Wednesday, Jun. 02, 2010

The Global Game

Italy, the reigning world champion by dint of its victory in the 2006 World Cup, takes soccer deadly seriously. The nation abounds with legendary clubs owned by extravagantly rich magnates who have spent the last 50 years luring the world's finest players with offers they cannot refuse. So where is today's highest-paid player in Italy from? Not from Brazil or Argentina, the planet's most prolific footballing factories; nor from France, Germany or Spain. Neither, for that matter, is he Italian. The player with the highest salary in Italy is a Cameroonian called Samuel Eto'o, the spearhead of an African contingent that has taken Europe's soccer citadel by storm.

Unlike many in the money-mad soccer world, or in banking, Eto'o has earned every penny. Three times African player of the year, Eto'o goes into the first World Cup on African soil as captain, and uncrowned king, of Cameroon, armed with a statistic that he alone owns: Eto'o is the first player ever to have won the treble of National League, National Cup and European Champions League — soccer's royal flush — with two different teams. And he has done it (the odds have to be mightily long on this happening again anytime soon) in successive seasons, the first with Barcelona and the second, in May, with Inter Milan.

Now Eto'o will get a chance to perform on the biggest stage the world has ever seen. Soccer is the great secular religion. Some 30% of the world's people declare themselves Christian; 20%, Muslim. But people's devotion to soccer transcends all creeds, races, tongues. The World Cup in South Africa will generate more intense planetary babble — will be dissected, tweeted, Facebooked, Googled, SMSed and scrutinized by billions on 400 TV channels in 208 countries — than any other event in human history. The 2006 World Cup in Germany had a total cumulative TV audience of more than 26 billion, according to official FIFA figures. The big-smiling, boyish Eto'o, whose country brought African soccer to the world's attention when it reached the quarterfinals of the 1990 Cup, will loom large in the conversation. How he got there — how he managed his ascent to the pantheon of humanity's most popular divinities alongside other African players such as Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast and Michael Essien of Ghana — is an unbeatable tale of rags to riches. It's little wonder that during the hour we spoke recently, Eto'o used the word dream 14 times. As in, "My whole life is a dream, a dream come true, a dream I'll only wake up from the day I stop playing football."

The Game You Can Play Anywhere
How did the World Cup become the species' favorite pastime? Why do more people spend more time watching or playing soccer than they do engaging in any other social activity, with the possible exception of eating and drinking? Why are those who play it best venerated for their skill and adopted as warriors, or armies, in tribal causes — be they national or local? Here's one reason: the game is just so accessible. You can play anywhere: on grass; on cement; on dusty, stony ground; or even (as pained mothers the world over will attest) inside the house. The basic rules are simple, and you don't need any kit or equipment beyond a round — or even roundish — object of not necessarily fixed size. It can come manufactured (a tennis ball often does the job) or may be fashioned out of animal bladders, stones, socks or plastic bags.

Soccer is uniquely democratic among team sports. It doesn't matter whether you are tall or short, whether you are a skinny African kid or a large Dutchman, whether you are black or white or brown. Take a look at any successful team: short of the conspicuously overweight, everybody gets a look in. The best player in the world, Argentina's Lionel Messi, is barely 5 ft. 7 in. (174 cm), and he made it to that height only after jabbing himself daily in the thigh with growth-hormone medication during his early adolescence.

"If there is a god in soccer today, it is Messi," says Eto'o, who played alongside the Argentine star at Barcelona and, like him, offers convincing proof of the game's democratic accessibility. We spoke at the garden of the Bulgari Hotel, a black-and-white marble construction set in a stately precinct of Milan, where a suite of the type in which he has lived for most of the past year costs more for one night than the average annual income in Cameroon. Eto'o, 29, was raised in the seaside city of Douala, where he lived with his parents and five brothers and sisters in what he describes as "very, very humble" conditions. Although, he is quick to say, many neighbors had it worse. "I went to primary school, and while we couldn't choose our food, we did eat." The cramped home, where the children slept several to a bed, had one enviable mark of distinction: "The rainwater did not come in through the ceiling."

