Not just a football game

The World Cup is the special one. It brings people together in a way nothing else does. It’s not just about football, but also about the human spirit

As a young boy, Belgium’s  Romelu Lukaku saw his mother mix water with milk to make it last the whole week
As a young boy, Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku saw his mother mix water with milk to make it last the whole week

The World Cup final took place last Sunday. It has been an exciting and thrilling contest, with lots of unexpected twists and sensational finales. This is in no small part due to the amazing talent pool which took part in the competition.

It’s easy to be sceptical about football players in this day and age. Enormous wealth and privilege is thrown at them from a relatively young age and with it comes a mountain of responsibilities. It’s easy to label them dismissively and group them together. Social media has softened this image, as players now communicate directly with their audience through Facebook and Instagram on a daily basis. Simple things which you’d expect from any young group of people.

However, like many things in life, once you get to understand the circumstances and the context, the way we look at an individual differs. A website launched last year by the American baseball star Derek Jeter, called the Players’ Tribune, is a way to do this. It includes short articles written by the players. I suspect they get a little help, but still it’s first-person writing by the star himself or herself. They’re genuinely fascinating reads because they give such different perspectives to the sport articles we’re used to reading. A common theme that comes up is the sheer grit, spirit and resolve preceding their success. Most of the footballers that are in the World Cup were not born with privilege, but had to earn it. I think it gives a better outlook from a sporting point of view, and a human one.

One article tells a story of a young boy from Antwerp who saw his mother mix water with milk to make it last the whole week. “We were broke. Not just poor, but broke,” said Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku. “I played with so much anger, because of a lot of things … because of the rats running around in our apartment”. It gives you a different perspective, and how football for some was not just a sport, but an escape.

There’s Raheem Sterling’s story too, and how he used to help his mother clean toilets in hotels to make ends meet, and how as a young child he saw the Wembley arch being built and promised himself he would play there.

There’s also the story of Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who is originally from Kosovo. He talks about the difficult upbringing and his family leaving a warzone. He also recounts how he was flabbergasted to be on the plane in South Africa’s World Cup when he was called up eight years ago: “The thing that I will always remember is that when we first arrived, we got to our hotel and they had an army guy with a huge gun standing outside the door of every single room. Our own personal army guy to protect us. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, because … I mean … I was running home from the park at night like a year before that! Now I got my own army guy?”

They’re all very sincere in the way the articles are written. Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani talks about the unglamorous part of football which football fans don’t often see. Stories that are not Polaroid moments, but the sheer reality of things.

In an article addressed to his younger self he writes: “Do you know what most of your life is now, at 31? You go from a hotel to a bus to a training ground. Then from a training ground to a bus to a plane. Then from a plane to another bus. Then from a bus to a stadium. In many ways, you are living a dream. And in many ways, you are a prisoner of that dream. You can’t just go outside and feel the sun. You can’t take your shoes off and play in the dirt. Things will happen that will make your life very complicated. It’s inevitable. When you’re a child, you have this illusion that the person who is the most successful is the one with the most possessions. When you grow up, you realise that the person who is the most successful is the one with the wisdom to live life.”

All this is a reminder that behind the persona of the footballer there is also a human being, with struggles and difficulties similar to each and every one of us. Of course, there is a lot of money in football, and players get the fair share of that. But it doesn’t change the difficult context of their upbringing, how their salaries often take care of extended families and that what we see on television is a small part of it.

This World Cup has given us a lot of exciting football, great matches and Cinderella moments. But, in the background, there are stories of young people who beat the odds to make it to the World Cup, from all parts of the world. The beauty of football is not just the game and the score, but how it connects people. It has that unique capability. You see people who are unable to communicate because of differing languages, express exactly the same human emotion when the referee calls a penalty or rules an offside.

This is what makes the World Cup so captivating. There are other football competitions, with probably a higher class of football level, but the World Cup is the special one. It brings people together in a way nothing else does. It’s not just about football, but also about the human spirit.

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