2010 FIFA World Cup guide, part 1

The original text of this column in The Daily Maverick

If you manage to steer clear of the earthquakes, festering animal corpses, and the hordes of disgruntled locals with machetes that the British tabloids warn of, welcome to South Africa. We hope that you will enjoy the FIFA World Cup, and that your favoured team will do well.

Unfortunately, the spectacle has already been somewhat diminished by the absence of some perennial sources of entertainment. In particular, Didier Drogba (assuming that he does not recover from injury in time) and Michael Ballack will be sorely missed. Drogba, mostly because there is no finer exponent of the dark arts of “simulation” (or diving, as it is more commonly known) – not even any member of the Italian team, who basically invented cheating in football.

Drogba has brought two refinements to the modern game: in terms of simulation, he has perfected a technique involving the appearance of sudden and complete loss of motor control when confronted by an opponent’s aura in the penalty box. The second refinement consists of his Oscar-worthy explosions of indignation when things don’t go his way, whether it is the final result of a match, or simply not being allowed to take a penalty kick.

Ballack, on the other hand, is German, which is usually a good enough reason to dislike someone – even if you yourself are German. Ballack, however, is the uber-German, perhaps only rivalled by Michael Schumacher in the sporting world for his ability to permanently carry an air of impermeable smugness and mastery of the entire universe. In a contest between Chuck Norris and Michael Ballack, Ballack would not even bother to get out of bed.

It’s not only the spectators who have had their entertainment sullied by the absence of these two pantomime villains. As good a diver as Christiano Ronaldo is, he no doubt still has a thing or two to learn from the master. For the German team, Ballack’s absence may well be crippling – they are now being captained by someone who gives the impression of actually being a decent chap, and the coach must surely now be concerned as to how to generate the self-belief that has always been taken for granted.

In the past, coach Joachim Löw would have been able to call on players like Stefan Effenberg and Jens Lehman, who epitomised arrogance. Today, there are a couple of players with intimidating-sounding names, like Badstuber and Schweinsteiger (especially intimidating if you’re a pig, about to be “steigered”), but you need more than a good name to be able to motivate a mostly Polish strike force to bring glory to the Fatherland.

So, a new generation of cheaters and whiners will have to emerge from these large shadows at this World Cup. Christiano Ronaldo has given all indications that he’s up to the challenge, but we probably won’t see enough of him to make a fair assessment of his readiness. This becomes clear when you look at the group games that Portugal is involved in.

First up, they take on Cote d’Ivoire, in a match that Portugal should win, especially given Drogba’s absence. But thereafter, they face two teams that will surely cause Portugal to exit the tournament at the group stages: North Korea and Brazil.

Brazil have won five World Cups, so would be a challenge for any team to beat – and Portugal always seem to freeze on the big occasions. But North Korea, you ask? How can they be considered a threat? The answer is simple: they have Kim Jong-il, as well as their (dead) Eternal President Kim Il-Sung guiding their progress (and perhaps, making them fearful of a firing squad if they fail to perform on the pitch).

The value of the Kim-effect cannot be understated. If you visit the official website of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, you will learn that Kim Jong-il has a “unique mode of army leadership”, and can “bring the enemy into submission without firing a shot by displaying his matchless courage and grit”. According to reports from this website, these powers are demonstrated to be real through several US Department of Defense computer-simulated war games against the DPRK, where the US always loses hundreds of thousands of soldiers, as well as (eventually) the war itself.

The Eternal President, Kim Il-Sung, will also be actively involved, regardless of the seeming impediment of having no material form. His role is presumably going to involve ensuring good health and the absence of injuries in the DPRK squad, as this is a role he has demonstrable competence in. The official website is replete with accounts of those he has healed, partly through what are referred to as his “godlike powers”. No less an authority than evangelist Billy Graham “likened him to god, saying that the DPRK led by him was a country in which God had nothing to do”.

So as you can see, Portugal has little chance of success. But the broader message is this: whichever team you happen to support, you should be aware that there are some dark horses in the competition, and forces at work beyond your ken. If minnows like the DPKR team can dispatch good footballing nations like Portugal, perhaps they’ll have a chance against greats like Italy, Brazil and Spain. They’ll certainly take care of Germany. We should all therefore hope that South Africa’s sangomas are working overtime, as we’ll need all the help we can get.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.