World Cup- let the games and viewing begin

As I write this, I’m watching Colombia play Greece on TV, winning 2-0 in the second half. For those who don’t know, this is a World Cup game. The tournament started on Thursday (Friday morning in China) which meant I came home from work, stayed up till the opening ceremony, then watched the opening game and went to bed at 6am. Then Saturday morning, I came out to watch the Netherlands-Spain game with some good colleagues. It was the biggest game of the first weekend, pitting the defending champions against the runners-up, in other words this was a rematch of the final of the last World Cup. Well, it was an incredible match that ended 5-1, with Spain being dealt a humiliating defeat. It was especially crushing given Spain had scored the first goal and had looked to be in control for a while. That is until minutes before the end of the first half when Robin van Persie scored a crazy leaping header which saw him arch forward in the air like a seal to meet a long cross from his teammate and head it over the Spanish keeper. Then the Dutch scored four more goals in the second half, while Spain seemed to disintegrate, not helped by some terrible goalkeeping mistakes. Already, the media is awash with proclamations of the end of an era for Spain’s domination and “tike-taka” style of short, continuous passing.

By the time it was over, it was bright outside even though it was just a little after 5am (and yes, I’m a bit too old to be walking back home at 5 in the morning but this was for a legit reason). It was pleasant walking back home, passing Sanlitun which was busy with people leaving the bars and clubs in the area, while taxis clogged the roads. This pleasantness was in contrast to my walk to the place, when I encountered the usual shady touts along the bar street, with one persistent older guy following me for almost 10 minutes, even entering the compound where the place I was going to was in. As I neared my destination, which was at the far end and dimly lit part of the compound, he finally stopped following, but uttered a soft but audible “shabi.” So yes, the guy followed me continuously, trying to get me to go to some club and get a girl despite my lukewarm responses saying I was going somewhere, and I’m the stupid c*nt. The sheer audacity and hypocritical outrage of some folks here is something I need to get used to, but can’t for now.

Another decent football article, this one looks at the Ivory Coast, one of Africa’s best teams in the past decade, and also one of the most underachieving. However, the big deal with them goes beyond sports and that’s what the article examines. The football team is credited with helping end a brutal civil war in the country that went on for over 6 years during the early 2000s. Didier Drogba, the team’s longtime talisman, star striker and captain, has been given a lot of credit for this, speaking out to his countrymen to stop fighting and advocating for a game to be played in rebel-held territory at one point. The writer visits the country, talks to people, watches football at roadside bars, and finds out the truth is complex, that divisions in the country are serious but not based on so much on tribal or ethnic identity, though this does not mean the divisions have diminished over time. My Africa team is Ghana, which I respect both as a country and a football team, but I hope Ivory Coast can have some success this time and not crash out in the first round as in the last two World Cups, having been in Groups of Death then but not this time.

A fantastic and flawed World Cup, and good football reads

The World Cup starts in one day (Thursday June 12) in Brazil, and it might be one of the most exciting and eventful ones in recent time, but for both good and bad reasons.

First, it’s being held in Brazil, for whom football is like a national heritage and is fittingly the one most strongly linked with the sport. All the other big nations like Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Argentina will be there, as well as regional powers like Mexico and Ghana, as well as dark horses like Belgium and Colombia. The world’s best two players, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, are in their primes and desperate for World Cup success. Most desperate for the World Cup will be Brazil, whose last turn as host was all the way in 1950, when it lost to Uruguay in the final, a tragedy it has never recovered from. I mention all this in my column about the World Cup.

But the country has been rocked by huge and frequent protests and strikes, all fuelled by anger over the massive spending (over US$11 billion) on hosting the World Cup. The issue isn’t just the spending, but that the money was needed for more important services such as hospitals, schools, and other social resources. These problems had been ongoing for years, but the World Cup spending served to highlight this issue and serve as a lightning rod for many Brazilians’ anger. It might seem strikingly ironic that so many Brazilians are opposed to a World Cup in their own country, but it also shows the extent of their anger. There are underlying tensions in the country with racism, poverty and inequality.

