Every four years my normal interest in soccer (which I will hereafter call “football,” thus indicating that I am a North American but not excessively proud of it, since the word “soccer” just catches in my throat) is elevated to a fever pitch when the World Cup rolls around. And every four years, like clockwork, we hear the predictions that football is about to come into its own in North America. The next decade, we were told in the eighties and nineties, is the decade when football will finally take hold. North Americans will develop the aficion that the world already embraces.
Of course, we are still waiting. It seems that there is something in football that fails to stir the North American imagination, some resistance we have to it as a meaningful activity. We embrace hockey, baseball, basketball, MMA, a whole range of sports. We can even get excited about bobsledding and decathalon every four years, but we hold back suspiciously from football, as if it is about to tell us something that we don’t want to know. It may be that the meaning of football is beyond us. We are not ready for its hard lessons.
Watching three games a day for the last week, something occurs to me, and becomes clearer and clearer to me: The “beautiful game” is ugly. Surely there is no sport in the history of mankind that features incompetence, banality, failure, duplicity and anguish as much as football.
Although it is true that every sport features moments of failure (the strikeout, the allowed goal, being knocked unconscious), it is also true that every moment of failure is accompanied by a more apparent and obvious moment of triumph that will be remembered more vividly than the failure. We remember and replay the punch that scores the knockout, the split-fingered fastball that completes the no-hitter, the slapshot that eludes the goalie. We celebrate and recall the triumphs, and understand the painful failure as a necessary by-product of that triumph. Failure, for North American sports fans, is never a thing in itself. In fact it is so rare to note spectacular moments of failure, that really historic moments of incompetence (like the hapless Bill Buckner’s World Series blunder at first base) become iconic, to be approached with eyes averted. North American sports are optimistic celebrations of skill. Hockey players glide with more-than-human speed and finesse, basketball players score points flying through the air, boxers can’t move without embodying power and strength.
But the texture of football — its essential background — is failure and banality. And, what is more, football celebrates this ugliness. I don’t deny the breathtaking skill required to play football at the world cup level, but the optics of the game render this skill all but invisible. Average sized and smallish men in baggy uniforms routinely miss a target that is, quite literally, larger than a garden shed. I have seen simple passes made under no pressure that fail to connect to a teammate ten feet away. I have seen, already in the last two weeks, goaltending blunders that would have lost a Canadian his citizenship. I have seen shots taken by the best players in the world that seemed perversely designed to miss the goal. I have seen the English team trot through a scoreless tie with Algeria like despondent llamas, and a French team whose plodding petulance will all but erase the memory of past world cup triumphs. Football players are capable of playing so badly that games — very much unlike even bad hockey, baseball, or basketball games — simply become distressing and saddening to watch. And far from turning away from all this awfulness, football broadcasts it. The camera will dwell on the anguish of a player who has just missed a shot into an open net. And the announcers, I have noticed this week, will not discuss a scoring play without adding “The defense really fell down on that one,” or, snidely, “Well, the goalkeeper has to do much better than that!”
And as if the missed shots, bobbled passes, scoreless ties, own-goals weren’t enough, the game becomes even uglier when we add in the ever-present fakery, diving, groans of anguish and Shakespearean death scenes that make footballers seem less like athletes and more like amateur thespians at an improv workshop. Football offers us officials so gullible they surely must moonlight as referees for professional wrestling, and features an offside rule so perverse and impossible to call that it not only guarantees that all action will stop the moment the game becomes exciting, but that many goals will be rabidly disputed and dissected for decades (see New Zealand’s goal against Italy) and will rankle with the losers and taint the pride of the victory. And this is not even to mention the gambling and sex abuse scandals, the temper tantrums and locker-room feuds. Football is truly a horrible game. Has no one has picked up on the irony of calling this slow, stumbling, bumbling mess “the beautiful game”?
And this is precisely what we miss in North America. Our games are finally about triumph. They accept defeat only as the poor cousin of victory. Everything is geared to the promise that we will break the bonds of the human condition and watch heroics (and make no mistake: our constant bleat that the innocence of sports and the glory of athletic heroes have been lost is the greatest indicator of how tightly we still hold to our childhood dreams).
But football is immersed in the very ugly and limiting conditions of everydayness. Unjust decisions, unfair play by opponents, days when the emotion necessary for victory just isn’t there. Skillful players make mostly unskillful plays. The vast majority of attacks sputter out weakly and come to nothing. There is falling and clutching, tangles and flying elbows, and always balls dribbling out of bounds. Whole teams run out of ideas. Energyless games end nil-nil. One begins to suspect that the average football fan must be sustained by a healthy dose of masochism.
But then there is the moment.
In Uruguay’s game against host team South Africa, Diego Forlan, barely in sight of goal, takes an unlikely shot, and it is as if the ball has left ordinary time, as if the moment the ball was struck the goal was assured and all we could do along with the players was to watch it happen. There is always a kind of agonizing stasis as the ball flies, and strangely, the harder the ball is struck, the more laser-like it is, the more it gives this impression that one is already watching the original moment in slow motion. Brazil’s Maicon scores a goal from an impossible angle against North Korea, and his shot seems to defy the laws of physics as it swerves into the goal. New Zealand’s young goalkeeper Mark Paston performs acrobatics against powerhouse Italy, flying horizontally across goal, attacking the ball with a balletic ferocity to win an almost miraculous draw for his country. There are moments when the great teams are on the attack and amid the chaotic swirl of bodies, the dogfight of defense and attack, we can perceive a delicate pattern emerge, the series of three and four and five lightning passes that cut through the madness and finish with the ball in the back of the net. It is fragile and easily missed, but it is what all football fans thrill to.
And this is perhaps what we fail to understand about this ugly beautiful game. It is only from the wreckage of the game, from its human limitations, its coarseness and its mundanity that the beauty can emerge. Football is not offered to us as an escape from the hard conditions of living, but as proof that it is from those conditions — let them be as petty, as grotesque, as cruel as they will — that the moments of beauty and perfection will emerge, as eternal as they are fleeting.