Revelling in sport

As Dunedin and the South gear up for the excitement of tonight's rugby test in the city, a sporting event in another league entirely kicked off yesterday.

The Football World Cup is mind-boggling in its size and its reach. Only the Olympics can compare.

The 20th Cup has begun well enough with hosts and favourite Brazil doing the business against Croatia.

There now follows a month of contests, culminating in the final on July 14.

The tournament snares the attention of most sports enthusiasts in New Zealand, even when football is not their particular passion. It is, simply, such a gigantic and popular event with premier athletes from many corners of the globe and especially South America and Europe. There is something special about an occasion when untold millions from every continent tune in.

Because football is truly a global sport, remote villages from the Himalayas to Ethiopia could well be watching at the same time as we do here. The governing body, Fifa, claims 46% of the world's people, 3.2 billion, viewed at least a minute of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

It also claims 270 million play or officiate in the sport, and its income from the finals is estimated to be nearly $US4.3 billion ($NZ4.9 billion). All the time, football continues to grow, having the advantage it can be played almost anywhere, for little outlay and with basic rules that are easy to understand.

Two dark clouds, however, hang over the extravaganza.

What could be a glorious opportunity to display the many wonders of Brazil could be tarnished by unrest and local bitterness. The depth and spread of feeling during demonstrations at last year's Confederations Cup surprised and shocked, and the authorities will be anxiously hoping for no repeats.

They will be pleased unrest the first night, following the Cup's opening, was sporadic and small-scale compared with the street parties and enthusiasm following Brazil's first-up win.

Preparing the country, the world's fifth largest in area and population, has spurred allegations of widespread evictions and heavy-handed and deadly police action. In a land of gaping wealth disparities and corruption, the cry has gone up that the about $US11 billion spent by Brazil to host the Cup should have had much better use. Fifa has made heavy demands on Brazil.

These, like those from the International Olympic Committee and the International Rugby Board, are becoming too much of a burden. Surely, both the financial requirements and the expectations can be toned down without losing the passion, purpose and popularity of these occasions.

Fifa is also facing fresh and specific accusations that bribery was the key to Qatar winning the rights to host the 2022 Cup.

Given Qatar's tiny size, its unbearable heat in June and July, being a football minnow and several other problems, the chances of it winning the prize fairly would seem to be as likely as a camel winning the Grand National. Likewise, the chances of a full and proper Fifa investigation, whatever it claims, are minuscule. Fifa, like the International Olympic Committee, is widely regarded as corrupt.

In that, it reflects our flawed species; while capable of fabulous feats, a dark side lurks.

Nonetheless, angst over what is wrong needs to be put aside for now as much of humanity revels in a month's distraction from the cares of the world. The football itself will have its heroes, villains, shocks, anguish, joy and drama. That is sport.

What a time it is for sports followers, both parochially and internationally. Just as the football begins to demands attention across many of its 64 matches, the United States Golf Open is under way in North Carolina.

Further south, in the Caribbean, the second West Indies-New Zealand cricket test starts next Tuesday, with high hopes again for further stellar performances from Otago players. And tonight, at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the All Blacks have the chance to continue their unbeaten run of 15 tests. It is a magnificent record. Can they continue to conquer all?

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