Off the ball: Not dead yet

27th June 2006, Comments 0 comments

In his irreverent World Cup column Off the Ball, Andy Goldberg looks at the lighter side of the football championship. This time he muses over the Ukrainian national anthem and pays tribute to Pele.

When Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, the opening line of its new national anthem perfectly captured the backs- to-the-wall determination exhibited by its otherwise very ordinary football team in their first ever World Cup. "Ukraine is not dead yet," said the stirring ditty of the former Soviet republic. Unfortunately for football fans everywhere the same can be said for its team which now only has to beat the under-performing Italians to bizarrely find itself in the semi-finals of the World Cup.

While the country may have thrown off the shackles of Soviet rule, the football team is still slavishly devoted to an outmoded collectivist style of play that relies primarily on an iron defence that was supposed to be as impenetrable as a division of T-62 battle tanks in the heyday of the Cold War.

The flaws in the system were crudely exposed by Spain in an opening game 4-0 defeat. But the battling Ukrainian comrades have since managed to grind out the needed results against the footballing giants of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and now Switzerland; even with their talisman Andrej Shevchenko misfiring like a badly tuned Lada.

Star system failure

Shevchenko's only goal so far came from a penalty against Tunisia - and the generally uninspiring play from one of the world's most expensive footballers is symptomatic of a surprising lack of inspiration from the supposed stars of this tournament.

Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho has yet to get his name on the scoresheet or even produce a truly memorable piece of play. The English superstars can best be described as superflops, while Argentine wonderkid Lionel Messi can't even get in to the first team on a regular basis. Czech maestro Tomas Rosicky shone in the first game that sank into anonymity, while Italian playmaker Francesco Totti's best contribution was not missing a dubious last-kick penalty against Australia.

Old guard still rule

There are still eight games to go from the quarter-finals on for a player to stamp his authority on the tournament and write his name among the list of soccer greats. But for now, it's 65-year-old Pele who still reigns supreme among all the football gods.

He even has a must-see interactive exhibition devoted to him in the heart of Berlin, where football fans can gaze in admiration at clips of the great man bamboozling international defenders as though they were gormless amateurs, or revel in his unique sporting achievement of over 1,200 goals in a 20-year career, or even pose for photos next to a lifelike mannequin of Pele.

One word of warning however: Curiosity seekers who lift Pele's jersey will discover he has a blotchy green belly - adequate proof for conspiracy buffs that the greatest footballing genius of all time, who quite bizarrely also manages to have one of the most genuine, permanent and infectious smiles of the modern age, is in all probability a cyborg from another planet.

The exhibition includes a game called Pele Pong which is an electronic version of table football that shows a replay of a Pele goal whenever someone scores. I lost 3-2 to a younger colleague who obviously devoted his youth to training precisely for the tournament.

We also played "blacklight" football - which the organisers claim is based on a popular pastime in Brazil in which football mad-kids put a "black" or ultraviolet light in a football so that they can play at night even when there are no floodlights. Here too I was at the wrong end of a 3-2 scoreline, but in the spirit of the World Cup the referee awarded me the game when he retroactively red-carded my opponent for time-wasting.

Holy boots

The exhibit that most impressed me was the pair of football boots in which Pele scored 431 goals while playing for Santos FC. The simple black shoes were so well used that they have holes worn through in several places - a sharp contrast to the multi-coloured boots of today's overpaid stars, that are often discarded after just a few games.

But let's not forget that for all his good deeds, Pele has also never been averse to cashing in on his celebrity, and why should he be? His problem has always been that as a businessman he would not even get in to the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania old men's county league, and has consistently lost money in dodgy ventures with equally dodgy partners.

Hopefully for him his new schemes will do better. He has sold his name rights to an outfit called Prime Licensing which hopes to "leverage" the Pele brand into a line of Pele condominiums, cellphones, credit cards and cruises. He has even put out an album of self-penned songs that one German reviewer enthused was like listening to "a god sing."

Prime Licensing however was just a tad more prosaic. "Unbelievable feats elevated Pele to the status of myth," said a spokesman for the company. "The time has come for the myth to become a brand, to be part of consumer's everyday life and to bring a whole new perspective to the world of business."


Subject: World Cup 2006, German news, Off the ball

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