15 JULY 2010


Spain won as its players passed their way through the field. In the end, it was those confident passes and cohesive team unity that made the difference. South Africa won. It was the hospitality of a kind and resilient people symbolized by our great hero Nelson Mandela and its official President Jacob Zuma who spread an organized yet relaxed atmosphere of hospitality that made everyone feel welcome. Sports spirit won. The Dutch team that fought a tough battle stood in respectful guard for the new champions.

The passion for football, known in the U.S. as soccer, unified big and small countries; young and old people. Even heads of states, Queens and Princes, looked and felt different as they watched the game.

On Friday 2 July, there were more U.N. delegates in New York looking for a TV screen to watch Ghana play at the World Cup with Uruguay than to hear His Excellency Hamidon Ali pontificate about the conclusion of the so-called "High Level" meeting of the Economic and Social Council.

In the interim premises, visitors in particular had spent some time at that week's beginning locating the Conference Room, coffee lounge, and -- of course -- toilets. But Friday morning, Ghana's team was the favourite. It was the only remaining African representative in the World Cup. And rightly so. Ghana was the first African country to get independent and its first President, Kwame Nkrumah was the first to introduce "Football" and build an internationally competitive national team. Noting a widespread interest to follow the games, some delegates felt that perhaps it would have been more realistic to display some scheduling flexibility, like setting "consultations" time to allow fans to watch the game and meet later when they could focus better -- and get more productive results.

An exemplary measure was devised once during the World Cup in Mondial of 1990. TV stations in New York had not yet devoted time for that game, shown mainly on a Spanish channel. However, there was great interest among delegates attending a difficult and crucial budgetary committee. A match between Argentina and Cameroon attracted most of the attention, particularly with two legendary national team players: Diego Armando Maradona of Argentina and Roger Mila of Cameroon. The creative and dynamic Under-Secretary General for Management, Luiz-Maria Gomez, got to talk to one of the most influential delegates in the Committee: Tommo Monthe of the Cameroon. It was agreed informally to watch the game together at the office of DPI Director Samir Sanbar, who arranged for the screening. Despite rooting for competing teams, the outcome was a more cordial, effective, and fruitful budgetary settlement.

During the Millennium Summit, many heads of states exchanged more friendly views about World Cup games than about the Millennium Goals. President Menem of Argentina got so worked up that he offered to play with the team. The President of Mexico was broadcasting his field advice to star player Hugo Sanchez. President Diouf gladly received compliments about the performance of the Sengali team. Football, or soccer as Americans call it, mobilizes a positive national competition for a joint international passion. It is very much like member states pursuing their national interests through a comprehensive universal U.N. framework.

In most countries, it is almost religious to support the team and encourage specific players. It is by now realized that football stars have a wider following than politicians and are more trusted to play according to the rules.

This year, there was a wider public as the Americans, at least to a certain degree, joined the show. Cafes and pubs in New York and other cities placed large screens throughout. South African authorities realized the importance of facilitating media coverage, often helping to provide colourful backgrounds. Another new element was that the globalization of players have made them more vulnerable to closer analysis. Most players participate in some internationally-known club. Many of those competing in different national shirts actually wore the same ones when playing regularly. Teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, AC Milan, include many of the names defending varied countries in the Cup. During the game between Spain and Portugal, one of the world's best players, Cristiano Ronaldo, was almost immobilized by those who knew his moves very well as he plays for Real Madrid.

One main lesson drawn is that teamwork is more effective than selfish posturing. Lack of it was the rock that broke down the French and British; viewers got the feeling that its members were playing against each other rather than competing with another team. Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands were able to advance by teamwork, particularly those almost perfect passes by Spain, sometimes seeming boringly monotonous until they got a break. Argentina coach, the legendary Maradona, tried his best to reconcile between teamwork and diva creativity. He graciously allowed two outstanding players, Messi and Tevez, freedom of movement as lethal attackers. Considering the handicaps, Maradona displayed remarkable solidarity with his players; hugging, advising, and consoling them. His team's defense proved vulnerable, particularly to an overly disciplined team like Germany.

More than anything else, it is a question of luck. No matter how much a player tried, an almost perfect shot hits the poster, is blocked by the goal keeper, or declared ineffective by the referee. The heartbreak of Ghana could be well understood when, given a penalty at the closing minute, the ball just tipped the top of the goal.

Better luck next time.