Well, the World Cup has ended and the people of Spain will be celebrating indefinitely. Rightly so, considering all of the blood, sweat and tears it takes to achieve a win like that. During it all, I couldn’t stop thinking about last weekend, when I sat in front of two very different football pitches that had one thing in common: the intense, heartfelt, awe-inspiring spirit of soccer.
The first pitch was a world class stadium sitting in the shadow of Table Mountain, about to host the Germany vs. Argentina quarter-final match. It was heavily guarded by every cop on the planet, filled with over 60,000 fans clutching their FIFA tickets, and was so beautiful I almost wanted to tell the players to be careful not to scuff it up.
Even before I took my seat, when I was just standing in front of it, the sheer magnitude of the stadium’s size dropped my jaw to the pavement. Something this big, this spectacular, would have only been built for an event worthy of its construction. This stadium was hosting history in the making.
That is what it felt like as I stood alongside thousands to welcome the flags of countries that have sweat and bled together in order to participate, as hundreds of cameras flashed and as the anthems – first Argentina’s, then Germany’s – rolled out in thundering patriotic waves.
The second pitch was a JL Zwane Football Club match held at a stadium in the township of Nyanga. With no signs in sight, and with no clue where the pitch was, my little brother and I parked our car at the police station after spotting a clearing across a hill. We figured that must be it, so we crossed the road, ran in the dust behind a row of tin shops and jumped the cement wall into piles of garbage. When we came over the hill, sure enough, a football pitch (the four guys watching the gate as security wondered how we got in, and when we pointed over to a low spot on the cement wall, they looked at us as if we were nuts).
It wasn’t something FIFA-certified and didn’t bear the likeness of a stadium at all; it was just a large, flat chunk of earth with goal posts. I didn’t stop to gaze in wonder. There were no anthems being sung.
One was hosting nations, the other hosting locals.
One was boasting Maradona, the coach who is arguably the greatest football player who has ever lived, the other was boasting a coach that most likely wouldn’t be known to anyone outside the township walls.
One had perfectly groomed turf and legions of spectators, the other had humble grass and a few dozen people on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
At first glance, it would be easy to surmise that one is better than the other. That one is greater.
But as I was watching the JL Zwane players – Anda, Xolani, Khanyisa, Mava – put every bit of strength behind that football, I recognized that there is an in-extractable spirit that blankets every true player. FIFA qualifier, township match player, international striker, native mid-fielder, it doesn’t matter.
The players who truly love the game play with the same amount of intensity and heart – no matter where they happen to be playing.
A true player of the world’s most international sport carries within them a spirit that outpaces the status we often peg it with.
A spirit that trips and falls if only to get that ball just a little bit further down the field. They shows up to train, train, train without the promise of applause. That translates into success on the field, past the white lines, and onto success in life.
So big stadium, small stadium – these details are beside the point. Every player I saw that weekend had one unmistakable thing:
an unwavering spirit that gives football its heart.
And it is that unwavering, international spirit that gave Spain its win yesterday. Congratulations, Spain!