21 July 2010

An Okay Performance 不過不失的一埸

The World Cup is over. Finished. The End.

Now that the soccer circus has left town and the blare of the vuvuzela is no longer ringing in our ears, we can’t help but feel a little lost. I am not talking about that sense of emptiness we get when something spectacular has finally come to an end, like finishing a great vacation or learning your best friend is moving to California. Instead, it feels more like watching a firework rocket into the sky, explode and then realizing that it is merely good but not great. Okay lah, as we Hong Kongers would say.

Calling this World Cup a bore or a disappointment would have been too harsh. To be fair, there was no shortage of twists and turns, surprising upsets and reversals of fortune. Who could have predicted that past champions France and Italy would crash out after the second round in such public disgrace? Even the once invincible Brazilians became suddenly beatable, losing 1-2 to The Netherlands in the quarter-finals. But as much as the suspension of disbelief kept our adrenaline rush going, this World Cup has left many a soccer fan unsatisfied, especially those who have been around long enough to remember what it was like to watch the spectacle in the 70s and 80s, with moments so beautiful that they alternately hushed the audience and roused it to a frenzy. As if to prove that none of the star players nowadays is deserving of his celebrity status, Paul the Psychic Octopus, trapped in an aquarium thousands of miles away, stole the show without so much as a kick or a header.

So what’s changed? The world today is a very different place than it was three, four decades ago. During the Cold War era, the notion of friends and foes, us versus them was much more clear cut. Back then international sporting events like the World Cup were as much emotionally charged as they were symbolically significant. But much of that last century romance disappeared when the Eastern Bloc fell, and the world slowly realigned itself into an ever-shifting balance of power among the United States, Europe and China. Perhaps the World Cup would have been more exhilarating if other “Axis of Evil” regimes were to join North Korea in the tournament against the terrorist-fighting West. A playoff between Iran’s Jihadists and America’s Freedom Fighters would have been an epic battle between good and evil worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Technological advancement and mobility of players – spurred by intense inter-league trading – have also changed the game of soccer by leveling the playing field across the globe. Countries can now study each other, learn from each other and, much to soccer fans’ dismay, play like each other. The painfully robotic Germans, for instance, are now able to work the field as gracefully as the Argentineans, whereas the South Koreans these days often display traces of samba football once found only in sweltering Brazil. As styles merge and nationalities blur, the signature moves and quirky antics that make a team instantly recognizable are slowly becoming a thing of the past. And the World Cup that used to draw us in and blow us away has given way to a series of safe and predictable plays, stuff that belongs to the “okay lah” category alongside the Olympics and the Oscars.

But don’t tell that to the Spaniards or the South Africans. First-time champion Spain has obvious reasons to celebrate and for a few days citizens could legitimately take their minds off unemployment and national debt. Just as excited, South Africans patted themselves on the back for throwing a coming-out party without a hitch, making skeptics who warned of violent crime and other calamities look like a bunch of party poopers. While commentators continue to debate how much of the World Cup money will trickle down to the 50% of the South African population living below the poverty line, World Cup 2010 has already paid off by lifting the spirit of a nation still trotting down the arduous road to reconciliation after a half-century of apartheid. Nothing captures Nelson Mandela’s call to “forget and forgive” better than pictures of black South Africans waving the Dutch flags during the final match in support of their former white oppressors. That must be what they mean by the healing power of sports.

