defeating their former colonial masters.
Sure the game is beset by problems and scandals; allegations of throwing matches have almost destroyed the Italian league and the tendency of players to "dive" to try and attract penalties at this World Cup have made the games a bit of a joke on occasion. But in spite of those concerns, and, in fact, because of the former, there is still all the magic I've always associated with a World Cup.
Can Italy rise above the troubles in its home league and win a fourth World Cup? So far, they have only allowed one goal to be scored into their own net, and that was one they scored on themselves. In the win against Germany, they struck for two very late goals, but showed skill all game and prevented what had been one of the highest scoring sides of the tournament from scoring.
France was only able to squeak by Portugal on a first half penalty and Portugal's inability to finish off plays. The French were badly outplayed, but still managed to hang on for the victory. Everybody is making the Italians favourites to win the Cup now and underestimating the French squad has already cost Brazil and Portugal their chance at a championship.
This is pretty much the same team that won the World Cup eight years ago, just a little older, and with a lot to prove. They don't want to be remembered as the team that won one year and went out in the first round the next. To sandwich the shame of the 2002 Cup debacle between two championships would take a lot of the sting out that year.
But the Azzuri are still the Azzuri and right now they look unbeatable. They've beaten their old nemesis Germany and look like a team that is starting to peak at just the right time. Perhaps I'm just being influenced by sentiment and memories and am only speaking form my heart and not my mind when it comes to my assessment, but that's the World Cup.
It's always been less about intellect and thought and more about emotion. It is one sporting event that still hasn't lost its soul completely and continues to wear its heart on its sleeve.