Events deep in the bowels of the Chiang Rai mountains in northern Thailand could not be furthest from Moscow but come this Sunday, the ultimate crown in world football would already have been universally awarded to the brave band of international rescuers who saved a team of lucky, plucky boys from what could have been a watery grave.
FOOTBALL is both an anathema when it comes to good behaviour and amity amongst disparate nationalities judging by regular reports of rowdy behaviour at the terraces especially when European football is in season. On the other hand, this most popular game in the world (because it is played by the most number of people on this earth) can be a bottomless well of goodwill in times of unimaginable trouble and greatest need.
How else do you explain the drive, devotion and derring-do that brought together a team of divers, cavers and potholers – some of whom sacrificing their northern hemisphere summer sojourn, united by the call to save lives as drama unfolded far away in tropical Thailand?
The disparate individuals somehow gelled from amongst complete strangers, each with specially honed skills in the unique pursuit of crawling and climbing in caves and clambering into granite crevasses and limestone potholes. Their passion is orienteering in rocky labyrinths while mapping new passages and opening tunnel routes deep underground – claustrophobes need not apply.
For almost three weeks, the world’s media attention was focused on the foothills of the Doi Nang Non mountain range in Chiang Rai province located in northern Thailand as the lives of the team that calls itself the Wild Boars – football players aged between 11 and 16 shepherded by their 25-year-old coach was hanging in the balance.
The team had bicycled their way to the foot of the mountains after a football training session and decided to explore the caves, hoping the jaunt would last just about an hour. But as they explored further inside, they could not turn back due to rising waters as it became inundated due to the seasonal rains.
The alarm was raised by one of the boy’s parents when her son failed to return home.
So began the international SOS and the start of a multi-national rescue effort.
For the world’s television stations hungry for human drama, this was manna from heaven. Undeterred by being cut off from the activity below-ground, viewers were presented blow-by-blow account of the rescue by the clever use of augmented reality technology.
One can safely say that the unfolding drama from the depths of the earth had somewhat stolen the thunder from the World Cup which by then had entered its knockout stages.
Footballing giants Germany, Argentina, Spain, Portugal and Brazil had suffered ignominious exits leaving the stage clear for a battle for European bragging rights led by Belgium; together with former champions France and England, and an unlikely Croatia as tiny interloper fighting out for the right to contest the final on Sunday.
In the event, France edged Belgium while England bowed to the mercurial Croatians.
With one eye on the sweat of the semi-final while the other on events in far-away Thailand, the FIFA hierarchy – in this post Sepp Blatter era; quickly jumped in to offer to fly the Wild Boar pack to Moscow to watch the final to spur on the rescue effort.
That offer may or may not have played on the minds of the dive team but rescue the kids they did.
The football connection drew on the multi-national makeup – in both the combatants on the World Cup stage in Russia and the rescue team beavering away in the belly of Don Nang Non in Thailand.
The World Cup tournament started in mid-June with five African teams but all were eliminated before the semi-final stage.
But hang on – Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia may have been consigned to an early bath in Moscow but the blood of Africa runs deep in racial makeup of players representing France, Belgium and England. The legacy of colonialism means these teams have many second and third generation players with African roots in their line-up.
Come Sunday, should eventual finalist France beat Croatia and become Champion Du Monde, much of Africa would join in the celebrations. The international squad which rescued the Wild Boars already know that feeling. *The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.