Friday, 21 May 2010

The One True World Religion Is...


As a young child I wasn't interested in the game at all - I can still recall being faintly bemused and even slightly annoyed at some of my friends for wanting to waste time kicking a ball around at school. I was climbing trees and looking at pictures of cars...

Anyone who equates "soccer" with socialism and chickens running around on the streets is immediately disqualified from any discussion of sport or art in even the most general of terms. I won't indulge that sort of multi-level stupidity. No apologies whatsoever.

To say that football is the world's most popular sport - being followed or played by an estimated two thirds of the world's population - is at once neither an exaggeration nor a fair estimation of the nature of its' popularity.

Quite aside from the usual litany of reasons given for football's popularity (the sparsity of necessary equipment to play, making it cheap and thus widely available to the world's poor; the relative simplicity of its' rules; the interdependence between individual and team competence, its' appeal to tribal instincts and so on) there is so much more to "the beautiful game".

The key to understanding the famously "religious" appeal of football across the world lies with Francis Bacon's dictum that "nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed". With every bounce of the ball, the possibility of bringing it under control rests upon unbroken attention to the split-second unfolding of reality. Every attempt to achieve something with the ball - a pass to a team mate for instance - again requires an absolute, yet effortless concentration of the mind in reading the natural bounce of the ball and the relative positions of team mates and opponents in space and time, making the optimum selection and executing the pass with the optimum technique - chosen "automatically" from a time-honed mental inventory of countless possible variations on basic categories of technical skill. And this all while equally committed and skilled opponents are reading your every split-second movement and are trying to stop you.

The team nature of the game however, demands much more than the mere physical and psychological integration of mastered techniques. The strategic and tactical dimensions of the game require extensive knowledge and constant concentration - particularly when the player himself does not have possession of the ball and especially when his team does not possess the ball either. Defenders are often the unsung heroes of football. The art of putting in a tackle to prevent an opponent advancing into a dangerous position always has a very salient dimension of applying physical force against another player which is often lacking in a forward's strike on goal or in a midfielder's innocuous sideways pass to his right back. The defender's attention and movement without the ball leading up to the challenge is typically a less celebrated aspect of his play. They are the obvious warriors in a team, with their reading of their opponent's attempts to create and exploit space or their exquisite timing of sliding tackles and restraint from over-committing just as vital, if not more so, to a team's success than the beautiful flourish of a striker's finish.

There is another, perhaps in some ways larger dimension to the game residing in the psychology of the players, coach and even, to some extent, the fans themselves. It is the psychology of status - of winners and losers and must-try-harders. There is intellectual conflict over strategy, tactics and positioning of certain players. There is the psychological demand for undiluted enthusiasm and concentration. Players and teams can be broken by these demands. I have seen teams psychologically defeated after conceding just a single goal with plenty of time left on the clock, and I have even seen teams defeated as soon as the match kicks off - passing the ball backwards in a hurry, always afraid of receiving it and the responsibility to create that goes with it. For to play football demands courage and enthusiasm and honour. It brings out, in rarefied microcosm, all of the greatest human virtues - and some of the worst. I have seen players of both great talent and modest embrace the responsibility of winning against the odds. I have seen them shrink from it. I have seen fans enraptured at the exceptional commitment and enthusiasm of their players. I have also seen the opposite.

The sheer complexity with which the various mental, physical and moral requirements of the game are blended to varying extents in each player and across each team astounds me when I reflect on it. All of these requisite qualities must be applied to the most demandingly fluid reality of the football match with the utmost concentration if there is to be a chance of success.

Football is one of the highest artistic celebrations of what man is and of what he can and ought to become. Football gives us a highly rarefied glimpse of Nietzsche's concept of the "superman". Want to see an example? Look no further...

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