Football has an innate beauty that subdues the beast even in the least civilised among us, writes Nirmal Shekar
NOTHING in the world of sport triggers collective amnesia among hundreds of millions of our species on this tiny planet quite like the football World Cup does.
From 1.30 a.m. (IST) on Friday, June 13, a lot of things — however serious, however significant, however paradigm-shifting — simply won’t register in the minds of a lot of people. Even the must-consume daily dose of celeb-centric stuff would be brushed aside.
Terrorism and global warming, poverty and unemployment, Justin Bieber’s latest, puerile foot-in-the-mouth outburst and Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions, Andy Murray’s Wimbledon title defence and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s latest hairdo…none of these is likely to gain more than a fraction of a moment of our collective attention, if at all.
The world won’t stop when the ball is kicked for the first time in the 2014 World Cup at the Arena de Sao Paulo; but that is only because Ronaldo and Messi and Rooney and Iniesta and dozens of other gifted soccer sorcerers will engage the passions of the citizens of the global village through 64 games lasting a little over four weeks.
Other religions have their own holy days; football has its full holy month once every four years, a period when, among other things, our sense of collective identity as lovers of the Beautiful Game is reaffirmed again, and again, and yet again.
Of course, like any other popular sport with a mass base, football does set off base emotions — xenophobia, racism, a tribal sense of the Other — but the great game has always shown the inherent capacity to triumph over the cruder manifestations of the affection it begets.
For football has an innate beauty that — when it is incarnated in the on-field persona of a Pele or a Maradona or a Messi — instantly subdues the beast in the least civilised among us. And it is this quintessential quality of grace that enthrals us as nothing else in sport.
“Soccer is the biggest thing that has happened in creation; bigger than any ‘ism’ you can name," said Alan Brown, former Manager of the English club Sunderland.
You do not have to be a creationist to believe that football is at once the world’s youngest religion and its most famous athletic activity. Instead, you can readily explain its evolution as a secular faith in purely Darwinian terms.
From the sun-kissed beaches of Brazil to the dusty maidans of Kolkata, from the undulating village greens of England to the shantytowns of sub-Saharan Africa, football means more — maybe not in the intellectual or metaphysical sense — to more people than any other sport.
“The imagined community of millions,” wrote the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, “seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”
Hobsbawm was trying to come to terms with the nationalistic fervour that the game gives rise to. But social scientists will certainly have their own take on the matter; and so indeed will the new, burgeoning tribe of evolutionary psychologists.
But surely, given the nature of the game and the ambit of its appeal, it is perhaps unwise to attempt any scientific study of the reasons for its popularity. For, the subject matter may well be beyond the purview of cold science.
“Understanding physics is child’s play compared to understanding child’s play,” said the 20th century’s most iconic scientist, Albert Einstein. He might have added adult play too, if he had dwelt a little more on the subject.
Fifty six years ago in Stockholm, science and art embraced in a moment of heady communion when a 17-year-old Brazilian, standing with his back to the goal, trapped a high ball on his thigh, turned around in a flash, hooked it over the head of a defender and volleyed it past the Swedish goalkeeper Svensson in a match that gave Brazil the first of its record five World Cups.
Twenty eight years after that rapturously inventive strike by Pele, the enigmatic successor to his throne as The Greatest, Diego Maradona, conjured up a few moments of awe-inspiring athletic perfection that was the acme of futebol arte to score what is still fondly remembered as the finest goal in World Cup history, against England.
These were not moments of Mozartian peak experience; nor were they moments of perfection long sought and achieved by a lonely quantum physicist in his obscure laboratory. As lived experience, a man in the street can relate to them.
And this is why, it would be tempting to conclude, football happens to be the common man’s game. Through the centuries, kings and high priests, statesmen and intellectuals have scoffed at it time and again. They saw it as the opiate of the masses — an escape, to be precise.
But the condescension and disdain of the more privileged sections of our societies notwithstanding, football flourishes everywhere. And over the last two decades, thanks to 24x7 sports TV, it has been drawing men and women from corporate boardrooms and council homes alike.
Television coverage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa reached 3.2 billion people, about 46.4 per cent of the members of our species inhabiting this pale blue dot – the late Carl Sagan’s description of earth from a Cosmic perspective. The final alone was viewed by 909.6 million people.
By the time of the last kick in the Brazilian carnival, these figures will have been comfortably surpassed. For no other world game has been growing at football’s pace in the new millennium.
And anybody who has watched a Zico or a Zidane or a Neymar at their best will surely know the reason for the game’s upward spiral.
Not for nothing is football known as the beautiful game, although the term — Jogo Bonito — was first employed by Pele to describe the Brazilian game, which, at its best, appears to be part of a glorious dream, distant from everyday reality.
Ah, well, dream on — as I did during the course of this little scribbling exercise to come up with my all-time best World Cup XI (excluding active players).
Here it goes: Goalkeeper: Gordon Banks (England), Defenders: Carlos Alberto (Brazil), Franz Beckenbauer (Germany), Bobby Moore (England), Paulo Maldini (Italy), Midfielders: Zico (Brazil), Zinedine Zidane (France), Johann Cryuff (Holland), Forwards: Garrincha (Brazil), Maradona (Argentina) and Pele (Brazil).