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Rohit Brijnath
Friday, Jul 4, 2014

Sports

Cheering the underdog, yet still admiring the favourite

The Straits Times | Rohit Brijnath | Friday, Jul 4, 2014

Nigeria's goalkeeper Enyeama jumps to make a save during their 2014 World Cup round of 16 game against France in Brasilia.

They cry. Always they cry. Into their hands, a flag, a scarf. "What do I feel?," said a fan to a reporter, speaking for all defeated nations. "Sorrow, sorrow, nothing more." This Cup, more than any other sport, plays to the heart.

By this morning the Cup will be quartered from 32 starting teams to eight and the underdog is being weeded out. In a romantic world, this long shot says "I played my best" and leaves with pride, but sport is never that simple or fair.

As the second half begins against France, the Nigerians form a circle and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama sits in the middle. It seems like he is praying. All Cup he has been comic-book hero Plastic Man come to stretching life, contorting his body into various shapes to bravely block balls.

Now, in the 79th minute, after Nigeria have held France, pushed France, he errs, he flaps at a ball, touches it and it ricochets straight onto the head of Frenchman Paul Pogba and into goal.

Where is the justice in sport?

Four times in the last 16, football's outsiders have scrapped, fought, run, yet four times they have been edged, pipped, slipped past.

Mexico led the Netherlands till the 88th minute, then conceded two goals in six minutes. Algeria held Germany till extra time. Chile fell on penalties to the hosts. Perhaps every god of the underdog has gone on sick leave.

Is there an honourable way to lose? Is 0-3 better because then you've just been outclassed? A case of no chance. Is penalties, or a late goal, crueller because you're almost there, at the precipice of an upset, and you will always remember you had a chance? Either way you just wish they'd stop with those horrendous adjectives we affix to such losers - plucky and gallant. No, just despairing.

We embrace the underdog for he speaks for us, the unknown and the unheard, trying to shake up football's established order, attempting to ensure this Cup is not a closed club. We casually say everyone can play football, we insist odds must be battled, and these teams have been our beautiful representatives in this argument.

Yet, paradoxically, we also pull for the favourite, for he represents the best of us. We find certainty reassuring, we are suckers for stars and the promise of magic. We want champions pushed to find their best yet not be bested. In the late stages of an event we want to see sport's finest at work, not one-match flukes who provide a mismatch.

Even as underdogs enriched this Cup, the favourites remind us what this Cup is - a month's journey, requiring pacing and peaking, no team great yet, but as great as they need to be right now. You can see at Wimbledon what you can in Sao Paulo, the second half of an event beginning and the tiny lifts in form.

It is not merely luck that the Germans, Dutch, French and Brazilians are through, but also belief, fitness, will, precision, experience, nerve, all in imperceptible proportions but together enough to tilt a match. They know how to win. Said Germany's Per Mertesacker, speaking with a defender's bluntness: "All that matters is we're in the quarter-finals."

Nigeria are not and goalkeeper Enyeama leaves but not only with sorrow. But with the memory of a moment from a week ago when he and Lionel Messi, both brilliant, reached out to each other mid-game with smiles on their faces. Underdog and favourite finding a shared respect.

Overnight, Messi collided with Switzerland. Perhaps he, another favourite, won. Perhaps it doesn't matter, for now I have my team for the next round. A land of five million, with unheralded footballers but over 1,000 types of butterflies and 50 species of hummingbirds.

Seems fitting then to say, hey, Costa Rica, fly for the underdogs.

We embrace the underdog for he speaks for us, the unknown and the unheard, trying to shake up football's established order. We casually say everyone can play football, we insist odds must be battled, and these teams have been our beautiful representatives.


This article was first published on JULY 2, 2014.
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