By Richard French
“Whoever invented football should be worshipped as a God”
- Hugo Sanchez, former Mexican footballer
It unites and divides communities, families and nations. It provides endless hours of waiting room small talk and heated debates in pubs and on radio talk shows. It gives some people their raison d’etre, so why is it that so many people write off football as a mere game?
When a team loses, many of us will sink into a deep depression, nothing else matters other than what could have been. If it is a particularly meaningful match, some will not eat, sleep or even talk. They are completely devastated by what they have just witnessed.
The way to explain it for those who have never been in this state is to imagine the feeling one gets after a particularly painful break up. The feeling of dread in the stomach that just won’t shift until you have come to terms with the end of the relationship. Food loses taste, things seem to become insignificant and for a time, nothing else matters. If Real Madrid lose to Barcelona, there are sure to be Madrid fans out there who would describe that very feeling after the game, and perhaps for days afterwards.
Nearly 50 million people attended matches across Europe’s top four leagues in the 2008-09 season, not to mention those who watch games on TV across the world throughout the year. Of course, some are less obsessive than others, though year by year the sport continues to grow. The answer as to why could be that the riotous nature of the sport appeals to our inner caveman.
The former Brazilian footballer, politician and philosopher, the aptly named Socrates, once said that “football is a sport made from spontaneity and discernment, luxury and freedom, and one that, I believe, is part of our most primitive genome, like dance”.
He sees the game as something so natural, so primitive that it should be seen in a similar light to other forms of human expression, which have been around as long as our species. We were made to dance, to make music and to procreate. According to Socrates, we were also made to kick a ball around. This is why this global phenomenon that is Association Football cannot be pigeon holed as ‘just a game’.
In fact, Socrates’ argument has quite a lot of academic evidence to support it. The late Brazilian sociologist and cultural anthropologist Gilberto Freyre wrote in 1959 that “the Brazilians play [football] as if it were dance. This is probably the result of the influence of those Brazilians who have African blood or are predominantly African in their culture, for such Brazilians tend to reduce everything to dance, work and play alike”.
Just as tribes across the world have divided communities over thousands of years, football teams are the modern day equivalent. Liverpool is made up of two tribes, blues and reds. In Glasgow one is either a green or a blue. In Milan, red or blue and Buenos Aires has blues and whites. By supporting a team we are representing our neighbourhood, nailing our colours to the mast and letting everybody know which ‘tribe’ we are part of.
This is in our DNA, and hence these rivalries often end in violence as we resort to the other thing we were programmed to do, fight. In fact, football and fighting go hand in hand according to writer George Orwell, who stated that “football, it seemed to me, is not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting.”
It is not only Socrates and his countrymen who see football in this way. The Dutch are well known for seeing the sport as a form of expression, like ballet. Watch Johan Cruyff in action in his playing days and the parallels between dance and football are clear. He was always on his toes, darting around and creating shapes of beauty, all the time acutely aware of where he needed to be in relation to his team mates.
Of course his club, Ajax, went further with this philosophy, seeing the movement of players on the pitch all as a part of one moving art form. The cultural and artistic city of Amsterdam looked at the sport through the marijuana and opium haze which engulfed it in the 1960s and 70s to interpret football as more than a game. One could argue that they looked at it too intensely, but many important football people still believe in this way of thinking.
Football is clearly now an entertainment business, and to some extent always has been, again just like dance or music. People didn’t go to matches at the end of the 19th century not to be entertained, in fact the explosion of attendances in Brazil between 1894 and 1914 is an example of just how much people were entertained by the sport. An estimated 10,000 watched Brazil take on Exeter City in 1914, with no form of terracing or seating, only a solitary rope to hold them back from the pitch.
Brazil is the perfect case study to examine the primitive nature of football, given that it was the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery (1888) and was, like today, cripplingly poor. When the game was exported there by English businessmen exploiting the lucrative Brazilian coffee market in 1894, it was unheard of in the form of a codified game. Some years later the most multi-cultural nation on the planet regurgitated the most dazzling, iconic and successful football team the world has ever seen.
Just as with South America, Africa is now starting to flourish on the pitch. Again, this continent is incredibly poor, primitive and a melting pot of cultures and races. Is it then any surprise that five (21%) of the 23 nominees for the World player of the year 2010 have African blood? Moreover, each of UEFA’s most successful European teams of the past five years (Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Liverpool) contain or have contained a huge number of African stars.
Furthermore, there is statistical evidence to suggest that indigenous African people are more adept at football, as they naturally have better physical attributes to excel given the requirements of the sport. Scientifically, our African cousins are more similar in physique to original man than Europeans.
Coupled with the natural talent available, if the infrastructure and development of African football continues to improve, it is almost inevitable that an African nation will win a World cup in the next half a century. In South Africa this summer, Ghana were one penalty and inches from reaching the semi-finals.
All this evidence suggests that there is some truth in the notion that this sport is as natural to us as other primitive acts. Instead of mocking a grown man for crying when his team is relegated, perhaps we should examine the reasons why he feels so deeply distressed by the news. Try telling a tribesman in the Amazon that he is pathetic for weeping over the demise of his clan.
To those who have fallen for it, the beautiful game is enchanting, frustrating, mysterious and random. It is something that one cannot be taught to love, or indeed to succeed or to fail in. In that sense, it is just like life. As writer Nick Hornby once put it, ‘I fell in love with football as I would later fall in love with women: suddenly, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain it would bring.’
Just a game? Please.