The 22nd World Cup is rocking the house in the Qatari capital of Doha. Right on!
Here in the United States, we call it soccer. South of the border they call it futbol. Across the Atlantic and beyond they call it football. And Pele, who was, before he retired in 1977, uncontestably the greatest footballer of all time, once called it simply The Beautiful Game, or Joga Benito in his native Portuguese.
We’ll go with football. We’ll do that because it’s commonsense to call a game where one foot or the other is used by a player to kick a ball (foot ball) by that name — so, let Americans, who nonsensically call it soccer, stew in their own semantic juices.
And if you must know, I’m no fan of American football, a game where overgrown men, clad in what appears to be medieval armour, bang each other into unconsciousness.
What is not in doubt about football is that it is, without a doubt, the most beloved game on the face of this planet of ours, and the World Cup, since its first inaugural in 1930, has been by the far the most watched, broadcast as it is in our time in dozens of languages to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
And for these enraptured millions, football is not a game, No Siree! It is a projection on the playing field of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat they experience in their own quotidian lives.
What propels us to to project onto a game those kinds of passion? To tell football fans — or more accurately these football fanatics — particularly those cheering on their national team in the World Cup, that what they’re watching is a mere game would be tantamount to blasphemy. In short, for these folks, it would reduce football to a pastime, which in their view it clearly never was in the past, is not now and never will be in the future.
My, consider the medley of emotions, the adrenalin rush that you feel as one of the players in your national team approaches the end field, close to the goal of the opposing team, and how your fist clinches, your back straightens and a coldness, as in a light sleep, steals over your spine.
Yet, there’s more, I say, in the World Cup than that.
As nations meet for the games every four years, a harmonic transformation takes place in the global dialogue of cultures, for there, on the playing field, in the midst of the group ecstasy gripping the stadium the outcome of the competition between nations is determined by the ballet-like agility, the pinpoint passing, the skilful motor response — born out of years of training and practice — of the players, not by military prowess, economic hegemony and big power politics.
Deep down in all of us who passionately watch football, love football, care about football, equally passionately want to see the rules that govern its competitive spirit, not to mention the ethos of amity, projected on our lives, for at a seminal level of relating to it, football validates peace and speaks of humanity at its best, of people sublimating their innate predisposition for aggression through a game that transcends national differences, a game that does not involve war, violence and death.
I have written elsewhere of how, at the end of the day, you’ve got to take your hat off to the British for inventing football and exporting it to the world. And the reason it has caught on worldwide is because it seems to hit a universal chord in us — unlike the “sports” that characterised more violent times in human history, such to-the-death contests between gladiators and lions, that for centuries were considered an enjoyable pastime of urban populations in the Roman empire, and Medieval amusements like public hangings, cockfights and bearbaiting. (The Puritans, being Puritans, banned bearbaiting in the 1570s, not because it caused bears pain but because it gave men pleasure.)
The intriguing thing about football is that it is not just about football, for the game can teach something about everything.
As the French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus put it, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men I owe to football”.
No wonder we think of legendary footballers like Pele, Ronaldo and Zidane — men whose dazzling elegance, vision passing and ball control on the playing field continues to have a mastering grip on the marrow of our consciousness as football enthusiasts — count in our minds as great artists, up there with Vermeer, Van Gogh and Picasso.
Oh, the glory, the wonder that will dazzle the world this month and the next in the Qatari capital of Doha!
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.