HEADY HIGH: The World Cup still evokes unparalleled euphoriaIn a scene from the cup, the first Bhutanese film to be sent to the Oscars, the Abbot of a monastery makes tea as his assistant tries to explain why the student monks must be allowed to hire a TV and watch,HEADY HIGH: The World Cup still evokes unparalleled euphoriaIn a scene from the cup, the first Bhutanese film to be sent to the Oscars, the Abbot of a monastery makes tea as his assistant tries to explain why the student monks must be allowed to hire a TV and watch the 1998 World Cup final:It’s the World Cup.What’s that?Two civilised nations fighting over a ball.What do they get out of all this?They get a cup.A cup … Mmmm.The abbot pours the tea and looks into his cup.As every World Cup approaches, its appeal becomes more and more difficult to pin down, and so it is with 2002. Yes, the players are, if not injured, completely dog-tired, the eight-month European football season having just ended. And no, much like beauty queens, footballers cannot bring world peace.Professional club football has taken passionate local loyalties and gone global with TV and marketing. The football industry sticks price tags on its precious commodities and trades them like copper or cotton: the “world record” for the highest transfer fee has been broken five times in the past three years, and leapt by 8 million pounds (Rs 57 crore) in 12 months last year to 45.62 million pounds.Footballers are pushed to play more in club league, cup and continental competition because the appetite for football cannot be sated. The corruption scandal inside FIFA, the sport’s governing body, adds to the cocktail of payouts and compromises.In real terms, a football team usually means little else to a nation other than a pennant: to be either waved about with pride, like with Brazil, or to be packed away, like with India, content to be second-graders and spectators.advertisementASIAN STAGEClick here to EnlargeBut the World Cup still engages our imagination. As pro-football crosses continents cheque books aflash, glitzier and more demanding by the day, it appears the World Cup has mined a richer vein of passion than it did before.After they won the 1998 World Cup, the French football team declared that it belonged to a new Rainbow Republic. When rightwing politician Jean Marie Le Pen (who had scof fed at the multi-ethnic team saying the players would not know the words of the French national anth-em)-emerged as a presidential candidate last month, captain Marcel Desailly (of Ghanian descent) fronted his team’s protests demanding that his countrymen undo “the evil”. The French gathered in South Korea today are a formidable mass of talent and intent, an entity larger than its individual parts.It is a role 2002’s other favourites, Argentina, must try to play. Their country’s economic crisis-unemployment climbing, bank accounts frozen-has struck deep at the heart of its national esteem. Striker Gabriel Batistuta understands: “All we can do is bring them a little joy. We can’t find them a job.” The team called Los Celestes (the Celestial Ones) were men possessed during Cup qualifiers, losing only once in 18 matches.Argentina has always considered itself an outpost of Europe, but now as a Buenos Aires sports commentator says gloomily, “This catastrophe has made us realise what we really are. This team is our only remaining link to the first world.” The players juggle public expectation with long-range perspective, midfielder Ariel Ortega saying, “What we face is not pressure. Pressure is what parents face at the end of the month when the money runs out.”More and more, it is the footballers who-between outbreaks of physical poetry and childish petulance-speak for their big stage as eloquently as the amused abbot of The Cup.Fan Zhiyi, the first Chinese player to play in Europe, was offered a raise by his English club on the condition that he wouldn’t take too much time off to play World Cup qualifiers. Zhiyi chose China, fell out with his club, and now plays in Scotland on a lower salary. When he helped China qualify for 2002, the first time ever, Fan broke into a fit of weeping.Sublime Italian striker Roberto Baggio changed seven clubs in a 20-year career. He was recently asked, three World Cups on, why he so desperately wanted to play in a fourth. Baggio said it was because he got a chance to pull on his national jersey: “It’s the only shirt I really feel is truly mine.”In the era of the big buck and the mega-deal, the World Cup reminds us there still are some things that cannot be bought.