Being on the ball

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Across the globe, discussions of football offer a kind of common ground, where the grass is always green and the surface smooth (Cosmopolis column published in The Hindu Business Line, 18 June, 2016Click here for the PDF version 

For those of us who love football, this June is a perilous month. Two major international tournaments are taking place concurrently: Euro 2016 in France and the centenary Copa America in the US. These are regional competitions, scaled-down versions of the World Cup for continental bragging rights in Europe and the Americas respectively. They still boast top-level players and top-level action. Since the tournaments are played in separate time zones, football fans have the luxury of gorging on an unending daily feast of the sport. One could feasibly spend the entire day glued to the screen, watching match after match after match, neglecting all professional and social responsibilities for the obscure thrills of Wales versus Slovakia and Bolivia versus Chile. I suspect many Indian spectators are stumbling into office bleary-eyed after staying up to watch the rolling ball. Like everybody else, they understand the truth of Albert Camus’s quip that “time is an awkward inconvenience between football matches.”

These matches offer more than leisurely distraction. International football tournaments pose a marvellous break from routine, a period when we are drawn out of our usual rhythms into another dimension. Where our lives can be atomised, fragmented by technology and compartmentalised between work and home, football retrieves an older sense of community. The British author Simon Kuper describes how people gather in pubs and living rooms to watch the World Cup, “a whole country suddenly caring about the same event… the sort of common project that otherwise barely exists in modern societies.”

That’s certainly true of nations represented on the field, but what about the vast majority of football aficionados around the world who tune in even though their countries are not involved? Out of necessity, Indians are open-minded football fans. Our own national team has never allowed us to even dream of winning the World Cup, and it rarely qualifies for the Asian Cup. So we take a more cosmopolitan interest in the proceedings. We festoon the streets of Kolkata with Brazilian and Argentinean flags. We weigh the virtues of Spain’s passing game or Italy’s relentless cynicism or Colombia’s artistry. We search for virtuosos and underdogs in every contest. And with every fibre of our anti-colonial beings, many of us root against the English.

The “common project” or community that forms during these tournaments (amplified now via social media like Twitter) is not that of shared nationality but of shared curiosity and enthusiasm. Most people access international football this way, as global pageant rather than a spectacle of national achievement and failure. Knowing the vocabulary of the sport — the names of players, the characteristics of teams, the history of past competitions, and so on — immediately grants access to a universal conversation. I’ve found in my travels abroad, from a bar in Berlin to a taxi in Cairo to the mountains of Peru, that nothing levels the barriers of language and culture like the discussion of football. It offers a kind of common ground, where the grass is always green and the surface smooth.

Of course, football can conjure moments of distinctly national apotheosis. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” famously wrote the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Think, for example, of the extraordinary times when war-torn Iraq won the Asia Cup in 2007 and war-torn Afghanistan won the South Asian Cup in 2013 (beating India in the final). However ephemerally, these victories pulled together countries that were tearing themselves apart.

But such success is rare in football. Fans principally experience the sport as an exploration of others. At an imaginative level, football binds people to the rest of the world. It reminds us that we are simply one amongst many, that in this arena a country of 300,000 people like Iceland can be as mighty (if not mightier) than China, a country of well over a billion people.

This notion can be alarming to some. I find instructive the protests of many right-wing commentators in the US who fret about the sport’s growing popularity in their own country. They describe football as “un-American” because it is collective in its emphasis (and not individual-centric like many American team sports), they claim that “cultural elites” are foisting it upon the otherwise wholesome, baseball-loving masses, and they deride it as effeminate and incurably “foreign”. Nevertheless, football with all its internationalist trappings is making deeper and deeper inroads. In an era of shifting geopolitics, the sport’s growth is a sign of one of the ways that the US is becoming less exceptional in its relationship to the rest of the world, less a country apart and more just another country.

I think it’s to our credit that so many Indians care about football even though our national team is risible. Where cricket allows Indians the sense of growing centrality on the world stage, football shows us that the world is much bigger than ourselves. There’s no jingoism in the Indian love for football, just an open and humble appreciation of the game.

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