Twelve years ago, Didier Drogba entered the Saatchi Gallery from the nearby Chelsea Ground to pose for photos with a troupe of Kathakali performers from Kerala on an exceptionally warm September evening in London. Soon, the former Ivory Coast and Chelsea football player was walking through the contemporary art gallery for additional pictures with actors Mohanlal and Dev Patel, who had come to promote a new Kerala tourism promotional film.
Gary Lineker, a former England striker and Gold Boot winner at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, was also present at the ceremony, which took place just one month after South Africa’s successful hosting of the first-ever FIFA World Cup on the African continent in 2010.
England’s elimination from the World Cup following a humiliating 4-1 loss to Germany in the second round was one of their worst tournament performances ever. Lineker mockingly raised his eyebrows when asked how the England team was doing and said, “Which England team?”
Football greats, movie stars, and Kathakali performers converging at a modern art venue, notwithstanding Lineker’s anger with his national team, highlighted the cultural diversity of the world. Football is the most watched sport in the world, with billions of fans, with players executing artistic and dance-like gestures while playing the game (this is also true of other sports like cricket, tennis, and athletics). Sports have now merged with culture in today’s society.
Two consecutive football world cups this century—the first in South Africa in 2010 and the second in Brazil four years later—have done more to establish sports as a cultural symbol. In the continent where the earliest humans roamed the globe, the first FIFA World Cup in Africa evolved into a celebration of humanity. Football fans were lining up in front of the Origins Centre Museum in Johannesburg to study the earliest inhabitants of the planet, perusing the Apartheid Museum, or strolling through the black township of Soweto, which was home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, when they weren’t watching games.
The Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) by Shakira from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa is the best world cup song ever. During the breaks between games, cheerleaders lined the stadium grounds, singing Waka Waka and distracting spectators from the opposition coaches who had been frantically rushing across the same area just seconds earlier.
The edition’s unofficial anthem, Wavin’ Flag by Somali-born musician K’naan, went even further, leaving a generation of people around the world with its ferocious lyrics, “They’ll call me freedom just like a wavin’ flag,” on their lips for years to come. The vuvuzela, the most well-known and annoying musical instrument created for a football game, was also created in South Africa in 2010.
With the help of a ball that took its name from a sleepy village close to the main world cup stadium in Soweto, the African World Cup infused its sporting spirit deeply into the ethnic diversity of the continent. The 2010 World Cup ball, which included 11 colours to represent a football team and as many official languages of South Africa, was named Jabulani, the neighbourhood where the apartheid regime built hostels to house unmarried black males in the 1970s. Many football supporters continue to hold the opinion that the world cup would still be in Africa if Luis Suárez hadn’t committed a heartbreaking handball that prevented Ghana from defeating Uruguay in the quarterfinals.