FIFA World Cup Germany 2006It was the autumn of 2001 in a Naples pizzeria. When a customer pointed to the faded posters on their walls, the two men manning the counters froze. The posters featured the city’s football team SSC Napoli, circa the late 1980s, when it had won its,FIFA World Cup Germany 2006It was the autumn of 2001 in a Naples pizzeria. When a customer pointed to the faded posters on their walls, the two men manning the counters froze. The posters featured the city’s football team SSC Napoli, circa the late 1980s, when it had won its first league title and a UEFA Cup.The most recognisable face on the posters was that of Diego Maradona, who was the heart of the team that had put the poor, unfashionable, much-maligned southern Italian city at the top of Europe’s glamour leagues. For eight years, Maradona had been Napoli’s inspirational, adopted son and naturally, the customer wanted to talk football.The younger of the two men said, “It was a long time ago,” smiling so as not to sound offensive but ready to change the subject. The older, with thinning hair and a face red from hours in front of the oven, muttered, “I wish he’d never come.” Slapping a pizza down with some force in front of the confused customer, he said, “I wish he’d never come-because he showed us what we could be.”This is what football can sometimes do. A sport, a lark, a kick about in a park can become the making of a city, a nation or a man. Other sports may have this effect on scattered nations but only one has such power over the entire globe.If our planet had to send only one representative to an inter-galactic sports expo, it would have to be a football player. And black, white, pink or sallow, rich, poor or just middling, we could all root for him. (Look, alien punks, no hands…).advertisementAIR LIFT: One sport has the power to move the worldThe redemptive powers of football are best contemplated before the World Cup begins, before the cynical, crunching tackles take over. Already the people of debutant African nations have been shown what they could be.Soccer stayed alive in Angola during a 27-year-long civil war, which began with its independence from Portugal in 1975 and ended just before the 2002 World Cup. Today, Angola may find itself on a watchdog list of the 10 most corrupt nations on earth, but its Palancas Negras (Black Impalas) have put it on the only list that matters this year.Angola’s equal footing alongside the US and Japan has been earned through honest sweat. On June 11, Angola is to play its opening match, in an improbable coincidence, against its old colonial ruler Portugal. At its first-ever World Cup, Angola is a country both free and united.In the Ivory Coast, they are still fighting, divided between north and south, Christian and Muslim. Their World Cup squad has Muslim and Christian and is drawn from north and south. After they qualified, captain Didier Drogba (who now has a drink and dance named after him) went down on his knees in the dressing room to lead a prayer, asking his countrymen for “forgiveness” and peace. In 2000, the country’s military ruler had held the squad in detention for two days, taking away their passports and cell phones because of an early knockout from the African Nations’ Cup.As the Ivorians will testify, pressure has many forms and today even the blithe Ronaldinho must feel it. Every four years, one man becomes the embodiment of football, of its capacity to realign the boundaries of possibility and the definition of beauty. In Germany, it is the big-toothed 26-yearold Brazilian whose art is tribute to both Pele and Pegasus.Ronaldinho says standing before a Salvador Dali canvas a year ago gave clarity to his game, “You have to have imagination, you have to be able to think before others… My imagination comes from being with a ball and wanting to do something new, like Dali, for the first time.” At his club Barcelona, he talks often of the opportunity to make people happy. So he turns his cramped, cut-throat, bruising workplace into an open space filled with sunshine and air.Ronaldinho appears far from world-weary, nourishing a lightness of spirit and loftiness of heart. That is perhaps the greatest of his skills, the reason why it is he who has almost unconsciously been chosen to show us what we can be.