It is estimated that over a billion people watched last Sunday’s World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, the largest television audience for any sporting event surpassing the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. As is typical of finals, where the fear of losing trumps the daring required to win, the match was best watched while napping (anyone who thinks you can’t watch football while sleeping has obviously never seen the Italian team play). In two hours of play, there were maybe 15 minutes of genuine quality. And yet, much of the world was transfixed. What explains the dichotomy between a sport that is often dull and yet is the only truly global sport, followed in every country of the world?
Journalist Franklin Foer attempted to explain the importance of football in his book How Soccer Explains Everything (Foer is a Yank so he can be forgiven the Americanisation) but somehow ended up over-inflating the ability of football to bring about political change. He saw the potential in football to democratise the Muslim world and credited it for the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
Football may not feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give everyone a satisfying sex life but Foer did provide some examples of how football can at least allow frustrated populations to vent their grievances. During General Franco’s tyrannical reign, Barcelona became the only safe venue for the Catalan population to demonstrate and in Iran women have defied strict dress codes when watching their national team.
While Foer does an excellent job of showing the importance of football - even if using it to explain everything is a stretch - he never explains why it attained its current importance. For that we must turn to sportswriter Simon Barnes and his invaluable book The Meaning of Sport. Often known as the Haiku Hack for imbibing the most mundane match with a healthy dose of poetry, Barnes sees sport in general, and football especially, as a dramatised duel. He talks of how it reveals character and exposes destiny. Football is essentially an epic tragedy which provides catharsis.
Essentially, football is just another meaningless game, or a “trivial pursuit” as Barnes calls it. What imbues it with meaning is the passion its fans have for it, making it a symbol of great significance. So, France’s disintegration in the first round can be seen as a symbol of its shaky multicultural society; the increasing popularity of the sport in the US as a symbol of Obama’s embrace of the international community, the struggles of England’s moneyed stars a symbol of how capitalism destroys everything. Sure, such comparisons seems ludicrous, ham handed and pat, but no sport has football’s ability to provide that one striking image that explains our world.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2010.
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