Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Lot of People Ask Why?

Why would a retired doctor drive the length of Africa to watch some soccer, even if it is the World Cup?  Why doesn't he stay in the comfort of his San Francisco home,  ice up some cool ones, switch on the HD TV, kick back and watch it all, including the instant replays in brilliant detail on a 52" Samsung LCD?  Why would anyone give all that up,  drive 20,000 miles (the average drive from London to Capetown), voluntarily subject himself to months of nights in a tent on a car roof, his butt bouncing by day on washboard roads, the dust, and dirt, and sun, and more dirt, the inevitable axle grease that never seems to clean from the finger nails, the constant threat of malaria, bilharzia, dengue, amebic dysentery, the interminable waits and inevitable indifference of officials at border crossings and, for that matter, everywhere you encounter them. And who hasn't heard the stories of  armed and angry Somalis roaming the badlands of Northern Kenya like banditos in a bad Spaghetti Western? And what about the child abductors of the insane Lord's Liberation Army?  Who's crazy enough to drive within a hundred miles of those knuckleheads.  Most American's don't pay attention to what's going on in Africa, in spite of the recent resurgence of interest in that continent by anti-Obamites who think our President was born there.  If all one knew about Africa could be summed up in ten lines quoted from CNN ribbon news, one might guess that anyone who'd willingly travel across Africa suffers from pathological reality distortion or is potentially suicidal.

Almost eight years ago, Allen Hopkins, soccer enthusiast extraordinaire and the most irrepressible and talkative soccer player who ever spent time with the San Francisco Seals (that's my team), challenged me in a public debate that was published on Fox Sports News On Line service.  Allen eloquently laid out all the reasons why World Cup 2010 should happen on American rather than African soil.  I was more than a little shocked at his argument.  How many voices for soccer have come from the American Black community and there was Allen talking down the chance of Africa to shine in the biggest spotlight of sports. Allen knew I'd take him on.  In my rebuttal I made it clear why.  I love that continent and the people who live there.  It's a love that overcomes every kind of imaginable objection to traveling and living there.  I've already done that, for many years.  It's not that I'm naive or uninformed about the dangers of living in Africa, but I am practiced.

In response to Allen's challenge, I made it clear that his argument that the World Cup shouldn't happen in Africa was logical and loaded with good facts, but he missed the point.  The World Cup is not about dollars and TV ratings.  The World Cup is about transcending that which divides us.  What else brings Iran, North Korea, the Sudan and Cuba, to drink from the same trough as does the United States and Israel?  Not everyone makes it to the biggest trough of all, the World Cup, but everyone drinks, and no one says "no."  The day an Arab country faces off against Israel in the World Cup may be a day of reckoning on this matter and that day will inevitably come. My bet is that on that day the desire to compete on the field will push the politicians aside and the athletes will play.  The desire to play seems to trump just about everything and that's why this event, the World Cup, must and should happen on African soil.

Here's an excerpt from my rebuttal to Allen's argument:

"Africa... loves soccer with a passion Americans don’t really understand.  Maybe the image of Willie Mays, the child, hitting a ball with a stick on the streets of Brooklyn conjures up emotion that is reasonably close to the passion that children have for this game in Africa.
"I once watched a game on the island of Mombasa, in Kenya, played next to an old Portuguese fort that overlooked the Indian ocean. The field was about 40 to 50 yards long, but irregular without one right angle to a corner. It was all dirt, with rocks jutting from the ground here and there. There wasn’t one flat area. It was near the island’s edge. One sideline was jagged rock and the slope down to the water. Another was the wall of the fort. One goal line was half way up the hill towards the shops that surrounded the fort. The other goal line was at the end of the angle where the fort met the water.
The ball had no cover. The player’s had no shoes. The goal was made of tree branches, unequal in size, knotted with rope and crooked in construction, barely able to survive a shot on the post.
"The players had uniforms, amazingly. One team was green. The other was blue. Every square inch of space that could be occupied by fans was, and there may have been 1000 people crammed into a total space that might be sufficient for 75 people to stand without touching one another. Yet no one cared about any of that. I, and my children, all soccer people, watched this game in utter disbelief from the top of the fort’s wall. When the Blue team scored against the Green, you might have thought for a moment, a goal has scored in a World Cup match.
"Sure, if FIFA has any sense at all, they will listen to people like Allen Hopkins and they should take his advice. On the other hand, if FIFA listens to the people of Africa, I don’t think there’s a better choice. Besides it’s about time Western World gave something back to Africa.
"So to hell with all the reasons why the World Cup shouldn’t happen in Africa. If there’s any continent in the World that needs the World Cup, if there’s a continent that can show it’s love for the game, and if there’s any continent that would show it’s appreciation for the games being staged there, it’s Africa."

I recently contacted Allen, who now works for ESPN.  I'm not gloating over the fact that FIFA decided favorably for staging the games in Africa.  Actually, I think Allen is secretly pleased with this development.  I told him that we need to continue the debate.  "I'm going," I said.  "You should come, too.  Tell your guys at ESPN they need to be on this."  It's simply the most historical event in the history of the sport, if not one of the most historical events in the history of time.