It’s been one hell of a weekend. South Africa has travelled a journey from the front pages reserved for disasters and politics, to the back pages of almost every newspaper outside of North America. But for one rugby fan, it’s been a different journey altogether.
Man-made beauty is about control. And after years of feeling the passion of rugby, the grunt and “gees” (spirit) of a good scrum, I’ve learnt a major lesson over the weekend. I was sitting just above the halfway line at the Nigeria vs Argentina game. My younger brother, who knows more about football than I do (don’t they always), told me the guy to watch was someone called Lionel Messi. I’d heard the name and to me it sounded like a junior manager in a Swiss bank.
And I have no, repeat, no experience of professional footballers. In London some time ago, a British friend warned me that if ever I was in any pub anywhere, and a guy said he’s a professional footballer, I should put my pint down and leave. He said there was bound to be trouble. And headlines have pretty much reinforced that perspective.
But then Messi got the ball, faced three defenders, and did something with it I simply cannot explain. And it was effortless, it was fast and it was right in front of me. But that wasn’t the true moment of beauty.
It was the long range clearance by the Nigerian goalkeeper (name’s Enyeama, Vincent Enyeama – Ed). The ball moved through the air as if it was on the same cable as the aerial camera, and seemed to stop just in front of me, on exactly the same level as my eyes, moving in super-slow motion, turning slightly in the air, the black and white panels rotating, and yet staying on its true course. For that brief moment, it wasn’t earthbound. Gravity was just a tool to be used by the artist, to make sure it came back to our planet at a rate not quite 10m a second. And its motion seemed to stem from an anti-gravity device, pulling it along gently, its vector designed by a latter day Da Vinci.
Once it landed, it was trapped neatly, controlled by another artist, an expert in his craft, who was somehow able to keep his feet on the ball and turn around at the same time, while keeping the stocky Nigerian at bay. That move is far nicer on the eye than a shot at goal, which is about power and control. True beauty often lies in concealing the power, but at the same time hinting that it’s there. It’s the difference between a Rolls Royce and a BMW M3. It’s about control.
How do you compare that to Morné Steyn’s performance earlier that afternoon? He too is an artist, a man who can use his foot to put an oddly shaped ball where he wants it, all around the park. But rugby’s real comparison is not the kicks for posts, it’s the clearance kick, the one that passes through the eye of the needle, booted from our line to land in a puff of white paint on the French five-metre line. It’s about controlling where the ball lands, a far harder task than just aiming between two poles.
But beauty is also about passion. And an opening round game at the World Cup can lack that. The Argentines scored their goal and sat on their lead. They tossed the ball to each other. My brother says it’s because it is an opening game, they’re don’t want to risk injury, they’re keeping their best for last. But these are South Americans for goodness sake, you want to see the unashamed passion of the players, not the coach. You don’t get that in rugby. If you have the ball, you have to attack, either by kicking or by running. Those are your only options.
It’s the sad cost of beauty in football that so many people can pass the ball back to the goalie, and start right from the back. That there is so much boring movement of the ball between players in their own half. But I’ve learnt that’s setting up the palette, the preparation of the brush.
It helps to play this game in a good-looking place. Ellis Park is not the best looking place in the world, but Soccer City comes close. It’s a monument of unabashed beauty; must be one of the best man-made structures to look at in the southern hemisphere. It’s not as heavy as the Constitutional Court, and doesn’t carry the symbolism of being built on a jail. It doesn’t have the grace and lightness, or the cachet that a good name brings to the Nelson Mandela Bridge. I think it’s the curve, and the colour, and at night, with the lights blazing out at well-thought-out intervals, it’s the flashes of happiness it seems to contain. It’s a symbol of fun, and of hope. And it’s unencumbered by political baggage, it’s just something that was built for enjoyment, to add to the sum of human happiness. It’s about beauty for beauty’s sake, function and symbolism have been chucked out of the window. There’s a lesson for us in there – somewhere.
From high above a stadium, in the box, rugby’s beauty is that it moves both forwards and backwards at the same time. Football’s is that it moves forward, but around, that the cross is the hardest and most important technique, and that 10 minutes of build-up often goes amiss because the cross just doesn’t quite the right place at exactly the right instant. Rugby is probably more beautiful from above. But it’s no match to football up close.
Which may be why football’s moments of brilliance are so much rarer. It’s about the one lone Mona Lisa, rather than another Pierneef landscape. A Messi three-step, rather than another Habana flyer.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Disclosure: Your reporter’s tickets to both the opening game and to Nigeria vs Argentina were provided by Emirates.
Photo: Argentina’s Lionel Messi fights for the ball with Nigeria’s Danny Shittu during a 2010 World Cup Group B soccer match at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg June 12, 2010. REUTERS/David Gray