Thursday, July 06, 2006

The World Game

Growing up in an Australian Rules Football heartland, there was never much time for other so-called football codes. During the season, by virtue of its extensive media coverage, “Footy” is so intrusive that, wanted or not, it manages to occupy at least some of most peoples’ daily lives, and given that the unofficial season starts in January and finishes in late September, the only other sport that really gets a look-in amongst the collective consciousness is cricket (and then only if it agrees to finish-up before the first ball-up of the new Footy season!).

Despite our fanaticism, however, very few people from my home town would ever go so far as to suggest that “Aussie Rules” would hold much chop anywhere else in the world. Unlike the Yanks, who are happy to refer to one of their home-grown competitions with an ambiguity that suggests other nations could have a crack if they were good enough, we Australians know that when our team wins the Grand Final, it signifies no more than that it has reached the top of a heap from a very small part of the Southern Hemisphere. Hardly a World Game at all, and no arguments from me!

On the other hand, there are some from Northern Australia who think their preferred football codes, be it Rugby League or Union, represent the true World Game, simply because the three most prominent teams in the last 30 years have originated from three fairly distant points on the globe.

A quick scan around the internet media at a time like this is more than enough to demonstrate the wide-spread interest in the “Soccer” (sorry, old habits die hard) World Cup, but really, who needs the internet to demonstrate it? The evidence is everywhere!

Take my experience of the World Cup Final in 2002; my most vivid example of why soccer is truly the World Game. It was Brazil v Germany, and while most of the world was a-fire with anticipation, my companions and I were bouncing around in an old Russian van on a completely flat, featureless, dusty landscape; not a living thing or sign of habitation, human or otherwise, could be seen along the unobscured, 360 degrees of desolation.

For five days we’d had our backsides and heads alternatively pounded as our Mongolian driver, Hoya Baira, completely whacked-out on mares-milk vodka, caned his bucket of bolts towards an unknown goal, along an unknown route, and all according to an unknown, although clearly very tight timetable. We were exhausted from the travel and the relentless heat of the Mongolian summer, and we had no idea which was going to give out first, the van or Hoya Baira - both were being severely maltreated, although admittedly one had only himself to blame!

None of us really knew what day it was when we started climbing a gentle slope towards some far off trees; the first geographical variation to the flat steppes we’d seen in five days, and as we climbed higher, we started to see the signs of what passes for habitation in the Mongolian countryside – yaks and horses!

With a shriek that might have been laughter or the final slide into alcoholic imbecility, Hoya Baira plummeted into a valley and pulled up with a screech outside a ger; the closest thing Mongolian nomads have to a permanent home. These large, timber-framed, felt-walled tents contains hardwood furniture, a heavy wooden door, an iron, pot-belly stove and not much else. It all gets packed up and moved with the herds three times a year and it’s pretty sparse; no luxuries, just the barest of necessities to get you through eight months of sub-zero temperatures.

The next three hours saw us whip-lashing our way from jolting acceleration to sudden, bald-tyre-screeching halts as we moved from one ger to the next. At each one Hoya Baira would fire off a series of guttural, Mongolian grunts to the inhabitants, listen to the gagging reply, and then take-off again with ever-increasing urgency.

When we finally did come to a complete stop at a ger which appeared to be just like all the others, our crazy soak of a steersman staggered out of the van without a word and disappeared through the painted wooden door. For about an hour we waited in the afternoon sun for him to emerge, wondering what was going on and why there was absolutely no one about, and then we finally summoned the nerve to approach the threshold.

Inside the ger, the air was thick with tobacco smoke and it was packed solid with people (more than we’d seen since we left town, now we knew where all the Mongolians had been!). A mug of vodka was thrust into my hands to be downed immediately as per custom, but this only further prevented my eyes from adjusting to the darkness. Eventually, the gagging reflex from the vodka, and the sickly stench of mares’ cheese and unwashed Mongolian, passed. All eyes were to one end of the “room”, where I could just make out Hoya Baira on the floor, and beyond him, something that made my jaw flap around my knees; it was thirty-two minutes into the first half of the World Cup Final on a very large, Soviet-era colour TV!

I’ve just done a search on the web, and I can find no record of Mongolia having ever qualified for the FIFA World Cup. On this day, however, in the boiling Mongolian summer of 2002, people had travelled very vast distances on foot or horseback to watch and cheer on players and teams that many of them could never have heard of, let alone seen before. Everyone was uproariously drunk, despite the early hour, and vocal chords were being systematically destroyed as the inhabitants of a non-descript ger, in an un-named valley in the middle of the vast Mongolian steppe, abused the referees, cheered the players or argued with each other about tactics.

Vodka-clouded investigations later revealed a satellite dish and car batteries, previously obscured from view, on the far side the ger. Only for a true World Game would the world’s have-nots literally achieve the impossible in order to watch a 90-odd minute sporting event to which they had no national connection.

This Sunday Night, I will watch the World Cup final with Fred, my French friend, in his house in New Delhi, India. Drinking with us will be Indians, a German, Americans, Australians, Brits, a Swede, Italians, a Colombian, Spaniards, Kiwis and Canadians. Fred’s pretty hopeful that France will knock-off Portugal tonight, and he’ll get to see his heroes take-on Italy on Sunday Night, but even if they don’t get up tonight, Fred will still have his party and watch the Final. Why not? It’s the World Game after all!

Ger with Sattelite Dish: after the World Cup Final, 2002. Photo: Daz


Bwca said...

Yo Donkey - two years blogging!

A masterful achievement.
Joyeux Anniversaire

Ann ODyne said...

April 2010:
Bwca made that lonely comment in July 2008. Be back in July 2010 to say Happy 4th. be ready