I have to say all this took me by surprise.While I am slightly aware of some of these issues in Brazil, I was surprised by the protests and by the anger behind it. For instance, for the last World Cup in 2010, South Africa did not face such large protests despite being in a similar situation as a third-world country with serious poverty and inequality having to spend a lot on hosting the tournament (ultimately it was only about one-third what Brazil has spent). Don’t get me wrong, there were many South Africans who didn’t appreciate the government spending either, especially on fancy, new stadiums that looked good but were useless after the World Cup. For years, I’d been reading about how good Brazil has been doing economically and that its international profile had been growing to the point where it’d become a member of the BRICS emerging powers (the others being Russia, India, China and South Africa). Now, I suppose I hadn’t been paying enough attention but also, I’d say the news and journalism I’d come across on Brazil hadn’t been too accurate.

The situation in Brazil is hugely interesting but there’s also some good stuff on other issues in football. Here’re two great articles that show there’s more to football than just sport. The first is about racism in Italy, which sadly is still strong in parts of the nation and society, especially football. There’s some touching account of the blatant racism black players, which even star Italian striker Mario Balotelli faces, as well as revolting descriptions of deep and unabashed racism in parts of the country. To balance this, here’s a nice feature about Belgium and multiculturalism, which is most apparent with its young, talented team made up of players with roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Belgium is well-known for being a wacky sort of nation, one that’s almost artificial and deeply divided on ethnic and linguistic lines, and the article confirms this, but it also raises the prospect that the team represents a new generation that bridges this.

Finally, just as how exciting, fun and incredible the World Cup can be, the organization that runs it is equally as corrupt, dastardly and shady. Don’t take it from me, take it from British comedian John Oliver and his hilarious, but mostly true and apt take on why FIFA is so appalling.


Brazil’s World Cup starts in 3 months, for good and bad

The World Cup will soon start in 3 months time in Brazil, probably the most fitting and fascinating nation to host it. There’s almost no need to explain why Brazil is considered the spiritual home of football (soccer), despite the sport being invented in England – I’ve linked to an article below that does explain it very well. Football is tied so strongly with the nation’s identity and culture and it’s played with a special kind of passion and style that no other nation can rival. It’s also fitting the nation has the most World Cup wins at five. Part of me wishes I could go, like I did in 2010, but I can’t just up and leave so soon after coming to China and working. It’s a pity because the next two will be in Russia and Qatar, which aren’t too appealing to me, especially the latter.

With that in mind, here’re some appropriate reading about Brazil and football- a Soccernet piece about how much football means to the nation and a Roads and Kingdoms article about the creativity in how Brazilians come up with football nicknames and terms. Roads and Kingdoms has a whole series of football articles like this one about African-European players and multiculturalism, focusing on the French and Belgian teams.

However, not everything is so straightforward and sunny because there’s more to Brazil’s upcoming World Cup than a celebration of football. Construction and preparation work are seriously behind schedule, but even more serious, the enormous spending on the event has caused social tensions to erupt into riots and protests, notably when a million marched in the streets during last year’s Confederations Cup in Brazil. While Brazil is still a developing country, I was surprised there is such anger. For the past few years, I’ve only seen positive stories about the country and its economy and the millions being pulled out of poverty. Brazil is a Latin American powerhouse and one of the major emerging nations, being one of the BRICS nations. Apparently the socioeconomic situation isn’t as good as assumed, when so many Brazilians are openly protesting against a world sporting event about what is one of their most treasured national attributes. Even in South Africa, which also has serious poverty and inequality, the public outrage wasn’t so great as to have mass protests before and during the event (there were a few at the beginning of the World Cup but they were localized).

Random links- football features and Kenyan NGO comedy

I’m a bit late to it, but here’s a series of feature stories about football worldwide, done as a leadup to this year’s upcoming World Cup in June. The one about the South African football magnate/ Robin Hood is an interesting piece that starts with a straightforward success story of a football club before delving the ambiguous and delicate social situation in that country. The site, Roads & Kingdoms, is a very interesting one that combines journalism and travel, the sort of thing I’d like to do if I had the ability.

