“Please, give me the ball back, each time I get it from you I must weep its tears.”
– Roberto Baggio (Italy striker 1988-2004)
During a recent period of writer’s block, I turned in desperation to my facebook friends and asked them to choose a topic for me to write about. “Why soccer doesn’t suck” was amongst the principal responses. Was it a serious suggestion? Or was it made with tongue firmly planted in cheek? Regardless, it’s an interesting challenge. What can you say to the cynics who think that sport is pointless? Or to those who believe that scores like 1-0 and games that often end in draws make for boring viewing? People who insist that paying footballers hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds or euros a week is a colossal waste of the world’s resources?
Even though they are right about that last bit, on the rest, we owe it to them to at least attempt to show them the error of their ways. We must try to fill the yawning chasm in their lives, the existence of which they have been blissfully unaware of up until now. Pretend for a moment you are Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’. You can take the blue pill and the story will end. Stop reading and believe whatever you want to believe. Or keep reading for the red pill, stay in Wonderland, and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
“Football is an art more central to our culture than anything the Arts Council deigns to recognise”
– Germaine Greer
Some things are surely universal. Like grace, skill, beauty, shape and poise. In football, there is a sport that can be as poetic and enchanting as the finest opera and as graceful as the most beautiful ballet. But unlike the theatre, you don’t have to go home lamenting the fact that you’ll never know what happens next. Football is a never ending story complete with heroes and villains, suspense, colour, atmosphere and excitement. It’s nuanced – the exact angle of a pass that eludes a defender and finds the attacking player right in front of his feet as he hurtles towards the goal. Dramatic – the last minute equaliser or injury time winner from a team that looked dead and buried at half time. It’s moving – the tears of despair from a young fan whose club has been relegated from the top division or the floodgates of public joy flung open by winning a trophy you have waited 20 years or more to savour.
“Soccer is one of the most unifying activities amongst us.”
– Nelson Mandela
On an individual level, there is a reason why football is the most popular sport on the planet by about a gazillion light years. The rules are simple. Get the ball into the net without using your hands – that’s pretty much it, apart from the offside rule, which isn’t anywhere near as complicated as some people manage to make it sound. This makes it an inclusive sport that is a wonderful leveller. Anyone can play. While at the same time, just because the rules are simple, doesn’t mean there aren’t intricate chess like tactics and strategies at play that hold your interest whether you are an Einstein or a cartoon henchman.
There is a place for every shape, size and intellect. It’s accessible entertainment where money is no barrier to enjoyment. There is no expensive equipment required to play it. All you need is a ball. It’s cheap to watch, unless you are going to be a snob about it and only watch the top European leagues. Most New Zealand football is free to attend – all you need to be a devoted fan is a scarf and a good set of singing lungs. It’s a family game that transcends age, race and gender. Not only is it the most played sport by children of all ages everywhere in the world, including New Zealand, but there is also the family you become part of when you support your favourite club. You end up belonging, being accepted without question into a kinship. Like any family, it will contain skeletons. There will be in-laws and outlaws but there will also be branches of your club’s whanau wherever you go in the world, where you can be welcomed as a long lost relative.
“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football”
– Albert Camus
On a more macro level, football is a working class game with a working class ethos. It brings cultures together. People from different religions, from different backgrounds, with different cultures and politics, play against and alongside each other. People from countries that are at war with each other come together in peace, lighting the way for fans and governments alike. Football breeds values that make the world a better place. Loyalty, solidarity, courage, discipline, fitness, unselfishness, analysis, patience, tolerance and dealing gracefully with disappointment (admittedly sometimes by offering an exemplar of how not to act). So do other sports? Yes, but on nothing like the grand scale of football. It’s no accident that many of football’s great names like Sir Alex Fergusson and Brian Clough more often than not have excellent lefty politics. Football is a driver of economic development and social change in the third world and beyond.
“Pressure? This is just a football match. When you do not know how to feed your children, that is pressure.”
– José Luis Chilavert (Paraguay goalkeeper 1989-2003)
But having said all of the above, football’s number one virtue is its number one criticism – that there is no real point to it. Die-hard football fans like Nick Hornby get very worked up about football being described as escapism. They feel as though the label belittles their obsession. But with all due respect to my favourite author, he spends the first two thirds of ‘Fever Pitch’ describing how football sheltered him from, and acted as a proxy for, his real world problems. There is no doubt that football is important, for all the reasons canvassed above. At the same time as being completely pointless. A bunch of grown adults chasing a ball? Of course it’s pointless.
For those of us who like politics for the horse race and like the cinema for its ability to make you forget all your troubles for a couple of hours, football is the best of both worlds. It is the real world, yet it’s meaningless. There is intrigue, there is backstabbing, there is strategy and there is drama. The plot twists and turns, there are winners and losers, yet at the end of the game, nobody is going to starve in a gutter as a result of the outcome. Nobody will have their pension cut or their taxes raised. Life continues on exactly as it did. It’s precisely its complete unimportance that makes it so important. Escapism IS important.
“It is not just a simple game. It is a weapon of the revolution”
– Che Guevara
So in conclusion, football is art, theatre, perpetual, and left leaning – the people’s game. It’s simple, yet complicated. Important, yet meaningless. It changes lives for the better, assists third world development and cultivates world peace. If you still think it sucks, I officially give up.