Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am

I've got a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good, good night. Whatever the outcome, a new world soccer champion will be crowned. Let's hope Spain and the Netherlands put on a show worthy of a World Cup final.

So far, these have been the two countries that have best embodied what the Beautiful Game is all about. Once upon a time, that buoyant spirit was shown proudly by Brazil. But the samba has long been stamped out of Brazilian soccer and, these days, the magical skills are just a memory.

It's a crying shame. Other team sports have also had a particular country that used to be the exemplar of how the game should be played. In rugby sevens, we always believed Fiji played the game the way the gods intended. And for a long time, the West Indian brand of 'calypso cricket' lifted the soul.

Sport played in this joyous, carefree fashion always drew admirers. We will always have a special place in our hearts for Viv Richards, the West Indian batsman, whose elegant play was a joy to watch. Just watching him walk out nonchalantly to take guard was a treat in itself.

It is the same with sevens legend Waisale Serevi, who has given Hong Kong fans many memorable moments. His cheeky goose-step, which left defenders clutching at thin air, and his vision made him untouchable in his prime. He played with a smile on his face and joy in his heart.

Brazil also brought smiles to the faces of the team's fans worldwide - once upon a time. Not anymore. Today the South American powerhouse is in mourning. Lucio and his team had hoped to add another star to the five on their shirts, but they failed miserably, beaten by the delightful Dutch.

On the eve of the World Cup, I met former Brazilian midfielder Zico when he made a stopover in Hong Kong. He, like many others, was critical of Dunga's approach to the game and said he would rather watch Spain than Brazil.

It's a pretty damning indictment coming from the man known as the 'White Pele'. The days when Pele enthralled fans with his virtuoso skills are long gone. Even when Zico played - he turned out at three World Cups (1978, 1982, and 1986) - Brazil dazzled. But as he said, the fact that he never won a World Cup medal and the failure of the 'class of 1982' - widely regarded as one of the best Brazil produced - were instrumental in the sea change in attitude.

Function over flair is the order of today. Style was shelved for results.

'I believe the reason Brazil chose to play the way they do today is a result of our failure in 1982 to lift the World Cup,' Zico said.

Brazil decided their players also had to play like programmed robots. Dunga, a midfielder in his heyday, went for a record-extending sixth World Cup title with a game based on rock-solid defence, counter-attacks and set pieces. Brazil looked more like Germany.

Traditional invention was forsaken for coached coherence. Intuitive skills were ironed out. We had such high hopes that players like Kaka (pictured) and Robinho would follow in the tradition of the greats, but they were poor shadows of their predecessors.

This is what happens when the joy is leached out of the players by the system. When you don't play with a smile in your heart, you tend to become afraid - afraid of losing.

We have seen many teams at this World Cup who played with fear in their hearts. They have all been weeded out. Brazil, the team who most neutrals support, has also fallen on the scrapheap of history. Then more the pity Brazil chose to adopt a utilitarian approach. Let's just hope the outcome will see Brazilian soccer get back to its roots. It needs to do so for the sake of the game.

If Brazil failed, so did Africa. Teams from this continent also show plenty of flair and are good to watch. But even though Shakira sang This time for Africa, their time is still to come.

Pele said an African nation would win the World Cup soon after the turn of the century. He was a superb footballer, but he would make a poor prophet. His prediction has never materialised.

Ghana went the closest. It would have been great if the team had managed to hold its nerve, but it failed to become the first African team to reach the semi-finals thanks to the blatant foul by Luis Suarez, who stopped Kevin-Prince Boateng's header on the line with the score deadlocked at 1-1.

Suarez has been treated as a hero for his handball. But it was a disgraceful act. Suarez cheated and his team prospered because the ensuing penalty was missed.

Fifa should look at ways to penalise players who deliberately cheat. Suarez got a red card. He deserved more. The message his act sent out to millions of kids was that cheating is OK.

Suarez's cheating denied Ghana the chance to keep the African flame alive. At the end of the day, Ghana buckled under the pressure and lost out on the penalty kicks.

But the legacy of this World Cup can still be a testament to playing the game beautifully. We have two sides - Spain and the Netherlands - who can weave magic.

With Andres Iniesta at the centre of Spain's probing passing game and Arjen Robben spearheading the Dutch attack, we are set for a fitting finale.

Cup finals are normally drab, tense affairs as sides don't want to take unnecessary risks. Let's hope this is not the case tonight, and that flair rules over fear. It would be the perfect message to Brazil that the old ways are best.