When, early in Eto'o's childhood, his father lost his accounting job, his mother got up every morning at 3 o'clock to buy fish at the port and resell it on the streets. Soccer offered life's fun and consolation. "Like any other African child," recalls Eto'o, "I'd play barefoot with balls that we made out of plastic bags, wrapped tight and bound with tape."

Eto'o in person is lithe and hard-muscled but surprisingly slender if you have seen him only on TV, playing his pacey, explosive game. He is known chiefly as a goal scorer. (During his five years with Barcelona he became the Catalan club's third highest scorer ever.) "But others may also define me as the first line of defense," he says. "I always seek to do the best I can in every position, in every facet of the game. Success is much more than a question of quality — it's a question of heart. That's what gives you the winning edge." Far from provoking envy among his teammates because of the $13 million (10.5 million euros) he earns, Eto'o is valued for his humble commitment to the cause. Character, self-confidence and drive are the qualities that have shaped Eto'o, allowing him to swim ahead in what he calls "the whale-infested waters of European soccer." Professional soccer is a giant meritocracy, on the first rung of which are millions upon millions — from all over the world — sharing Eto'o's infant dreams of glory. The few who make the initial cut, who are recruited at a young age by professional clubs, must overcome all manner of psychological and athletic obstacles before making it to the top — at which point the going continues to be fiercely difficult. Each time you turn up for work, your performance is under the scrutiny of millions of eyes, all anatomizing your every move as if you were an insect under a microscope.

Eto'o's break came when he was 12. A sports academy in Douala called l'Ecole de Football des Brasseries du Cameroun saw his potential and took him on. From there, he graduated to the best facility of its kind in the country, the Kadji Sport Academy, financed by one of the wealthiest men in town. Eto'o represented his country in the under-16 level, and it was there that a scout for Real Madrid, the most glamorous brand name in football, spotted him and brought him to Spain for a trial. He went north at 14, signed a contract, then went back a year later and stayed, sharing a room with another young recruit in a Madrid hotel paid for by Real.

Far from Home
The biographies of famous players are filled with sad tales of homesickness during the adolescent stages of their careers. Eto'o was familiar with neither the language nor the culture of the country where he took his first steps as a professional. Did he miss his family? Was it hard? "No. No. Not at all!" he exclaims, smiling brightly. "I had my dream, and when the opportunity came along (and what an opportunity!), I went for it." Missing home was not an option. Missing home, you might say, is an indulgence that young players from better-off countries can afford; but when you come from a continent where survival is, for many, a daily battle, sentiment succumbs to practicality. For Eto'o, it was yet another dream to suddenly find himself training alongside players whose posters he had kept at home.

Not that all was plain sailing. Frustration set in when two years passed and he had not gotten into Real's first team. He was lent out to a small Madrid club called Leganés, and from there he moved, also on loan, to Mallorca. He starred there, but the big Madrid team did not exercise the option of taking him back, and (in a move that Real would come to regret) he was sold to archrival Barcelona. It was yet one more in a long line of spectacular misjudgments by the people in the game who purportedly understand it best.

That is another of the reasons why soccer is so endlessly appealing: like life, it is unpredictable, irreducible to scientific certitude. All the top coaches (a group that includes Manchester United's Alex Ferguson; Fabio Capello, now the England coach, formerly a champion in Italy and with Real Madrid; and Pep Guardiola, the coach of the Barcelona team that last year won everything there was to win) have made colossal blunders in identifying talent. When it came to Eto'o, Real's misjudgment was Barcelona's gain. The Catalan team won the Spanish league in Eto'o's first season, and in the next they won both the National League, with Eto'o as Spain's top scorer, and the European Champions League. In five seasons at Barcelona, he won the Spanish league three times and the European Champions League twice. Then, in an error that Barcelona would rue, they let Eto'o go to Inter Milan, who knocked the Catalans out in the semifinals of this season's European Champions League — with Eto'o playing like a warrior — and then won it.

