The Weekly Sweeper: Absence and Presence at the World Cup

Keep calmRio Ferdinand, Jose Bosingwa and Michael Essien hurt their knees.  Didier Drogba broke his elbow.  Michael Ballack and Jon Obi Mikel messed up their ankles.  Arjen Robben tweaked his hamstring.  Andrea Pirlo aches in his calf.   No Charlie Davies, no Lassana Diara, no Mourad Meghni, no David Beckham.

As the World Cup approaches, European dailies are apoplectic in the wake of several high profile player injuries ruling some of football’s most familiar faces out of the big show (apparently Ferdinand’s absence means England’s World Cup chances have dimmed, as if success in international football came down to having the right names in the first team, something that might come as a surprise to say, Germany) .  The usual debate arising from these types of injuries tends to focus on the ever-increasing number of games at the highest level, but there are other factors as well.  The speed and increased physical demands of modern football take their physical toll, although advances in sport medicine and nutrition have likely mitigated their effects somewhat.

But some of these injuries are just common, run-of-the-mill knacks; Didier Drogba’s broken elbow playing Japan was a cruel fluke.  Some have nothing to do with football; Charlie Davies was in a high-profile car accident.  Some players have been nursing injuries long before the World Cup.  It’s also worth noting that these sorts of injuries occur with almost banal regularity throughout the league season; it’s just that hearing that your star player won’t be fit for a month’s time is less devastating in an eight-month season in which clubs play a game a week.

So why the hemming and hawing so close to the World Cup?  Well with this year’s tournament the first in Africa, the absence of several African stars like Essien and Drogba has alarmed several hoping the tournament would be a “showcase” for African football.  In fact, most of the panic surrounding these injuries arises from the notion that the World Cup is a sort of thirty-two national all-star select show, rather than an international football tournament.

Of course, popular perception of the tournament has always been more about stars than nations, certainly more so after 1970, when everyone watched Pele in technicolor for the very first time.  Most of what we remember from past tournaments comes from slow motion film close-ups of various key players: Puskas in ’54, Pele in ’58, Garrincha in ’62, Eusebio in ’66, Pele in ’70, Cruyff in ’74, Rossi in ’82, Maradona in ’86 and so on and so on.

And the reality of player absences doesn’t sit well with some of the World Cup’s biggest advertisers.  Nike pulled out all the stops in a rollicking, four minute ad directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and now two of five prominently featured stars—Drogba due to injury, and Ronaldinho due to Dunga leaving him out of the Brazil squad—will not feature in South Africa.  Adidas’ bizarre Star Wars-related spot looks brilliant in comparison simply by not featuring any current soccer stars whatsoever (or anyone remotely related to football for the most part, except for David Beckham, and a two second shot of Franz Beckenbauer).

Yet player absences have always played a part, and often a very interesting one, during the World Cup.  Garrincha rose to the fore in Chile in 1962 because Pele was injured early on in a group stage match.  Cesar Menotti controversially left out a young but supremely gifted Maradona from the 1978 squad in Argentina and won the World Cup against a Dutch team in the final defined by the absence of Johan Cruyff.  Absences form an integral part of the narrative arc of a tournament.  They also make room for other players to rise in their stead. This year happens to be worse for star player absences than most, but it is far too early to wail that 2010 is cursed and a write-off.

Ghana’s Michael Essien said it quietly and best the other day, when he remarked of his World Cup ending injury, “I have to admit no one was more disappointed than me but that’s life and I have to move on.”  Almost all the papers said Essien spoke “philosophically,” as if not ranting and raving against cruel Fate or consigning your team’s chances to the dust-bin of history well before the fact because you wouldn’t be there was in and of itself a “philosophy.”  Meanwhile, Messi, Rooney, Ronaldo—they’re all still there, touch wood. There’s still a feast amid all the famine.  If Kent Brockman asks you if this is the time to panic, just say no.

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