I have never been a big fan of any spectator sports. Still it wasn’t difficult for me to get into the World Cup spirit in Hong Kong. Here, the quadrennial event is much more than a soccer tournament; it is a high-stake enterprise. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, the dubiously “non-profit” organization that enjoys a legal monopoly over soccer betting, raked in a multi-billion dollar windfall from the 52-game tournament, especially given the large number of surprising results in this World Cup. And in the zero-sum game of soccer gambling, the Jockey Club made its fortune on the backs of grassroots citizens lured by the prospects of winning millions simply by picking the color of the team uniform. And that’s not even counting illegal gambling, a bourgeoning social problem in Hong Kong that spikes with every major soccer tournament broadcast in the city. In the weeks and months ahead, news stories of cash-strapped citizens driven to self-destruction by bookies and loan sharks will begin to surface. Just a few days ago, I read an article in a local newspapers about a problem gambler who lost $100,000, many times his monthly salary, in a single World Cup quarter-final match. It was then I realized that no matter how dull and unexciting the World Cup becomes, we can always count on the addictive power of gambling to bring us back to that SoHo sports bar in the dead of night every four years.


  1. Hi Jason,

    in your memory the grass must be greener, the weather better and the sky bluer.:-)

    This tournament in SA was exciting with a new winner on a new continent than in the past years. the best team with superb players could have taken the trophy home - unlike last tournament where Italy played one nice game and won the championship.

    You learnt that you cannot win if

    1) you came to the tournament with old names like Italy
    2) you play alone w/o a team around you like Messy or Ronaldo
    3) if you make your style to play more efficient but no inspiration like Brazil.

    What really amazing was that a young team w/o much experience but with hunger and determination could have achieved so much: German players will get soon their impact on soccer back.

    So from this view it has been an extraordinary tournament!


  2. You really don't like Italy, do you? I have never been a big fan of either Italy or France. I think Brazil and Germany are still the two strongest teams in the world.


  3. Hi Jason,

    As usual, another article worth the reading....

    In Hong Kong - for this World Cup event...what's changed (not mentioned) for this self-proclaimed Asia's World City is the introduction of animation pictures of how soccer match is played and how players scored in still TV images - is a mockery to HongKongers. The soccer fans in Hong kong is at total loss and despair for their usual free TV viewing rights. Petitions from them are given a deaf ear.

    The dismay on TV screens - all team players looked alike with each goal scored fictioned by computer program without a name to the face. What a shame! Incredible.

    Leave aside the licensing contracts deadlock among the TV stations and the non-intervention of HK Government Broadcasting Licensing in a free civilized society, this World Cup will be long remembered in Hong Kong history as a memorable one for breakthrough in pioneering animation and a few still images on screen. Even for the few final games, some restrictions were still imposed.

    Wonder what's in the minds of the city's top sports officials who are trying to promote the city with world sports' events and to host an upcoming Asian Games.


  4. Laced with a genuine beam on my face as I ravish your new penned scoop with utter delight, I can say I don't want to belong to saddos' side by treating the whole thing a so-so. On the whole, the entertainment I gained from the whole thing is engaging, that at some point, I came to understand why domestic violence rise in England during this sporting event by merely seeing myself act on my adrenaline...


  5. Hi Martie,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Incidentally, I wrote a paragraph on the broadcasting issue in Hong Kong but it didn't make the cut in the final edit. It now seems clear to me that many of us still feel raw about the issue.

    It was TVB that introduced the "3D animation". And so blame it on TVB. I disagree with those who vilified iCable for not "sharing" the broadcasting right with the two free networks, TVB and ATV. It's NOT iCable's fault they TVB and ATV were out-bid in the bidding process. We certainly can't expect iCable to spend a fortune to get the right, only to have to share it with its competitors. Perhaps the bidding process is at fault, but I certainly don't think iCable is to blame.



  6. A good analysis like always.

    My comments about this article, this is more than an okay performance. More than entertainment. :)

    Because without realizing it creates value, we learn something from the unpredictable situation, how the word impossible is nothing works, learn about the other country.

    In my experience when I enjoy the entertainment, my reason is just to not only watch, but also why I have to watch it. What is the value that I can get? :)

    This can be an example for those who work in the entertainment industry, they can think about what we want to deliver to the audience. Not just pop culture entertainment.

    As Jason said for soccer fans, they will talk about this in the few years later. I agree because in my opinion what they get is not only the spectacular entertainment but also the experience. It sells, influence people and change the behavior cause only in the World Cup Time, they go to SoHo sports bar in the dead of night every four years, enjoying the euphoria. Not only SoHo, but also many places in the world.