It has been glory and wealth and joy all the way. Or almost. A bane of African players in some parts of Europe is racism. Not within teams — Eto'o is adamant about that: "Nothing of that. If you're good, you're good, and that's the end of it. But sometimes you find yourself in a stadium where the fans go after you because of your color, because they are ignorant, because they haven't traveled." Eto'o recalls one game for Barcelona at Zaragoza when sections of the crowd spent the whole time making monkey noises at him. He now regrets that he reacted by taunting the crowd himself, performing a triumphant "monkey dance" after he scored the winning goal. "In general, in Spain, this was not the norm. It was the exception," he says, with the generosity of a man who intends to retire in Spain. "But football reflects life, and in life, such idiocy exists, unfortunately."

Idiocy in soccer can reach criminal extremes. The sport divides, in rivalries that can reach the intensity of vicious hate: a Colombian player, Andrés Escobar, was murdered in Medellín after inadvertently scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup. But it can also unite. With the exception of war, nothing brings out a shared sense of national identity, of almost family belonging, like international soccer competition. In Honduras, a country dangerously divided following a coup d'état last year, the national team's qualification for this year's World Cup managed to bring people together.

Some years ago, I witnessed an example of reconciliation on the soccer field that was even more spectacularly unlikely. Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which nearly 1 million people were killed (mostly with machetes) in 100 days, more than 100,000 alleged murderers, members of the majority Hutu, who had sought to eliminate their Tutsi compatriots from the face of the earth, were jailed. In 2003, 40,000 received amnesty. To mark the occasion, a soccer game was held — in a town where the slaughter had been particularly savage — between returning Hutu génocidaires and relatives of their victims, who from that day would be obliged to live side by side again. Some 5,000 people watched the game, with just two policemen in attendance. It was conducted in a spirit of fair play so impeccable that soccer's Victorian British rulebook writers would have applauded. The Tutsi team won 1-0, and at the end of the game, when I interviewed the players, all said the contest had been a victory for peace.

"Soccer," Eto'o says, "is pure sentiment and a spectacle that transcends all borders. It's the best weapon against political conflict. It would be hard to see Iran and the United States seated at the same table, but it's perfectly feasible to see them playing a game of soccer." (This indeed happened, without any drastic consequences, in the 1998 World Cup in France.) An extreme case of soccer as icebreaker is that of the young Palestinian suicide bombers of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who, in the course of an interview with a journalist from the London Sunday Times in 2002, interrupted their celebrations of anticipated mass murder on Israeli soil to cheer — with cries of "God is great!" — the news that their infidel hero David Beckham had scored two goals in a Manchester United victory.

A Tool for Social Progress
Soccer is different. Trevor Edwards, corporate vice president of global brand management for Nike, a company that has become involved with the game only in the past 16 years, believes that the relationship people have with it stands alone in the wide world of sports. "Now that we're also a soccer company," Edwards says, "we've noticed that there is nothing like the emotional connection that people have with soccer. There is a tribal instinct that comes with it. But at the same time, with the tribal instinct comes this common understanding of brilliance, of brilliant play. It doesn't matter — you can be Brazilian, you can be Spanish, you can be English. If you are amazing, you transcend all that."

This is true. Players like Eto'o and, even more so, his contemporary greats Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo generate admiration everywhere. But the tribal instinct, the impulse to identify and pay homage, is stronger than mere admiration of talent. "Players are gods, the stands are the pews, football is the new religion," wrote Stephen Tomkins, author of A Short History of Christianity. Eto'o is indeed a god in Cameroon. As with Diego Maradona, who won the World Cup practically single-handedly for Argentina in 1986, songs have been written to celebrate him in his homeland. Players like Eto'o and Maradona, and Drogba, and Pelé in his day in Brazil and Wayne Rooney today in England have become emblems of national prestige, filling the roles great generals or kings occupied in ancient times. They have even usurped the role of Hollywood stars. Details of Beckham's private life are of more consuming interest to more people than those of Brad Pitt's.

