Body and Games

9 June 2014

Some say it is Pelé, some others attribute it to Didi, even as the official credits go to commentator Stuart Hall. All are talking about ‘The Beautiful Game’. In any case, there is no doubt: football deserves that title. And, what is a better time to bend the ball around our ongoing reflection on beauty than now, as the World Cup is just round the corner? It is adrenaline season, not just in the host country, but everywhere in the world, where this ball is alive and kicking. But do the spirit on the field, carnival colours and billions of fans suffice to efface the game’s decadent environment today? The market, social inequities, and the sheer counter-effects of its worldwide success have tarnished many a vital dimension of this sport-culture. Is football still the Beautiful Game? In the next four weeks, Brazil may provide an updated response to football’s legendary equation with beauty. In this week’s Inter-actions, writer NS Madhavan returns to the early association of football with beauty, before problematising its heritage vis-à-vis the contemporary landscape of the game. Hyginus Uchenna Okoronkwo, Nigerian attorney and football enthusiast, offers a contrasting view, highlighting the organic harmony of the movements of the game, and its unequalled power to connect nations.


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Fading Beauty

NS Madhavan

A Source of Inspiration

Hyginus Uchenna Okoronkwo

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It is in the genes. Like a spider is born with codes written in its genes to build webs, so are humans, always driven by an urge to kick something lying before them. Love for the most popular of all sports is instinctual, and for many, it is a matter of life and death.

Did I say a matter of life and death? William Shankly, a Scottish football manager, is remembered not so much for his fine contributions to the play field as for his quote, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

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Add to this, humans’ innate craving for freedom and justice. The game evolved in feudal England with strict enclosure laws. The word ‘goal’ traces its origin to Old English, meaning ‘to break fences’. To break out is everybody’s secret desire, and football gives a means to it. The field itself is tightly fenced with invisible boundaries. It is a foul to break those white chalk lines; you are immediately punished with a throw or a corner kick. You can legitimately break the invisible fences only at one place, the goal post.

The universal appeal of the game also ensures a certain sense of equality. Big nations like the US are not at the top of the football table. Rubbing shoulders with developed countries like Germany and Spain are African nations like Ivory Coast and Cameroon. The game is dominated by Latin American countries, not very high on the GDP ladder. There is no elitist bias built into it: no acres of manicured lawns as in golf; no costly pitches or sporting gears. All you need is a piece of land, an empty garage or a lonely alley, and then boys (and increasing numbers of girls also) will be boys.

With such emotional capital, no wonder, football is the world’s most popular sport. The Beautiful Game, sadly started acquiring a not so pretty visage, as it got tightly organised. Big money poured in, then more money through TV rights, and its traditional core viewership, the workers and the poor, were kept out by unaffordable gate prices in high profile Leagues.

In this short essay, I venture to show how the Beautiful Game is increasingly shedding its charm, firstly by what is happening outside stadia, and secondly, albeit very briefly, by what is happening to the game itself. No, this is not an alarmist elegy: the game’s popular and emotional foundations are strong enough to withstand winds of change. I am trying to open a few windows to a beautiful landscape where patches of ugly moss are cancerously creeping up.

Bare female breasts are not even remotely associated with football. Yet Femen, a European ‘ultra-feminist’ organisation (their self-description) started agitations before venues of Euro 2012 in Ukraine, with slogans painted across their unclothed torsos. At first, the pictures of half-naked women fighting with the police evoked the kind of voyeuristic interest that images of this nature usually elicit. Their slogans painted across their bodies were against sex tourism and other ills associated with major football events.

Slowly, Femen’s message sank in. Yes, hordes of male fans move from continent to continent, to cheer their teams. It is just not loyalty to their teams; it is a kind of bacchanalian release, with beer-filled nights, brawls, and of course, girls. Femen pointed out that hundreds of prostitutes had moved into Ukraine in the wake of Euro 2012.

A banner from Femen

Are the football galleries being taken over by patriarchy? Football, to begin with, was in the male domain. In England, where traditions of the game evolved, club loyalties are passed on from father to son. A father baptising his son to his first game is an important rite of passage. But the game itself is getting out of its male preserve; women’s football is robust and kicking. In stadia, women register good presence. But the whole transformation of this simple game of 20 men chasing a round object into a big money-spinning spectacle also brought in sex tourism, hooliganism and violence into the Beautiful Game.