Meanwhile, this TV series seems interesting- a Kenyan “mockumentary” comedy about a corrupt, inept NGO. The country, and sub-Saharan Africa, has more than its fair share of these kinds of organizations, as well as good ones too.

Working is part of the dream sometimes

For some folks, to be a writer is a dream. Specifically writing for a living, as opposed to manual labor, office work, or any other kind of work that’s not sitting down and writing a killer feature article or novel. But in the real world, sometimes dreams don’t come true. This writer nails it well about the reality and necessity of work. We can’t all be bestselling authors or bigname journalists, so there’s nothing wrong in writing and doing non-writing work to make a living. Your ideal vision of glory and success may never materialize, but you can work with what you get in life ie make the most of what you have. There’s another point, which is that work in itself is worthwhile even if it’s not glamorous. Whether you’re teaching English or sitting in front of a computer at a desk inside a cubicle or waiting tables, in addition to writing or blogging, don’t feel discouraged. Don’t give up your writing either.
I’d say it applies in part to me, though I’ve never really thought I could make a full-time career out of writing. While my main interest was always in journalism as opposed to writing a book, I’ve always known I don’t have the talent or aptitude to write and report as a career. However I’m not sad. I’m definitely grateful to have had my writing published at times and to have gotten paid for some of them, and to be involved in the media industry.

Speaking about feature stories, here’s one from Sports Illustrated about the late Bison Dele (Brian Williams), a former NBA player who left the league on his own terms but met a mysterious end. It’s a very good read (otherwise I wouldn’t be recommending it here, ha). I don’t even remember this player but at the end of it, it was a much more poignant and striking story than I expected. The article’s graphical design is impressive too, with accompanying images and captions popping up at relevant moments as you scroll down.

Guangzhou Evergrande gets hardfought draw, and HK and Nigeria links

The first leg of the Asian Champions League proved to be as good a match as I thought it’d be. Too bad I only got to see the last 15 minutes due to not being aware of the correct starting time. Guangzhou Evergrande fought it out with FC Seoul in Seoul for a 2-2 draw, so the return leg in Guangzhou will be vital. There was some gamesmanship from Seoul as Guangzhou coach Marcelo Lippi slammed the shabby treatment his club received in being forced to train at their hotel since proper facilities weren’t provided.

Here’re a couple of random interesting articles.
The first is about Boko Haram from National Geographic. Boko Haram is a fundamentalist Islamic force that has killed thousands of people in Northern Nigeria since 2009 and been fighting against the Nigerian state for years. It’s become so dire that even vigilante groups have been formed to combat them while some Nigerians are so spooked they can’t even bring themselves to say the group’s name. The article is a little more hardcore and intensive (in terms of geopolitics) than what one usually reads in National Geographic but it is a very good article if not a little chilling.

A HK SCMP columnist, whose column shares the same name as my blog coincidentally, gives out a sensible bashing two lawmakers who tried to blame Hong Kong’s housing shortage on mainlanders. This is an issue I’ve constantly ranted about so I’ll just keep it brief and suggest reading this guy’s article. Here’s the closing paragraph of the column:

Given our trouble, our default position is to blame mainlanders for trying to take up space in Hong Kong. But even if we scrap all permit quotas, it’s unclear what impact that might have on housing supply. But it would be against every humanitarian principle as most permits go to mainlanders seeking family reunion in Hong Kong.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that Fan and Mo are just exploiting populist resentments against mainlanders.

Another SCMP column calls for some sense in the “crusade” by some HKers against the Philippines regarding seeking an apology and compensation for the murder of several HK tourists in 2010 in Manila. HK lawmaker and former Secretary of Security Regina Ip slams the “madness” of the vehement anti-Manila HKers and gives a logical critiques of their sentiments and the futility of proposed punishment against the Philippines.

While I’m heartened by HK people like the above two writers, I worry that many HKers are becoming consumed by ignorance, arrogance and hate in their attitudes towards mainlanders or Filipinos, for example, and have chosen to use this hate as a sort of substitute for real action in confronting the root causes of local problems, a development which is similar to Taiwan which is filled with anti-foreigner feelings and prejudice as well.