Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shame of the Naked Prince

The die has been cast. The long journey to the 2010 FIFA World Cup has turned the final corner. Much water has passed under the bridge since 2006 when South Africa made history by becoming the first African nation to successfully bid for hosting the world football showpiece. Skepticism, especially by European nations, over South Africa's 'below par' infrastructure, security concerns and doubts over the Local Organizing Committee's (LOC) ability to successfully stage the event have all been the major talking points at one time or the other during this period.

The stage now is set for what might just turn out to be the most memorable edition in the tournament's history. The end of the European football season in the last few days has set the right tone to the final countdown to South Africa 2010. Mid-last week, national coaches for SA-bound teams for the penultimate time took centre stage in naming provisional 30-man squads that will eventually be trimmed down to 23 on June 1 ahead of the June 11th - July 11th excursion down South.

Its a well know fact that an appearance in the FIFA World Cup is the ultimate objective of virtually all football players. In almost all the world football powerhouses like England, Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina, donning your national colour at the greatest football bonanza carries almost the same weight as the honour of receiving a national medal from the Queen or the President. It of matters little your country pedigree in the 'beautiful' game; the sheer fact of merely doing national duty at the biggest competitive stage of the game expressly earns you a permanent place in the annals of national folklore.

That explains why many a professional football player endlessly toils to achieve this lifelong dream of playing in the World Cup. Not even the sweet taste of success at the showpiece helps in satiating this hunger. Its for that reason that every World Cup year, quite a few players a left distraught after failing to earn their places in their national squads. The furore and public outcry, both at home and abroad that, surrounded the exclusion of Brazilian national icon Romario's exclusion from the 2002 Japan/Korea contingent underscored the single-mindedness and great awe with which virtually all footballer regard the World Cup.

Little wonder then the shock that greeted Brazilian coach Dunga's decision to take an unpopular stand by not drafting in his South African-bound squad two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Ronaldo de Assis Moreira aka Ronaldinho. The talismanic former Barcelona play maker once mesmerized the global audience with uniquely skillful way of playing the ball coupled with sudden burst of great speed, balance and an unmatched ball control . Ironically, only a few years ago, the ever smiling Ronaldinho was enjoying the form of his career.

His great vision on the field of play the and a knack for scoring outrageous goals certainly endeared him to many football fans. Notably is the jaw dropping overhead kick that he executed in the 2006-07 la Liga match against Villareal. Still unforgotten also, is his audacious free kick that completely fouled former English goalkeeper David Seaman at the Quarter final stage of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea. It is in rumoured in some quarters that that blunder which costed England a place in the Semi final brought tears to Seaman's eyes long after the conclusion of the event.

How times have changed. Ronaldihno will now join a long list of players that will miss the action in South Africa in just a matter of days. That the pragmatic Dunga actually chose to name his final 23-man squad as opposed the stipulated one of 30 players dealt a final severe blow any hopes that Ronaldinho might have haboured in sneaking into the Selecao. But Ronaldniho is not only. Along side him in this the sad company of 'rejects' are fellow AC Milan and former Brazilian teammate Alexandre Pato, former French captain, the often combative Patrick Vieira, and the Inter Milan duo of Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso both Argentines. Other big names in this growing list of yesteryear's heros include Italians Francesco Totti and Luca Toni, former Dutch goalscoring machine Ruud van Nestelrooy as well as former English captain David Beckham.

The latest addition to this list - who many neutrals will probably empathize with - is German captain, the indefatigable Michael Ballack who for some strange reason always prefers to pull on the pressumedly 'unlucky' no.13 jersey both for club and country. While it would be preposterous and superstitious to draw a parallel to the many sad endings that Ballack has endured in his illustrious career, ill-fate certainly seems to endlessly dog him, especially when it matters most.

Ballack's injury however is not intriguing. The tragedy lies behind the story of the player responsible for his injury. 23 year old German born Portsmouth player, Kevin-Prince Boateng, who has uncannily evoked the wrath of German fans actually has some German blood in his veins. Boateng who is of mixed parentage - his father a Ghanian and his Mother a German- has only recently been cleared by FIFA to be legible to play for the Ghanian national team. Up till Ballack's fateful injury occasioned by a tackle from Boateng during last Sunday's FA Final, the possibility of showdown between the two players on June 23 in a Group D clash in Johnnnesburg's Soccer City had been very real. A bizarre twist in the tale is that Boateng's half brother Jerome has been named in German coach Joachim Loew's provisional 30-man squad, meaning the two brothers could face-off in South Africa wearing two different national colours.

Suffice to say, the injuries of Ballack and Beckham were most unfortunate for the two players who had hoped make their final bows in South Africa. However, the exclusion of other younger and ambitious players like the much maligned Italian teenage prodigy Mario Balotelli, the French pair of Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, Machester United's Brazilian midfielder Andersson and Real Madrid's Fernando Gago will most certainly leave their teams - and indeed the 2010 FIFA World Cup - more the poorer.