Its Only A Game

My thoughts on why the World Cup is not xenophobic caused a good debate, here and at Liberal Conspiracy.  I think the public response to our national team’s dire performance yesterday backs up my view that football fans (even England fans) know all too well that “its only a game” and that xenophobia is rare, unwelcome and marginalised.

In particular, the consensus that Germany were by far the better team and deserved to win, despite Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal.  The ignorant patriot would hold that this mistake by the referee cost England the game, but apart from our Italian manager Fabio Capello, no-one is advancing that argument.  In fact, the effect of the denied goal has actually been to remind us of the 1966 goal-mouth incident, where Geoff Hirst was awarded a goal by the Azerbaijani (not Russian) linesman.  The merest hint of a suggestion that maybe there is a possibility that perhaps Hirst’s ricochet did not actually entirely cross the line used to be one of our nation’s most cherished shibboleths.  Yet after the game, the idea that Lampard’s bad luck was karmic payback for Hirst’s good fortune is common currency: Richard Williams analysis in The Guardian takes this line, and echos may of the tweets I read yesterday evening.  This is not the attitude of a xenophobic nation.  Rather, it is an aquiesence to Law 5 of the game that says that the referee’s decision is final, even if it is wrong.  A commitment to the Rule of Law that would make any civil libertarian proud.

England fans looking glum, culled from @qwghlm's Tumblr
England fans looking glum (culled from @qwghlm’s Tumblr)

The World Cup is Not Xenophobic

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.

Football fans from Germany and England celebrate in Cologne during the 2006 World Cup Finals
English and German Fans mix in Cologne, before a World Cup 2006 fixture

Cross-posted over at Liberal Conspiracy.

Tiger, Terry and Truth

There is a free speech element to the latest celebrity sex-scandal.  John Terry sought a ‘super-injunction’ against publishing details of his affair, that also prevented the media from reporting the fact of the injunction itself.  On the Index on Censorship blog, Padraig Reidy asks whether the lifting of this injunction by Justice Tugendhat could signal the end of the ‘super-injunction’ as an effective tool in the lawyer’s arsenal.  The #Trafigura affair showed how such injunctions can be circumvented by beligerent members of society.

As an aside, I think ‘super-injunction’ is a misnomer.  Surely an injunction that prevents discussion of itself should be a ‘meta-injunction’ or maybe an ‘auto-injunction’?  Responses from linguists would be welcome.

Why the outrage?

The opprobrium directed at John Terry mirrors that experienced by Tiger Woods, who last month was exposed as having a penchant for sex with strippers and lap-dancers.  In both cases, the chat has centred around the sponsorship deals the men have secured with various brands, and the inevitable loss of these contracts once their philandering has been exposed.  The logic is that these sportsmen are paid because they represent wholesome family values.  When it becomes known that they do not, actually, live up to those values, their worth as the face of the brand is diminished.

How does this compare to the glamourous film stars, predominantly but not exclusively female, who are paid to advertise beauty products?  We all know that when they appear in display adverts, they are heavily photoshopped.   Their smooth skin, supple necks and firms thighs are actually complete lies.   Why no outrage and heamoraging of sponsorship deals, when Heat magazine reveals they have saggy bits?

British Commentators

British sports commentators are known for their idiosyncratic turn of phrase. Both radio and TV pundits have become celebrated for their ability to paste the metaphor on thickly.

Interestingly, this tradition looks like it is even being continued in the field of flash mobile text commentary. As I’ve said previously, Orange’s service seems to me to be a very good example of a new form of chatty micro-journalism, perfect for sporting occasions. This gem, seems to be very British in style. The analogies could be made nowhere else:

Murray is trudging along the baseline like Kevin the Teenager. And in the 60 seconds it’s taken me to write that, it’s 0-5.0-3: Man v Boy, Tiger v Gerbil, Man Utd v Torquay. All these match-ups are now comparable to what we’re seeing on Arthur Ashe court as Federer consolidates his break.

He also continues that very British tradition of wallowing in British sporting defeat. The old customs don’t die with the new technology.

India's Olympic Shame

Here’s an interesting alternative medal table (h/t KiwiClaire). It ranks the countries not by how many Beijing Olympic medals they have won, but by their ratio of medals to population, and to GDP.

Britain does not do quite as well in this analysis, and the lead over Australia we have been boasting about vanishes.

What’s noticeable, however, is India’s lack of impact. With only one gold and one bronze medal to share amongst a population of 1.1bn, the planet’s second most populous nation sits at the bottom of the table for both population and GDP measures.

Now, gold medals only really matter if they contribute to a sense of national pride and happiness, as they clearly do here in the UK. If the Indians don’t really care about the Olympics, and are instead focused on their cricket (say), then maybe this underperformance will have no effect. However, if sporting actually results in some kind of increased cultural capital, then surely India is losing out?

And I would say that sporting excellence does increase your cultural influence abroad. With Ussain Bolt’s victories in the 100m and 200m sprints, we have been treated to highly positive coverage of Jamaica and Jamaicans, a welcome change from the terrible impression of the carribean islands we have experienced in recent weeks.

Perhaps India needs another decade or so before it can exploit its Olympic potential. As the New York Times interactive map shows, the now-dominant China were Olympic minnows before 1984.

Four billion!?

So, the games have opened.  I am all for having a global party, and for the Olympics to be seen a symbol of peace and shared humanity, &ct &ct…  But surely these media claims that four billion people watched the ceremony is stinking hyperbole.  That’s pretty much two in every three people.  What with it being a working day in many parts of the world, what with legions of other people being asleep,  and millions more without access to a TV, I don’t think it would be possible – even if every person in China was watching.

'Free Tibet' flags made in China

Loving it:

The factory in Guangdong had been completing overseas orders for the flag of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Workers said they thought they were just making colourful flags and did not realise their meaning.

But then some of them saw TV images of protesters holding the emblem and they alerted the authorities, according to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper.

Which is odd, because it means that footage of the Free Tibet Olympic torch harassing in London, Paris or San Francisco must have squeezed past Chinese censors.

Tibet Flag

Ask the Dalai Lama

As the farcical torch relay reaches India, and Western political leaders fret over whether to boycott the Beijing Games, Adrian Hamilton has a cheeky route out of the impasse:

I have a suggestion for breaking out of the impasse over the issue of Tibet and the Olympics. It is for the West to make the Dalai Lama the arbiter of whether we should attend the opening ceremonies or not.

Did I mention I’d met the Dalai Lama. I did? Oh, well, sorry to have troubled you.