The first world cup I followed was in 1974 in West Germany. For some reason, apart from the final, one other game stuck in my memory – East Germany against West Germany in the group stages. The socialist East defeated the Westerners 1-0. But it was West Germany that went on through to the final against Netherlands, then regarded as the best team in the world. The Dutch had the best player in the world – Johan Cruijff, also my personal favourite. Germany also had two outstanding players – captain Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller, and the Germans won 2-1, with Muller as the highest goal scorer. Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) represented Africa putting up a dismal performance.
Four years later, I was at Igbobi College and followed even more closely. Nigeria almost made it to that edition. A golden generation including Segun Odegbami, Muda Lawal, Adokiye Amiesimaka, Thompson Usiyen, Godwin Odiye and Christian Chukwu needed a victory against Tunisia at home in Lagos to qualify. I was at the National Stadium, Surulere to cheer Nigeria to our first world cup. But then, Odiye scored that famous (or notorious) own goal that gave the ticket to Tunisia. Netherlands again got to the final, but this time against a stronger Argentina team with extraordinary players like Mario Kempes, Ossie Ardiles, Daniel Passarella and Daniel Bertoni. Argentina, the hosts, defeated Holland 3-1. That world cup featured two great stars – Zico of Brazil and Michel Platini of France.
The 1980s for good or for bad, was the Diego Maradona era as he appeared in three tournaments – 1982, 1986 (which Argentina won, and at which Maradona produced the notorious “hand of God” goal, as well as that extraordinary goal in which he dribbled, perhaps, the entire English team before scoring), and 1990 in which he was disgraced for drug cheating. The 1990s and 2000s were dominated by Ronaldo (the original Brazilian Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima), Zinedane Zidane of France, and Roberto Baggio of Italy. Ronaldo was in the Brazilian team that won in 1994 (where he did not play), and 2002 (where he scored eight goals). He also scored four goals in 1998 and three in 2006 breaking Gerd Muller’s record of 14 goals by setting a new record of 15. Zidane led the great “Les Blues” to victory in 2002 but went out in shame in the final match at the 2006 edition for head-butting Marco Matterazi of Italy, the eventual winners. Baggio played at the 1990, 1994 and 1998 tournaments scoring at each, with a total of nine overall.
Nigeria would compete in its first world cup at USA 1994. That image of Rasheed Yekini shaking the net and shouting “Yekini, Yekini…” is till today one of the enduring images of the competition. But that world cup was also the beginning of mafias and politicisation of our national football team, as some of Yekini’s colleagues conspired to deny him access to passes and further goals in the competition. It was after the June 12, 1993 election annulment, and General Sani Abacha was in power. Certain players became close to those in power, cliques were formed and certain players were derided as “NADECO” players, mirroring Nigeria’s then political tensions. In spite of all that, Nigeria gave a good account of itself, but the rot had started.
The just-concluded 2010 world cup was remarkable for being the first in Africa. South Africa made the continent proud with excellent facilities and organisation, and very enthusiastic crowds. The story of Nigeria’s shameful participation has been told and need not be repeated. But South Africa, Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana did well, and Ghana, indeed, deserved to go through to the semi-finals and perhaps better, but then, it wasn’t meant to be. Once Ghana, Argentina and Brazil were out however, I wanted, and got, a Spain-Netherland final to guarantee that either of those two excellent footballing nations would win the cup for the first time. My heart wanted Holland to avoid a hat-trick of losses in the final but my head (and solidarity with my Spanish friends) recognised that Spain was the better team and more likely to prevail, and so it turned out.
This world cup has brought new superstars into global football – Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben of Holland; David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernadez, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, Carlos Puyol and Iker Cassillas of Spain; Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew and John Mensah of Ghana; Thomas Mueller, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil of Germany; Gonzalo Higuan, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi of Argentina, and Diego Forlan of Uruguay. Forlan was clearly the most impressive player of this competition and deservedly won the Golden Ball with Sneijder, Villa, Mueller, and Forlan (once again) sharing the Golden Boot. Two brothers – Kevin Prince Boateng and Jerome Boateng played for different nations – Ghana and Germany. On the other hand, there were flops – Wayne Rooney, Christiano Ronaldo, Samuel Eto’o, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, France, Italy and England.
Finally this world cup reminded us of the link between football and national character – a dysfunctional French team riven with indiscipline, fierce emotions and riotous behaviour; an ageing Italian team; the efficiency, hardwork, skill and energy of the Germans; the South Americans: Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico – all skill but limited technique, all flair but little strategy, all passion but limited discipline; a rising, reforming, ambitious Ghana, but with limitations in terms of teamwork and precision; a Nigerian team that reflected the corruption, maladministration, mediocrity and selfishness of the country’s leadership; a liberal, creative, quiet, focused and harmonious Holland; and the flair, creativity, commitment and persistence of the Spanish.