But there is more to the soccer phenomenon than voyeurism or national vanity. Just how much more is becoming evident with the first staging of the World Cup in Africa. The fascination the game holds is being used as a tool for social good. Soccer is being employed as bait to lure young people in Africa, and also in Latin America and Asia, to raise educational standards and increase awareness of how to combat AIDS, malaria and other diseases that need not kill as many millions as they do. Africa, in particular, has seen dozens of such programs in the buildup to the World Cup, often with FIFA, soccer's international governing body, actively involved. Nike and Adidas run AIDS-awareness and education campaigns linked specifically to soccer. The Spanish national team, a favorite to win this World Cup, is promoting the battle against malaria.

Eto'o and other African players who have seen their dreams of wealth and fame come true are playing their parts in linking sports and social development. Eto'o has created and poured millions of dollars into a foundation for African children that links soccer, education and health. "The foundation is about sharing the smile I have on my face with as many people as possible," Eto'o says. "The most important thing for me is to know that when I give a child boots to play soccer or I take him to Europe to resolve a health problem or I give him a scholarship for his studies, that I make him happy."

The African Moment
Happy and, with luck, more prosperous. Francois Pienaar, one of the sporting icons of South Africa — captain of the team that won the rugby World Cup in 1995 — sees a great opportunity this year to project a new image of the African continent, to revitalize economies, strengthen nations and imbue people with a new pride. "We've built the infrastructure. We've met our deadlines. We've built new, first-class airports. We will show the world Africa can stage the greatest show on earth," said Pienaar, whose role in the 1995 rugby campaign, during which he forged a strong bond with Nelson Mandela, provided a healing balm to a country that at the time still faced the risk of a race war. "Look how far we've come. We're at peace. We're hosting the soccer World Cup. But it's much more than about South Africa. This is going to be a World Cup for the whole of Africa, a continent about which people have always been circumspect but which, the world will see, can and will go places."

Eto'o echoes the big white African's words: "My greatest desire is that we seize the chance to show that if we are given the opportunity, we can work as well as anybody, that we are up to the mark. And I am sure we will show it." He has faith that Africa will perform wonders on the soccer field too. "If I had not played for my country, everything else I have achieved would have left me with an empty feeling." Cameroon, along with Ivory Coast, is the African team to beat in the World Cup, the one with the most accomplished set of players performing at a high level in the European leagues. But Eto'o says his first loyalty is to the continent. "I am an African before a Cameroonian," he says. "I would like my country to win, but if we fall, I will support any other African team that remains standing and celebrate their triumph with equal joy."

Could an African team actually win the first African World Cup? Difficult. Spain, the reigning European nations' champion, looks menacingly complete. Argentina has the magical Messi. England, with the formidable Capello as coach, is feared by all. Germany and Italy always raise their game at the World Cup. Brazil is, well, Brazil. But soccer — another big reason for its global appeal — throws up more surprising results more often than any other team sport. Italy, for example, lost to North Korea in the 1966 World Cup. Cameroon, for that matter, came within a hair's breadth of beating England in the 1990 quarterfinals. With the support of the wildly enthusiastic, soccer-fanatical South African crowds, the impossible dream could, maybe, come true.

As it has done for Samuel Eto'o, who far exceeded the goal he set himself at a press conference on the day he joined Barcelona. Wittily, and somewhat controversially, he declared, "I mean to run like a black man so I can live like a white one." Reminded of that phrase, sitting in the lush garden of the Bulgari Hotel, in the suites of which he had ample space to sleep and could choose from a vastly expensive array of room-service options with no notion of the rainwater coming in through the ceiling, Eto'o turns serious and nods. "Yes," he says. "But it's a shame people didn't pick up on the deeper message I wanted to convey. What I meant to say was, Give us the same opportunities, and we can be as good as anybody." In the next month, he and his African colleagues will have the chance to prove it.

Carlin is the author of Playing the Enemy, about the 1995 rugby World Cup — on which the movie Invictus was based — and White Angels, about Real Madrid.