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That, by itself, is a big social cost. Even bigger are the upheavals when events like the World Cup are undertaken, especially by governments with hardly any money for health and education. The sight of them lavishly opening their purse strings for the construction of big stadia and to showcase infrastructure causes resentment to rise. When the conduct of such events hits your stomach, the national pride they may bring in becomes inconsequential.

A number of public protests have highlighted
the economic and social controversies during
the preparation of the 2014 Brazil World Cup

Things got to a boil in Brazil during the 2013 Confederation Cup. What started off as a small agitation against the rise in bus fares blew up into urban riots in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, claiming 10 lives. The ‘Brazil Spring’ was waiting to happen. The people saw diversion of funds from health, education, transport, etc., to the conduct of big sporting events. Brazil’s ambitious calendar of such events is frighteningly megalomaniac – the World Cup in 2014 is followed by an even bigger Olympics in 2016. In a country of football-crazy people, there are now agitations against the World Cup. ‘Not by football alone’, is what wall-writings say in Rio.

That the game itself has been slowly shedding its beauty is yet another ambitious topic. The lyrical football of the 1950s has given way to an effective and utilitarian football. In these days and times of success-worship, nothing much can stop such an evolution. But the foot soldier of the game, the humble spectator, is getting robbed of pleasures of the game. It happened to me, a witness to the 2010 World Cup Final between Holland and Spain in Johannesburg. From the time the game began, the Dutch were playing defensively and their aggression only aimed at throttling the opponent. The proponents of ‘Total Football’ shed all that, and decided to be a bunch of foulers; the number of yellow cards that final saw was very high. Spain stuck to their tiki taka, of beautiful short passes and unhurried pace. In the end, when the team that played beautiful football won, football lived for another beautiful day.

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Beauty, they say, lies in the eye of the beholder. In football, beauty is more than what is in your eyes. It goes beyond the senses. It works through the game’s larger capacity to unite nations, to bind them with the cord of peace and love, to transcend rancour and acrimony. Football has stood the test of time, and it has, through years, become one of the finest instruments of reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation for the nations of the world. While chasing the ball on the field, countries forget their differences. The football rolls, beyond wars, hot and cold…

Football’s beauty is myriad. It touches human life in so many ways. It even drives the economy of many nations! And it affects culture, practices and habits. Football makes families pray, argue and vigorously support their preferred teams in the very heart of their homes. Anger and passion rise during the game, but its beauty brings everyone back together afterwards.

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On the field too, tensions die out after the final whistle. Politics, and its own games, could take a lesson or two from the king of sports. Football’s sportsmanship gives room to no grudges, once the sporting event is over. It is not a winner-takes-it-all type of game. Every participant is rewarded fairly: with medals and glory, or simply with the pride of having been a part of the joyful event. This is so, because beauty is in the very core of football, in its heart, whenever the game starts: on the field, beauty shines, when a clear intention emerges to triumph over the capricious eddy of the opposition, when one set of tactics overcomes the other, when teammates pass the ball as if they could read each other’s minds, and when a piece of brilliant skill produces the illusion that a player is controlling gravity…

Our understanding of beauty is also associated with other important emotions and values. For instance, love, and friendship. Football is a friendly game – more, it is the game of friendship! Look at the play fields nearby your home: footballers enter the pitch as friends and leave it as better friends. Professional teams, who ought to be fierce adversaries, end the game with an exchange of their jerseys! And football is definitely a social game, bringing the group before the individual: all the players have specific roles to play, and yet, the same target: to win. At the end, it is the team that wins, and not just the goal-scorers or the coach.

The beauty of friendship is also visible in the way the players look. The connection of the players is first visible through the elegant assortment of their jerseys. And this external aesthetics is not only limited to the field. As we know, the fans are even more artistic, as they paint themselves with the colours of their favourite teams. One may also think of the very innovative and creative advertisements that herald the hosting of every major football event. Look at those leading up to the World Cup: so colourful and appealing to the senses! We sometimes say that beautiful colours speak loudest when they are mixed. We would find the main hue of a flower particularly beautiful only when surrounding colours highlight its intensity. The same applies to the game of football. It is played by people of all races and colours.

