It is estimated that today nearly one billion people will watch the FIFA World Cup final. One billion. When have one billion people spread across the globe ever done anything simultaneously? On this, football’s most holy day, I thought I would attempt the beginnings of an explanation for football’s near universal appeal.
In his superb history of the game David Goldblatt asks the following question:
Is there any cultural practice more global than football? Rites of birth, death and marriage are universal, but infinite in their diversity. Football is played by the same rules everywhere. No single world religion can match its geographical scope. Even Christianity, borne on the back of European expansion, is a relatively minor player across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The use of English and the vocabularies of science and mathematics must run football close for universality, but they remain the lingua francas of the world’s elites, not of its masses. McDonald’s, MTV? Only the most anodyne products of America’s cultural industries can claim a reach as wide as football’s and then only for a fleeting moment in those parts of the world that can afford them.
Football’s preeminence as the most popular global sport is a consequence of both historical forces beyond the game, and the intrinsic qualities of its own structure, rhythms and appearance. First, football emerged and spread outwards around the globe through both the formal British Empire and the immense informal connections garnered by Britain’s influence on global economics and culture. Second, before the advent of television few other sports allowed for so many people to watch a game at the same time. You just cannot build a stadium to hold 100,000 spectators around a basketball or tennis court. Third, as a participation team sport it is arguably without rival. The rules are simple, the equipment is cheap, and the game is flexible in terms of playing numbers and space needed; it is easy to learn and accommodates a wide variety of physiques; its insistence on the use of feet and head over hands is infectious and intriguing; and the constant ebb and flow punctuated only by the pure exhilaration of a goal is compelling. And so for millions of kids from the barrios and slums, the ghettos and council estates, football is the way they can escape their poverty, even just for a few moments, and express themselves
Myself, I have a complicated relationship with football. Football has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up football slowly weaved itself into my developing psyche, becoming as familiar to me as family and school and girls. It is for me as it was for Arthur Hopcraft: football is not a phenomenon; it is an every day matter. Furthermore, coming, as I do, from a tribe of men who have trouble vocalizing their feelings, football is the crucible where familial bonds were forged. On terraces and touchlines or on the edge of well-worn family furniture, in unspoken ways I became and I am still becoming a grandson, a son, a brother and most recently a father. I remember watching England vs. Argentina in 1986. I would have been 9 at the time and I suppose at that age I still thought my Dad could make any situation right. I can still so vividly remember how I felt when the Hand of God rose up from the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City and tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that sometimes I would find even my Dad was powerless to make wrong things right. That kind of moment leaves a permanent emotional mark that transcends the game. In 1990, with England preparing to begin their tortured relationship with penalty shoot outs, it’s almost as if Gary Lineker sensed what was coming. And so he looked into the television camera and pointed to his eye and told my Dad to have a word with his 13 year old son, who in a few moments was about to lose control of his emotions. That kind of investment means that football takes on new meaning. It’s almost as if family is at stake. As the great Bill Shankly said, ‘some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’
But as important as football has been to me my relationship with the game is complicated by the fact that football may well be rotten. In England, the short sighted custodians of the game have sold its soul over and over again to the highest bidder, even if that bidder is an international pariah wanted for human rights’ abuses. Players are so far removed from reality and the average fan that they expect public sympathy when their clubs are only offering them £60k a week. Owners, managers and players alike cheat constantly. Officials are inept and are hindered by an unwillingness to allow them to use technology. In the 21st century. But should we be surprised when the whole thing is presided over by an incompetent such as Sepp Blatter, who has rigged the system so that he will remain elected as president until he chooses to go.
But for 90 minutes this evening, or morning or afternoon, none of that will matter. For 90 minutes advertisers and investors, power brokers and agents, even Sepp Blatter will largely be confined to blending in with the noise of the vuvuzela. 22 players will pull on shirts that don’t look like advertising hoardings but are instead soaked in footballing history. They are shirts that they haven’t chosen to wear for money or prestige; the shirts chose them for a reason as random as the place they were born (or perhaps the place where their parents were born). And one of them, maybe more, will write themselves into the collective memory and emotions of a billion people. Good luck to them all.
1. See the Introduction to The Ball Is Round by David Goldblatt