How Will the United States Fare in the World Cup’s Group of Death?

The stadium scene.
Dec. 6 2013 7:30 PM

Pingpong Balls, Security Guards, and Groups of Death

FIFA dreams of a peaceful, united World Cup at the draw ceremony in Brazil. Plus: How will the USA fare?

Final Draw of the Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup
FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke shows the paper reading the name of Ecuador during the final draw of the Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup, in Costa do Sauipe, Bahia state, Brazil, on Dec. 6, 2013.

Photo by Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Nelson Mandela's last major public appearance came on July 11, 2010, at the World Cup final in Soweto. Wrapped up against the bitter cold in a long black coat and fur hat, he perched stiffly on the back of a golf cart that emerged from the tunnel and made a brief circuit around the middle of the field. You couldn't deny the thrill you felt at seeing this world figure among us: He hadn't been on the VIP list, nobody knew whether he was going to come, but he'd made it. And yet, something about it felt wrong.

We all knew that in 1995, Mandela had presided at the Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park. At Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum, a photo exhibition of Mandela's life culminates in the picture of him in the Springbok jersey and cap, handing the Webb Ellis Cup to South Africa's Boer captain, Francois Pienaar. It's the single most famous image of the racial reconciliation he inspired. 

By the time the soccer World Cup final took place in South Africa, Mandela was a week short of his 92nd birthday. He wasn't strong enough to take any meaningful part in the proceedings. He couldn't stay to watch the match. He could hardly lift his arm to wave. 

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Mandela's grandson, Mandla, had revealed on the morning of the final that the family had “come under extreme pressure from FIFA requiring and wishing that my grandfather be at the final today.” Everybody knew the family had been in mourning since the death of Mandela's 13-year-old great-granddaughter, Zenani, in a car accident on the eve of the tournament. 

So that night it looked as though FIFA's craving for a Pienaar moment had superseded concern for the welfare of an old man. As Mandela's golf cart reached the sideline, FIFA President Sepp Blatter swooped amid a blaze of flashbulbs to seize his gloved hand. Nobody remembers the photographs.

Blatter was talking again about his “dear friend” before today's World Cup draw in Bahia, Brazil. "He has been the President of the last World Cup in Africa," Blatter said. "He's still the World Cup today, because it's not yet finished. So it's just a sign, a big sign, coming from the heaven, that he's just dying at the moment when the new World Cup is starting."

Blatter didn't show his workings on that one, but it's not his style to do so. For instance: "[Mandela] and I shared an unwavering belief in the extraordinary power of football to unite people in peace and friendship, and to teach basic social and educational values as a school of life." Today, Blatter called for a minute's silence for Mandela at the draw, then interrupted the silence after just a few seconds to call for applause.

The game's extraordinary power to unite people in peace and friendship is not shared by its governing body. Brazil has simmered with social unrest since the huge protests at the time of the Confederations Cup, and the new World Cup stadiums have come to be seen as symbols of endemic corruption. FIFA says it has come to Brazil to have a party, but it's taking no chances with the security arrangements. 3,600 armed guards were deployed to watch over the draw. There were three armed guards for every four accredited guests. 

Foreign media have speculated that the protest movement could disrupt the World Cup. It seems unlikely, because what Blatter says about football is true, in a shallow way. Anyone who has been to a major football tournament will have seen how the host country tends to succumb to the collective dream. Most people are inclined to have a good time, and tournaments are a great way to do that. They don't solve any problems, and the sense of euphoria and unity quickly fades—but by the time that happens, FIFA will be safely back in Zurich plotting Russia 2018.

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