A bank commercial in view of the World Cup

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Football is a language – perhaps the most famous and powerful of global languages. It builds communication across the barriers of class, creed, and culture. Whatever their backgrounds, the environment of football remains the best place where people can put their problems and anxieties aside, relax their bones and focus on the beautiful game. Suddenly, they share the same language! And think of Goal ! It is a universal word. No matter the tongue, the country, the faith one may have, everybody knows that word and the incredible feeling it refers to. Each goal is a universal emotion, with its own universal word – a beautiful celebration, a celestial party… and everyone is invited to the dance floor! The word is easy to pronounce, and understood by all.

Football is a universal language, because the very practice of football is universal. Anyone that has feet is a footballer. Unquestionably, it is the sport that employs the greatest number of sportsmen and sportswomen across the world. It accommodates people of all ages and gender. You need not be a professional to play football. And with 22 players at a time on the field, and billions of watchers and supporters, football is a movement for global union, attaining an unmatched status in the world of sports!

In my own country, Nigeria, football is more than just a pastime or an entertainment. The youngsters are passionate about it. Fans throng viewing centres in numbers, even though a small fee is demanded. They would do anything to watch, argue and cheer their clubs to victory! The Premier League is particularly popular, and supporters of the English clubs – be it Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea – often go beyond the traditional tribal and religious divides. Football as a unifying force is even more visible when our national team, the Super Eagles, flies out to represent Nigeria in international tournaments! Watch out for them in the coming World Cup!

A Nigerian supporter

Living in India, I have come to realise the sharp contrast between the popularity of football in Nigeria, and its almost total absence here. Perhaps this is so because the Nigerian team is noted for its exploits in the world of football, unlike India. Nigeria is the current Champion of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and World Youth Champion of the Federation of International Football Under-17. In India, it is the game of cricket that drives people crazy. Inversely, cricket is hardly known in Nigeria… So, many Nigerians are engaged in professional football careers in India, perhaps hoping to inject the passion and beauty of the king of sports into the veins of Indians! It will be a beautiful cultural exchange if Indians who come to Nigeria introduce us to the game of cricket.

Football has a whole lot of lessons to offer our world deeply engrossed in animosity of all kinds. This game disciplines the players to accept defeat without a sense of failure. And it is also a creative response to the many needs of our societies: as the beauty of football blends nicely with the potential of cultural tourism, the game has become many peoples’ means of living. For me, an ardent fan, it is quite clear and simple: take away football, and a state of boredom sets in! And it is even a model for governance. If our societies could find inspiration in the genius and beauty of football, it would definitely help us greatly to mould visionary leaders for tomorrow.

NS Madhavan is a leading writer in Malayalam. His stories, football columns and travel articles enjoy a wide readership. His short story ‘Higuita’, which ended a decade-long period of writer’s block, is widely considered the best in hundred years of Malayalam literature. The protagonist, Father Geevarghese, is modelled on René Higuita, the 1990 FIFA World Cup goalkeeper for Colombia. Madhavan held a daily column, ‘Rainbow Days and Football Nights’ for a Malayalam newspaper during the 2010 World Cup. His novel in English translation, The Littanies of Dutch Battery, won the 2010 Vodafone Crossword Book Award.
Hyginus Uchenna Okoronkwo is a Nigerian Attorney at Law and a passionate football fan. He was awarded the degrees of LL.B from Ebonyi State University, Qualifying and Certificate Of Call To The Bar (BL) (Nigeria), and Diploma Certificate on United Nations and International Understanding from Institute of UN Studies (New Delhi). Uchenna is a lawyer of five years post-call experience, a published academician and conference speaker. He holds a Master of Comparative Laws (MCL) degree from University of Delhi, India.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images courtesy: Sharon Tenenbaum | Lady Arse | Baltic Worlds | Daily Mail | Vinicis Galvani | Buzz Nigeria

Voices courtesy: Samuel Buchoul & Satchin Joseph Koshy

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