    Only one moment. An okay performance that control people in the world every four years.


  7. Jason,

    what do you want to tell me with your comment on my comment? LOL
    Did you understand my comment. The best team has taken the trophy home and the best team was Spain!




  8. Hi Jason

    This is yr 1st article that I read. Enjoyed it a lot - tho not a soccer fans & am amazed at the coverage of so many diverse issues. Read a few other older posts afterwards and love them all.
    Look forward to seeing sth in Chinese?!


  9. Jason,

    Haha, your opening line made it sound as it the World Cup is doomed. Maybe it is? Having caused less-than-expected excitement amongst the soccer fans (I think the people in my office behaved a lot more normally than the one back in 2002, I certainly don't have to work that hard during the World Cup weeks back then !!!!) I agreed with you that the folks weren't as exhilarated about the entire thing, whether in the office or amongst my circle of friends and generally even the comments overheard in the streets. Maybe they were more thralled with the octopus, and the World Cup itself has degenerated to an"ok lah" status compared against it. I have to say I am surprised at the performance of the teams too. I have never been a devout soccer fan but the results I caught in the morning news often astounded me.

    I like you analogy between the rivalry between the countries / states now with the combat on the football fields. Originally the Olympic Games started off to unite the nation states in sports. Somehow I don't see that spirit nowadays, whether in the Olympic Games or in the World Cup. I could be wrong, but what I saw in the Olympic Games (perhaps less so in the World Cup) was that individuals were sent to the sports field to battle (or perish) for the country, it is as if the countries (particularly China, North Korea and the like) breed them for that sole purpose alone and hardly recognizing that they are normal homo sapiens apart from a sports machine. I don't even know whether the World Cup now is to breed the country's team or the individual football stars (and for them to bring in the advertising revenue??? See the panes outside Giorgio Armani in Chater House ) or for the sport itself. I saw that demarcation being blurred too(or am I too "humanistic" a creature and tried to infuse this in everything that cross my path?) .

    And you are right, the enthusiasm for the World Cup is waning like people's eagerness for the Oscars. As for predictability - think the people are predicting on the behaviourial patterns of Paul the octopus this time round more than the team that will score a goal !!! (though the outcome for the game may not be different). Just as the people were betting on which actress will sport the most revealing dress down the red carpet.

    Here's the skeptical me again: I don't believe ANY of the World Cup money will trickle down to those below the poverty line. But then again, had this been held anywhere else in the world, would it have that effect? Or are the people just happy enough that their country has been put back on the map in the minds of people around the world whenever the World Cup or major international events get mentioned? That was a touching moment, the black South Africans waving the Dutch flag. Much as I like (and probably need) as lot of Japanese items I don't quite see myself waving a Japanese flag in support if the final game is one between Japan and another country.

    I think the gambling issue in HK is quite mortifying though, and addictive it certainly is. To raise one's hope and dash it as a porcelain vase onto the floor, and how many more happy families are ruined just because of their senseless gambling with the Jockey Club literally riding on their backs? You can say they ask for it, and discipline has to be learnt, but should the other innocent members of the families also learn with the losing gamblers and pay their price? It is not a pretty picture at all. We are not talking about loan sharks conservation here, right ?

    Enough ramblings, and thanks for another interesting piece to keep me sane and alive as usual.



    1. To: Christine

      You wrote:

      "Enough ramblings, and thanks for another interesting piece to keep me sane and alive as usual."

      I can not imagine what kind of life you are living in Hong Kong If a little article by Jason here can keep you sane and alive.

      Jason, "The golden boy" of your set, must have some kind of magical power over you.

      There is a whole world out there. You need to get out of the circle of fancy people you hanging out with and see what is out there in the real world.

      You probably are one of those always say, "I have Chinese friends in our office".

      From: Mo Ming See