It's soccer World Cup time again! Reader, do you love this? Or do you hate it? Or does it leave you indifferent?
I love it, and I'll try to explain why in this blog post. There are several reasons, and I'll leave the one that interests me the most until last.
First of all, soccer is my favourite game to watch. I like how it flows. I much prefer it to spasmodic, stop-start games such as rugby, where stoppages seem more common than actual play.
I also like the rarity of goals. Nick Hornby wrote about this in his memoir Fever Pitch. (He's a hideously politically correct writer, but it's a good book.) A soccer match can easily be a nil-nil draw. Goals are not to be presumed. They are a big deal when they come along.
(Although not as big a deal as they are in the Eton Wall Game, where they are usually scored once a decade or so.)
Reader, this might shock you, but I was a massive soccer fan throughout my teens, and I had a slowly diminishing interest in it through my early twenties. I was such a huge soccer fan that my family (and others) sometimes complained that I was a soccer obsessive. My little brother was an even bigger fan.
We both became soccer fans during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, which was the first World Cup that Ireland qualified for. This was a watershed moment in Irish social history, and it was also a watershed moment in my own awareness of the world. My memory before the 1990 World Cup is patchy. After the 1990 World Cup, it's much more continuous.
The World Cup was a massive event in Ireland. The entire country seemed to be talking about it. I'd never experienced national unity of this kind, and it shaped many of my views about national consciousness and social solidarity.
But I get ahead of myself...
Some people, especially conservatives, are very grumpy about sports. Peter Hitchens (who I greatly admire in most things) often complains about the "cult" of soccer, dismissing it as "twenty-two men chasing a bladder around a field". The Australian novelist Patrick White was withering about the Australian love of sports. One of my lecturers, in college, once derided sport as "form without substance."
I can remember thinking even at that moment: "Well, you could say the same about so many things." You could say the same about classical music, non-representational art, fireworks, dancing, and any number of other prestigious activities.
Utilitarianism is one of the things I detest most of all, and contempt for sports is a manifestation of utilitarianism. I also think it's a form of philistinism.
I don't even like defences of sport which defend it on the ground of its incidental virtues. People defend sport because playing it keeps you fit, teaches you team-work and discipline, and so on. Sport as a spectacle is sometimes cherished as a tradition or a part of one's identity.
I'm all in favour of all those things, but I think it's important to insist that sport doesn't need any of those justifications. The clue is in the name itself: SPORT. It's done for the sport of it!
Once again, I have occasion to quote one of my favorite lines from G.K. Chesterton: "The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn." The whole created universe is an act of divine grace, utterly gratuitous and for its own sake. Why should sport not exist for its own sake?
I'm not saying all those other dimensions aren't important. I wish I enjoyed Ireland's major national games, hurling and gaelic football, since they are such important cultural traditions. But I don't-- partly because of the gameplay itself, and partly because of associations from my childhood that I can't shake off. I'm glad they exist, I'm glad they thrive, but I don't enjoy watching them.
On the other hand, I don't like that soccer is such an orgy of commercialism, and that it's the game of globalization. I'm sad to see it making strides in the USA (since this diminishes American exceptionalism). But there is a danger of seeing the cost of everything and the value of nothing-- which is Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic.
All of this makes it sound like I'll be glued to the television during the World Cup. But that's not the case. I've already watched a few minutes of it, and I might watch a game or two. On the other hand, I might not.
And here we come to the main theme of this blog post, the one that interests me the most.
I love the World Cup because, even if you don't watch a single game, it's still there. It's in the background, in the atmosphere. I love everything of that nature.
I love Christmas for this reason. I love Halloween for this reason. The same goes for general elections, parades, demonstrations, snowstorms, the seasons of the year, crazes of every kind, TV broadcasts that grip the nation, the liturgical year of the Church, big cinema releases, and so forth.
I love everything that's just there, in the background, and which gives flavour and character to a particular moment in time.
A good example of this is the refrain from "A Fairy-Tale of New York", the Pogues song:
The boys from the NYPD Choir were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were singing out for Christmas Day.
The simple addition of a background event makes the vignette so much more vivid. (Famously, the New York Police Department has no choir.)
Writers of all kinds love to add such backgrounds into their works, even when they have nothing to do with the main theme. For instance, Die Hard would be a much lesser film if it wasn't set at Christmas.
(Mention of Christmas, however, leads me to my usual gripe about Christmas...it has too much of a monopoly when it comes to traditions, and also when it comes to this kind of backdrop in art and fiction. It's depressing that the two examples above are both Christmas examples.)
One of the things I love about these "backgrounds" is the scenery they provide to the "puppet show of memory" (to steal a wonderful phrase from Maurice Baring, a friend of G.K. Chesterton, who gave his autobiography this title.) When you remember a particular moment from your life, the presence of some background atmosphere such as the World Cup, or a hit single that was hugely popular at the time, or a snowfall, makes it so much more vivid-- and also richer. (Of course, this need not be a purely private pleasure. Such seasoning also flavours "Do you remember...?" conversations.)
Indeed, the same is true of things that happened before your birth-- the atmosphere of a particular historical moment gives added flavour to a photograph, story, film or other artifact from that time.
The World Cup has its own traditions. In previous blog posts, I've mentioned the book Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well! by Ted Bonner, a collection of very old-fashioned humorous essays from 1974. One article was full of advice for "World Cup widows", women whose husbands would be wedded to the television for the month of the World Cup. This was a fairly common World Cup trope until recently-- of course, political correctness is likely to discourage it. (An internet search quickly encounters an article denouncing its "sexism"-- by somebody I knew in college, I'm ashamed to say.)
I'm conscious that the theme of this post is rather similar to some of my recent posts. I suppose this sort of subject has been on my mind a lot recently. But the advent of the World Cup makes it topical.
I hope England win it. And failing England, Germany.