We’re only three days into the World Cup, and already I’m tired of the drone. I speak not of the Vuzuvelas, but of the naysayers who dismiss the World Cup as being somehow xenophobic. Laurie Penny was at it last week, now quoted approvingly by fellow Orwell Prize nominee Madame Miaow. Even my friend Ste Curran was at it earlier, and I expected better from him.
These curmudgeons assume that any time two teams from different sides line up against each other, it is inherently warlike. They assume that whenever anyone chooses to support a team based purely on nationality, they are indulging in a form of blind patriotism akin to the worst excesses of political nationalism. And while the tone of these writings is, yes, a little knowing and light-hearted, I detect real sentiments of contempt in what they say. How strange that these writers cannot perceive the knowingness of the football fans at which they sneer, the tongue-in-cheek tone with which real sports fans approach their passion.
In particular, the charge of ‘patriotism’, or of any kind of ‘ugliness’ does not stand up to even the most cursory of examinations. Christ, you do not even need to go to South Africa to do this – the evidence is right there on the TV screens. See those idiot fans, cheering and leering behind the po-faced TV reporters? Look closely at their shirts, their face-paints, and you will see the colours of many teams, of many countries. The fun of a football tournament like the World Cup lies as much in the meeting of new people from distant shores, as it does in actually watching the game itself. The rowdy fans at Rustenberg and elsewhere know this – it is why they bother.
I think that it is precisely because football is “only a game” you find its purest form in the international competitions, not the club game. In the latter, I think the naysayers have a point – the excessive sums spent during tough economic times on ringers from overseas does seem obscene, bizarre and unsporting. By contrast, managers of national teams are limited in who they can pick. They cannot buy in new talent from elsewhere. In this sense, their situation is closer to the game as most of us play it – you’re stuck with whoever is available. At school, teams are usually organised arbitrarily along classroom divisions, or else by means of the dreaded ‘line-up’ so despised in the childhoods of the sportingly challenged. Either way, the talent pool is limited and the team is stuck with whoever they are given. In pub and amateur football (or any kind of team sport, really) you are similarly limited to whoever can get off work or out of bed in time for the 10:30 kick-off. Likewise in kids’ football, which tends to operate on a subscription model over which the person picking the team has zero control.
The fun of most sport, indeed, of most games, lies in these arbitrary constraints. We agree on some rules to abide by, and set ourselves other random constraints (such as the players, the cards, the dice)… and then we try our damnedest to win. The fact it is all made up; that we have chosen to spend our time like this; that the outcome does not actually matter to our lives one iota; that it is entirely and necessarily divorced from our day-to-day existence: That is where the ‘sport’ exists. The fact that it doesn’t matter is precisely the point, because it is an escape from things that do matter. Pointing out the futility of the exercise, usually by reference to the well worn “grown men kicking a pig’s bladder” cliche, is like the irritating snoot who tells everyone else how the magician does his tricks, thus spoiling the show.
Cheating in sport is despicable because it similarly breaks the suspension of disbelief in which the rest of us have colluded. Related, I think, is the way in which the obnoxious amounts of money spent on footballers’ transfer fees leaves a sour aftertaste: buying in new players seems like an attempt to rig the initial conditions. The presence of Kevin Pieterson in the England Cricket team makes many of us uneasy, despite his undoubted talent… because switching nationalities looks like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.
Football is so popular because most of us have the emotional intelligence to be able to buy in to the spectacle. The utter frivolity of what is at stake is the perfect excuse for a great big global party, in which people of all ages, from all continents and from all religions, can participate. The simplicity of the rules means literally everyone can understand what is going on. Yes, there have been idiots who use football as an excuse for violence… but the game was always the excuse, and not the cause of that particular type of stupidity. These men do not define the sport, and they are a dying breed. In their place steps an ever growing number of sports fans who just want to watch the game with their friends, old and new.
Are we wasting too much media attention on the unfoldings of a meaningless tournament in South Africa? I find it hard to be annoyed. Once every four years, the eyes of all of humanity turn towards the same place. Everyone, whether they like it or not, is distracted by the same thing. It is not religious, it is not violent, and it cannot be bought. Its a delightful phenomenon, one we should cherish.