So you've noticed it's on? Love it or hate it, but there's no hiding place. My son, currently on his Gap Year project teaching English (and football) to refugee Tibetan Monks in northern India, has been able to follow all football scores closely thanks to the passion of the monks. His joining instructions for the project were clearly stated, "Please bring shin pads"(!). The doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence, receives an exemption from the field of football it seems.
But that's the whole point of it all. Men (mainly men) who live in sedentary, safe, office-based, and politically correct environments are suddenly given licence - or give it to themselves - to revert to their default setting: aggressive, loud, comfortably prejudiced, and boorish. How easily the mask of the Sensitive New Age Guy is slipped off!
Far worse than the violence unleashed on the sofa is the reliance on familiar stereotypes in the commentary of both fans and TV hosts. When the Swiss are described as a 'very tidy side', the Germans as 'well-disciplined', and the Italians as the most clearly 'theatrical', you realize how all pervasive these national caricatures are.
And it can verge on the racist. One pundit described Ghana continually as 'native' and 'boys'. Flamboyant and colourful (but profligate) is the general view, totally unlike the purposeful and sportsmanlike mien of our own English boys.
'Sportsmanlike' is of course a euphemism for 'loser' in the World Cup. Although the Swiss aren't doing too badly with playing this way - in their first match they twice kicked the ball into touch when an opposing player lay injured, even though his own teammates played on and had abandoned him. Then again, they are expected to play in this 'neutral' way.
When Germany thundered to their first four-goal victory, our TV host said sagely, "They'll be slamming down their overflowing steins of lager in the Hofbrau house tonight!"
This aside, the great thing about this glorious month is that we can truly be Men Behaving Badly, if not on the terraces then at least in the small part of our living room or local pub that is forever ours. Well, until July 9th anyway.
Jules Rimet, the French non-footballer who gave birth to the World Cup, hoped it would be a force for greater unity and understanding between nations. And, despite the kicking, diving, elbowing, and shirt-pulling, it strangely pulls this off. Now previously ignorant millions know that Togo is in West Africa (right next to fellow qualifiers Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, actually), and are inspired to look up the boundaries of Serbia and Montenegro. Not to forget Tobago.
The positive dream is that wars and territorial disputes could be settled on the football pitch. That 'level playing field' so beloved of politicians. Brazil would be the dominant nation in this brave new world, the USA, perennial outsiders. South Korea would have a seat at the highest executive level, while the Saudis would be using their oil billions to comb the world for promising youths to grant citizenship to.
Territorial disputes would be settled by penalty shoot-outs watched by the whole world, and even Iraq would be allowed to pick its own team for a change. UN peace-keeping forces would be needed only to stand between rival fans at key games and could earn overtime guarding referees, the best paid and most cherished career choice for the new intelligentsia.
In this way, sport and its most beautiful game could be a relatively harmless channel for all the world's aggression, or at least that of the male population. Minds could be expanded by 'twinning' of national teams with fans encouraged to become expert on the customs, language, and demographics of their new World Cup partner. Imagine:
- Germany and the Faroe Islands
- Togo and Tasmania
- Botswana and Fiji
- Ecuador and Latvia
- South Africa and the Netherlands (perhaps not!)
People would only be allowed to enter matches after successfully completing a quiz on their opponents, answering questions on population, history, and economics. And a compulsory question on flag and national anthem recognition. Except for English fans, who would be required to also answer the same questions on their homeland.
Likely? 'Dream' is the most over-used word in commenting on the World Cup, but here it's most appropriate. What if the dream came true? Why not?
But in the meantime, let's just enjoy this all-too-rare sporting binge. Enjoy without guilt at postponed garden and household jobs, not to mention the career on hold. Come on Ingerland!
Originally published: Mon 26 Jun 2006