Here we go again. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘we English’ – but also ‘we citizens of a planet whose most unifying creative passion revolves around semi-controlled tribal kicking of spherical objects’. Here we are again in our four-year cycle of collective mania about an event that has no meaning - other than the one we attribute to it. Like art or music – and religion – football can move some of us to tears (of exaltation or despair, wonder or rage), while leaving others indifferent, or puzzling over what all the fuss is about.
The World Cup is of course a great distraction from other slightly more pressing concerns: poverty, malnutrition, totalitarian oppression, environmental concerns, the fragility of the world’s economy. (As Professor Terry Eagleton says of the global obsession with football: ‘No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism’). It is perhaps the most obvious example of Juvenal’s famous maxim in his Satires that rulers can distract the populace from pressing issues of public policy – and the populace long, it seems, to be distracted in this manner – if it can offer them ‘bread and circuses’: ... duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses. As a recent translation puts it: ‘...only two things does the modern citizen anxiously wish for: bread and the big match.’ No doubt we will have the same again here in two years time with the Olympics.
But – before I get carried away with my awareness of football’s essential triviality in the scheme of things – let me state unequivocally that football can offer us, at its best, moments of transcendence and intimations of immortality. This has been expressed most eloquently by a player whose club used to sell replica shirts combining his playing number, ‘7’, and the single word ‘Dieu’. Eric Cantona was able to do things on a football field that nobody else had done, could do, or would do. So he knew whereof he spoke when he once said:
‘An artist, in my eyes, is someone who can lighten up a dark room. I have never and will never find any difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud, who stretches “cords from steeple to steeple and garlands from window to window”. There is in each of these human manifestations an expression of beauty which touches us and gives us a feeling of eternity’.
(He was also, as this quotation illustrates – and rather unusually for a footballer, need it be said – a rather cultured individual. But then of course he was French).
‘We English’ have to make do with rather less thoughtfulness from our players, and – sadly, inevitably, repeatedly - rather less culture on the pitch. Hopes are raised, hopes are dashed, as the English propensity to transmute dreams of glory into nightmares of farce plays itself out in its recurring cycle. But – looking for ‘the positives’, as modern-day managers are taught to say - our national game (and especially our national team) does offer fans the possibility of experiencing (repeatedly) some important psychological truths about human imperfection and fallibility and the inevitability of confronting loss. (We should thank them for that, if nothing else).
The catharsis we experience when we are finally released from the inner tension generated in some games between the excitement and hope for victory and the fear of imminent defeat is salutary. And defeat is, naturally, by far the most common experience for players and fans alike. Defeat is built into the structure of competitive sports in a particular way: only one team can win the Cup, only one player can win the gold medal. The rest have to face the poignancy of loss, the pain of mourning, of waking up the next morning knowing what might have been, but isn’t. It’s gone. Like a death, like the failed dreams in our lives, defeat scars the soul over and over again with the awareness that failure and loss are unavoidable aspects of our shared human condition.
And yet the football fan – even ‘we English’ – lives with a resilient hopefulness that we might experience moments that can give us what Cantona called that ‘feeling of eternity’. If not from our players and our team then another team and other players. The goal from the impossible angle, the visionary pass that opens up the opposition’s defence, the goalkeeper’s agile athleticism where the body twists and flies through the air, the fragile moments of individual skill on the ball – the co-ordinated movement of body and eye and mind – all these offer up the grandeur of the human spirit incarnated in spontaneous action. The human body becomes – as it does in ballet or sex or yoga – a vehicle for transcendence. We glimpse the recurring mystery of our being human. And we give thanks for what we receive. For such giftedness transcends race or nation and gives us a living image of the numinous to inspire our daily lives.
Decades ago, when the American philosopher George Santayana was asked what he meant by the word ‘religion’, he replied ‘another world to live in’. But when he said that he could not have anticipated how, for hundreds of millions of men and women throughout the world, what he meant by ‘religion’ would one day be displaced in the most immediate sense by organised spectator sports, and football in particular. The gods of old have been reincarnated in a new form, and from the slums of Rio de Janeiro to the steppes of Siberia via the pubs and sitting rooms of towns across the UK, the contemporary fan (from the Latin fanaticus, worshipper, of course) pays homage to his and her divine representatives on earth - as remote and yet omnipresent as they ever were.
(If they play any sport in heaven it must be football - though cricket is another possibility: if you have an eternity to spend, then five-day Test match cricket is a perfect time-filler, with angels and seraphim always on hand to fetch the ball when it is hit over the boundary ropes into the ether, and God himself the all-watchful Umpire whose omniscient judgement cannot be overruled).
Football is ‘another world to live in’. Let’s enjoy it while - if - we can. It will invigorate us for what really matters: the struggles - and inevitable defeats – we still have to face.