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Just when it was being celebrated as mankind's most collective moment of joy and entertainment, soccer actually proved to be seriously ill.
The first perplexity it raised was moral. What's there to celebrate if the World Cup winner's league is tainted by match-fixing scandals, and the other finalist's superstar physically assaults an opponent?
Yet no less alarming has been the soccer itself, both the tactical and technical, that the world just watched for a month in what has clearly been one of the most boring, unimaginative and anticlimactic of the 18 World Cups that have been held since 1930. Considering that this is already the sixth straight ugly game, with goal yields hardly half of what they had been until 1986, it should be clear that this game's illness is not momentary, and that if it does not undergo some serious surgery it may soon prove terminal.
INITIALLY, it seemed like this World Cup constituted a disaster only for some of its protagonists. Fans around the globe therefore anxiously awaited the emergence of new heroes, ones whose inspiration would transcend the narrow context of sports, the way England's team of '66 echoed the free spirit of the Beatles, Hungary's of '54 preceded a courageous anti-Soviet rebellion, or Uruguay's of 1950 represented a country that at the time was celebrated as "the Switzerland of South America."
None of this transpired.
First fell the Slavs. What began with Russia's failure to even qualify and with Ukraine's 4:0 trouncing by Spain was soon followed by Serbia's 6:0 dismemberment by Argentina, the withering of Croatia and Poland, and the collapse of the Czech powerhouse. Lackluster Ukraine's improbable arrival at the quarterfinals was brought to an abrupt end with a 3:0 Italian knockout.
At that point, one was still tempted to deem soccer healthy and the tournament a success, suggesting that the Slavs' underperformance was but a reflection of their frequently chaotic politics and unpredictable economies in the post-Soviet era.
The same could have been said about the Middle East, whose appearance was even a bigger flop, with Iran and Saudi Arabia performing so poorly that some were wondering whether the Cup's 32 participants weren't at least two tyrannies too many. Yet what was one to say of free and prosperous Japan and Korea, which failed to repeat their accomplishments of '02?
The Latin American teams were of course disappointments on a much grander scale. Mexico's failure echoed the political impasse at which it has arrived at the very same time, Brazil's early elimination reminded some of the gap between the Lula government's rhetoric and delivery, and Argentina's defeat by Germany, while gallant, inevitably brought to mind the former's historic failure to turn its physical endowment into a source of national happiness.
The Europeans were no better.
The much-heralded English squad played as if it had just emerged shell-shocked from an Underground bombing, and the Swedes, once an epitome of smart, elegant and accurate soccer, now looked like a herd of moose grazing complacently somewhere in Norrland. Lastly, the African teams fell by the wayside one after the other, with their most successful representative, Ghana, falling well short of Cameroon's and Nigeria's exciting, if nai ve, performances last decade.
One could suggest that this was the tournament of the South Europeans, whose representatives won three of the first four places, but they too displayed no memorable soccer. The French, with all due respect to their victory over Brazil, did so with a lone goal, while the Portuguese should be remembered mainly for focusing less on Holland's goal and more on its players' legs.
Topping it all came Cup-winner Italy which cynically made do with a mere 12 goals in seven games - a conscious affront to the millions who appreciate offense more than victory. The number of goals in such unforgettable World Cup games as England-West Germany's 4:2 in '66, or Brazil-Sweden's 5:2 in '58, or Italy-Germany's 3:2 in '82, not to mention Austria's 7-5 defeat of host Switzerland in '54, or Hungary's first-round 8-3 victory over West Germany in that Cup have now become unthinkable.
Why then did we get such a dull World Cup?
THE MAIN bad thing that happened to soccer is globalization - the process that in most other spheres is blessed, but for the World Cup has been a curse.
Back in '66, when North Korea led 3:0 over Portugal only to lose 5:3 with the legendary Eusevio scoring four goals, all players played for teams in their home countries. The Dutch team that was so innovative in '74 came mainly from Ajax and Fejnord. Pele and the rest of the Brazilians who won three cups within 12 years played for home clubs like Santos, Sao Paulo, Cruzeiro and Corinthians. They therefore knew each other well, and at the same time knew relatively little about the teams they faced.
Today it's the other way around.
With major stars, from Ronaldo to Zidane, playing outside their homelands for the world's richest clubs, colleagues scarcely play with each other, and frequently play against, members of rival national sides. That is why this World Cup defenders always knew what to expect, while its forwards so frequently failed to even anticipate, let alone capitalize on, their own colleagues' passes.
And so, the millions who dedicated so much time and money to enjoy this tournament were force-fed on a nauseating diet of repetitious, transparent and futile passes that were routinely ping-ponged away as easily as reform ideas are ditched at soccer's governing body, FIFA (the International Federation of Football Associations).
ONE MAY wonder why, actually, a soccer crisis matters. Well, for two reasons: First, because so many people care about it, and secondly, because many others find in it a way to make nationalism harmless and universalism tangible.
The good news is that what soccer caught is not a divine plague, but an epidemic, which is both spread and stoppable by human action. The bad news is that the organization in a position to restore soccer's excitement is led by mandarins who suffer from the very sclerosis they are meant to cure.
FIFA's grand mistake is its indiscriminate abandonment of soccer to the market's devices without ever studying its repercussions. It's OK that big money is made, even if the commercial innocence of yesteryear's Eusevio, Puskas or Kreuf (an idealist who skipped the '78 World Cup to protest Argentina's dictatorship) so patently contrasts their successors' emergence as human cash machines and walking advertisement billboards. The problem is that the soccer they offer in return for all this is rapidly becoming unwatchable.
Even in arch-capitalistic America the major professional sports have self-imposed business limitations, like salary caps and young-talent drafts, which are effectively cartelistic restrictions. The Americans resorted to this not because of a socialist epiphany, but because they understood that their first task, even before defeating each other, was to entertain. That is also why they occasionally changed game rules there, like the introduction in the '70s of the three-point shot in basketball or the designated-hitter in baseball in the '80s.
Soccer's cure will also come from a changing of rules, whether ones that would restore local clubs' localism, or those by which the game itself is played, or both. Re-regulation can include, for instance, the offside rule's abolition, the goal's expansion, a reduction of the number of players on the field, or a limit on the number of defenders allowed to simultaneously crowd their own penalty area.
If FIFA doesn't get down to the reform business of its own volition, it can rest assured that sooner or later business will change the game, instituting new-rule leagues that will gradually draw the better players, the bigger crowds, and the even-bigger money.
At that point, FIFA can be counted on to join the bandwagon.