"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into to the sea."
(Swans - March 14, 2011) Man is man because he has learned to use his hands with finesse. He can touch, select, shape, sew, write. All economic activity is based on the use of human hands, at times extended by tools or replaced by robots. Economics, though, do not explain everything, and men also love to play. That means spending a considerable amount of energy on something of no avail. Still more puzzling, men love to watch others play. With no apparent reasonable aim, someone rushes to cross a line, or to put a ball into a basket or into the net of a goal, while at the same time others, fraught with emotion, fix their eyes on him. The name of this irresponsible expense of physical and psychic energy is "sport." The noble word comes from Latin (deportare: to go out of the city's door, porta, for amusement), by way of the ancient French (desporter).
If the fruitless activity of sport is and always has been widely appreciated both by players and spectators, it's because sport carries a powerful symbolic message. The ball passing beyond a physical or imaginary line means more than that simple fact, but its meaning defies description. It lies in the realm of life's deeper meanings where endeavor, destiny and luck also reside, all under the eye of God and Chaos.
Everyone knows that economic categories are not sufficient to describe human behavior. But our definition of gross national product remains based on an image of man as a basically rational being. He eats and builds or drives vehicles out of need. At most, he is impelled by the desire to buy luxury goods in order to demonstrate his worth to his neighbor. Such behavior, though not strictly rational, is totally explicable in rational terms. Super Bowls and World Champion Leagues are not rational. But they are incredibly important.
In thoughtless moments we can choose to define all sportsmen as lifelong, not particularly bright children and return to our clever thoughts on economics, nuclear physics, poetry, or other momentous subjects. That's exactly what I have been doing for years.
Of sports I practice none, nor am I what's called a "supporter," even if many friends of mine are fans of one soccer team or another. For I live in Italy, a country where soccer is an important issue and where a frivolous prime minister can be shamelessly inept and still adored, but a soccer coach must be dead serious and never mistaken.
For some time now, I have fixed my attention on a single sport, soccer/football, as a kind of case study. (The word "soccer" derives from "association," in the official name "association football.") My conclusions are not final, but I presume to offer them as interesting and not without relevance to economics and politics.
Soccer is a peculiar sport because it rules out the use of hands. Players must kick, head, or propel the ball with their body. They must never touch it with their hands. Only the goalkeeper can put his ten fingers to the ball, ideally grabbing it before it enters the goal. Many sports are based on the use of legs, from racing on foot to baseball, but only in soccer are feet the supreme body part. They humbly stand in for hands, those royal appendages equipped with specialized digits. This restriction is more than irrational: it's a U-turn in human history, a refusal to be a full man. What's behind it?
Since soccer dominates all other sports in two-thirds of the world, the question deserves an answer. For me a ball that's kicked is generally less controlled than a ball thrown or hit with a bat. An ancient Roman politician, Blind Appius Claudius, left us a memorable aphorism: Every man is the blacksmith of his own fortune. (Faber est suae quisque fortunae) Soccer is a sport where men let fortune (chance or luck) shape their reaction. No blacksmiths they, and not merely because they don't use their hands.
As in other team sports, soccer players train long and hard, whilst their coaches prepare strategies worthy of Clausewitz. But the ball's flight path has an all important role that results from its being less predictable than in other sports. This unpredictability has something mystical about it. In a soccer game the ball goes where Heaven wishes. When a player kicks the ball, he doesn't vie only with the other team, he also "grapples with the angel," or "consults the oracle."
In Gilles d'Aymery's words, soccer is as gorgeous as it is grueling, cruel, unfair. It's noteworthy that a game, which is ninety minutes long, can often end with a very low score, such as 1-0, or even in a tie, 0-0. Such a scoreless outcome might be considered the conclusion of an uninteresting match, but it could also be seen as the result of a perfect game: Thanks to their hands, both goalkeepers have succeeded in keeping the ball out of the goal for an hour and a half. One to 0 is a frequent result, and it's possible for a run-of-the-mill outfit to beat an A-level team by good luck alone.
The real dream of a soccer fan could well be to witness his own team's undeserved victory over a better one. Competition restricted to kicking can, God willing, make this dream come true. Of course, an average team can win a game, but will not be able to top a league. Team owners know that the best soccer players are something money can buy, and they act accordingly. The best players belong to teams that are rich, win league titles, and have huge audiences both on TV and in the stadiums. Their advertising revenues are considerable. This semi-mystical sport is at the same time an economic asset.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that money and Providence are at odds. While a ball kicked by a modest but lucky player of a cash-strapped team might unexpectedly find its way into the goal, money can effectively fight back against the bad luck. More effective goalkeepers, defenders or strikers can be shopped for on the market.
Diego Maradona, though no paragon of modesty, showed what I mean. In an epic World Cup match of 1986 in Mexico City, he precipitated an incident that became notorious. With the illicit help of his hand, Maradona scored a goal for Argentina against England. Despite an outcry from the English players, the referee let it stand. During the press conference after the match, the Argentinean player half admitted his trickery. That goal was scored, he said, un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios ("a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God"). The phrase is a perfect synthesis of what I have been trying to say, and a good title for my final thoughts on the noble sport -- "the beautiful game," according to some -- that goes forward gracefully thanks to the most plebeian of our appendages.
The symbolic meaning of soccer necessarily overflows the ninety minutes of play. Argentina's win over England in 1986 followed a military defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands War fought just four years earlier. Some Argentineans definitely considered the soccer victory a settling of scores. The USA-Iran game during the World Cup of 1998 in France had something of the same significance. The Iranian team won 2-0 and its victory helped the two nations reduce the diplomatic tension between them. More recently, during the Asia Cup of 2011 (won by Japan on January 29th), Iran and Iraq clashed on the pitch. The Iraqis had been the defending champions, but Iran managed to win. While the players moved to and fro, the memory of the 1980-1988 war between the two countries hovered over the stadium.
Somehow jockeying for an opportunity to kick a ball not only makes us feel human together but also envelops us in something larger than fellow feeling. Such exalted sentiments may be less strong in an ordinary game, but in international competition they can be overwhelming.
Are North Americans indifferent to soccer because of their pragmatism? It may be, since a pragmatic man is one who lays his hands on real things, using his feet only to walk, run, and scurry to a new practical undertaking. But there are signs of change. Recently a group of Boston-based investors planned a takeover of the A.S. Roma (Associazione Sportiva), Rome's principal soccer team. The Qatari royal family went much further and secured the Soccer World Cup competition for their country in 2022. The USA had made a bid, but in the final countdown Qatar won, despite unfavorable summer weather conditions. After the establishing of the Al Jazeera news network, the Qatari royal family, and particularly the Emir's wife, Sheikha Mozah, turned its attention to the World Cup. The weather made it unlikely Qatar could host the prestigious event. Summer temperatures in the Gulf reach nearly 50° C/120° F. The Qatari answer was a promise to build new stadiums furnished with solar plants that would convert the sun's heat into electric energy to cool the air. Sometimes pragmatism can be set in motion by the booted feet of soccer players. Clearly soccer must be taken into consideration not only by fans, but also by economists, and by everyone who wants to understand, and change for the better, the world we live in.
(Thanks to Peter Byrne for his help with this article.)
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)