Monday, 30 March 2009

Soccer Philosophy

I chanced upon an article today which talked about some of the things soccer has always driven me effortlessly to ponder about. I have itched to write about some of these things but never really got down to doing it, perhaps because there is to some extent a cliched nature of soccer philosophy, often brought to the masses in random packets of gibberish by managers and coaches and ex-professionals.

This article sums up a few of the things that have always tickled my mind when soccer is in question, and perhaps acts as a frame of mind for anyone who might be interested in knowing more about the sport beyond its facade of 11 men chasing after a ball, grossly overpaid players and petty violence.

When you're on the pitch playing and there's nothing but you, the ball, all these things around you and a split second to make a decision, everything gets so elegantly summed up in a moment its like attaining some form of revelation with everything and nothing at all, all at once.

One can never fully convince a Chinese man who knows no English that a particular Shakespearean prose is beautiful. All I can say is that I truly wish that the ones who can't appreciate it can know how much more it is than they think.

Soccer brings out the philosopher in us
By Douglas Todd

When I need real insight into the meaning of life, I have been known to sidestep famous philosophers like William James, Jean-Paul Sartre and Lao-Tzu and go straight to the hard stuff: Books about soccer.

There is nothing like soccer to focus the mind on the art of living, on making sense of the sweet bitterness of existence. For me soccer (a.k.a. football) has a complexity and cohesiveness the Olympics do not.

The Olympics don't speak to me about philosophy, whereas the globe's most popular sport offers natural metaphors for life's fluidity, ambiguity, corruption, idealism, communality and beauty.

Too many Olympic sports, with exceptions such as soccer, of course, and field hockey, require women and men to become like machines, fixated on going just a millimetre higher or a microgram heavier or a millisecond faster.

I am a tad biased (my sons, by the way, play soccer far more than I ever did.) But even those who don't like soccer have to acknowledge that a flood of good-to-great books have been written about it since Nick Hornby's surprising 1992 bestseller, Fever Pitch.

Fever Pitch is about the inner workings of a boy-man from a divorced household who finds delight, torment and healing in the then-dreary London soccer team, Arsenal (which happens to be my favorite team in the English Premier League, whose season kicks off today.)

Before highlighting some of the remarkable books written about soccer in the past 16 years, it's pleasing to confirm Vancouver author Alan Twigg has recently added the first Canadian voice to the pantheon of those who have leaned on the sport to say something important.

In Full-Time: A Soccer Story, Twigg, with complete lack of pretension, offers large dollops of down-home philosophy as he recounts the way his over-50s team, the Point Grey Legends, jet off on a risky adventure to Spain to play several teams of ex-professionals.

Along the journey, Twigg muses honestly about his own semi-erotic obsession with the ball. He delves into the vagaries of romance, the need for glory, self-doubt, the Canadian identity, aging, loyalty and how soccer connects people in weird ways.

In a fine section on the unusual courage it takes to be a referee, Twigg pulls out the philosophical stops about the value of bringing order to the apparent chaos of life, comparing the ref to a priest.

"The referee, like the priest, must be a complex personality. He must have a strong ego in order to rise to the challenge of his job, and yet he must resist all signs of his egocentricity."

The referee plays a transcendent role. "In the eyes of the others, the referee can only be a loser, never a winner, and so he enters each match with the private hope that he might walk off the pitch at the end of ninety minutes as a completely unsung hero."

Full-Time illustrates how serious content can be packed into books about this deceptively simple game enjoyed by billions globally, including millions of Canadian youth. These books explore the intersection of soccer with history, national culture, economics, politics and philosophy.

Some of the best titles include Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano, a lyrical history of the game; Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, and Alex Bellos's Futebol: The Brazilian Way Of Life, which brings out the game's perennial mix of joy and pathos.

To my mind, however, no soccer book reveals a more subtle philosophical mind at work than David Winner's Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer.

Brilliant Orange argues that the "Total Football" developed three decades ago by the Dutch national team reflects the often-difficult personalities of the people of the Netherlands.

"Total Soccer" requires every player to, in effect, be able to switch to any position. Because space is always at a premium in their small country, Winner maintains the Dutch have learned to use it in wildly innovative ways. This is seen in Dutch architecture, art and society - and soccer.

That said, understanding soccer fan(atic)s can be as interesting as analyzing the game and its implications. For raw literary power, there may be no more persuasive book than Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence.

In this early 1990s account, Granta Books editor Bill Buford enters the horrifying culture of British soccer hooligans. His gift is to make the reader feel the intoxicating attraction of mob mayhem.

Why does soccer evoke wider horizons of meaning in so many? American writer David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round, said:

"Milan Kundera (author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being) defended the role of the literary critic by arguing 'Without the meditative background that is criticism, works become isolated gestures, historical accidents, soon forgotten.' I would say the same of social history and sport."

Soccer especially brings out the contemplative side of many people because it doesn't lend itself to statistics, as do baseball and the Olympics.

And it doesn't require body-disguising equipment, like American football and hockey.

Soccer is also so fluid, so non-mechanical, that describing the game and everything that goes into it often requires a touch of poetry.

Twigg's book provides bursts of such poetry, in much the same way as the highly evocative Miracle of Castel Di Sangro. In that book, famous crime writer Joe McGinnis goes to Italy and uncovers the mix of valour, solidarity and immorality that go into how a tiny village's team climbs momentarily into the big leagues.

One of the refreshing peculiarities of Twigg's soccer book is that he writes about actually trying to play the game with some skill. Twigg's also in his mid-50s, so his final reflections on the bravery of the solitary referee illustrate the wisdom that can come with age, the wisdom of bringing impartiality to a rough and tumble contest.

By the end of the book, Twigg even thinks about the value for himself of "outgrowing" soccer. He quotes the Nigerian striker Kanu saying, "If you make football too important, you deprive it of its beauty."

As Twigg considers detaching from the game that has provided him so much passion, purpose and meaning, it's not at all a stretch to say he is offering up ultimate philosophical insights about life itself.

No comments: