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In Good Conscience

Faiz defies gravity as World Cup hopes float

Eat your heart out David Beckham. From now on, it's Bend it Like Mohd Faiz Subri.

Truly, when Fifa talks about the dream of football, when the money men in Zurich expand the World Cup and tell us their motive is to spread aspiration to untouched parts of the globe, we know the greater message is to push half a billion more US dollars through their till.

But when a little-known Malaysian footballer steps up to receive the Puskas Award for the best goal of 2016 (and to be handed it by Ronaldo de Lima, one of the greatest scorers of all time), the message really is that anyone, from almost anywhere can do it.

I was probably sleeping last February when Faiz hit that 35m free kick, making it swerve with gravity-defying trajectory into the top right corner of the net in Penang.

You, of course, saw it on television or YouTube. To the rest of us the Faiz goal on the big screen was sheer wonder.

So, too, were the moments when the Malaysian, who apparently is not guaranteed a starting spot with Penang, fumbled with his mobile phone, trying to locate his acceptance address to the football world.

Malaysian footballer Mohd Faiz Subri (right) greeting supporters at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport after winning the Puskas Award The 29-year-old Penang forward has never started for his national team.
Malaysian footballer Mohd Faiz Subri (right) greeting supporters at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport after winning the Puskas Award The 29-year-old Penang forward has never started for his national team. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When a little-known Malaysian footballer steps up to receive the Puskas award for the best goal of 2016, the message really is that anyone, from almost anywhere can do it.

Marvellous, marvellous theatre. No doubt the truest words Faiz said were how hard he practises free kicks, but they rarely go in in front of the cameras.

The name on the trophy belonged to a fabulous, mercurial Hungarian, Ferenc Puskas, whose goals lit up the 1950s and 1960s. I don't know Faiz, but I did know Puskas, and I know that he could never explain (nor needed to) what made the ball obey his touch.

Cristiano Ronaldo has previously won the Puskas award; Lionel Messi has yet to do so. That shows the magnitude of what Faiz did in Penang.

Singapore stands 165th among Fifa's 212 teams. Malaysia (No. 161) is not very far ahead, but even if it were a contender for the enlarged World Cup Fifa plans for 2026, talent is one thing, achievement another.

Faiz has a prize nobody can take away. But he hasn't started one national team game, and he is 29 years old.

It's a moment in life, an inspiration if ever there was one, yet fleeting. Some might say freakish.

Back to Gianni Infantino's expansion of the Fifa World Cup, from 32 to 48 finalists.

It is horse trading, and we know it. Infantino made a promise to the presidents of the national associations that, if they voted him into office, there would be more in it for every one of them.

More inclusion. More hard cash, because while Mr President swears that finance is not the motive, Fifa accountants reckon that television will cough up hundreds of millions more. And more again from the sponsors (those multi-national giants who did not abandon Fifa after last year's FBI and Swiss fraud squad raids).

Infantino did not invent buying votes for his presidency. Blatter was a master of it, and Blatter learnt it from his mentor, Joao Havelange, the Fifa overlord from 1974 to 1998.

Havelange opened up football as the global Goliath of sports. He had the idea, together with the Dassler family who ran adidas, of a golden triangle of sport-TV-sponsorship. The International Olympic Committee, which also counted the Brazilian Havelange as a top table member, followed suit.

If the money pool becomes an ocean, what better use of the surplus than to hand it around. If only the share out reached the grassroots projects that the 212 football associations are supposed to oversee, splendid.

They could pay hundreds of good teachers like Aleksandar Duric, whose roots go back to the Serbian school of football and whose job is coaching 750 children at the ActiveSG Football Academy, to pass on what they know to the next generation - nowadays girls as well as boys.

Except that few do prioritise teaching in this way. It is the long route, the extremely long, hard, un-guaranteed path to allow Singapore (why not) to dream of taking the stage at a World Cup.

However the expanded World Cup shapes up is in the hands of Infantino and his fellow administrators, the bartering for places might double Africa or Asia's numbers at the grand bash. The rights to host tournaments, if the whole concept is not too damaged after Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, is up for grabs.

But the expansion limits the numbers of nations capable of hosting not simply the matches in a dozen stadiums, but providing training facilities for 48 national squads.

The United States, whose corrupted official Chuck Blazer collaborated with the FBI to blow the whistle on the Fifa gang in hope of ameliorating his pending jail sentence for defrauding the American tax authority, is the favourite to stage the first bloated World Cup in 2026.

Insiders suggest that maybe the United States will share the load with Canada and, depending on the Trump Wall, possibly even Mexico.

Further down the line, China could be a candidate to host an expanded World Cup. But would China reach those Finals? It is taking another route to lifting its game, importing Brazilians and the like at obscene expense to play in its Super League.

You might think that China, with more than a billion people to choose from, can in time find 11 men to represent the nation. If not, don't doubt that the state will pay what it takes to "naturalise" some of the imports in just the way that Qatar has done to lift its own team, and that, for Heaven's sake, even Timor Leste did a few years back recruiting Brazilians to wear the shirt of the team they call "The Rising Sun".

If the dream is worth the candle, raising sons the homegrown way is surely better than buying in some other country's surplus. That may be approved by Fifa's; it shouldn't be the way of the world.

Faiz is not the only dreamer out there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2017, with the headline 'Faiz defies gravity as World Cup hopes float'. Print Edition | Subscribe