Soccer like art? Sure, with more fighting

Soccer is billed as ‘the beautiful game,’ but like any sport it is a partisan affair—and the better for it

Darren Staples/Reuters

The World Cup had an early case of life imitating advertising on Saturday, when England goalkeeper Robert Green let a slow shot from American striker Clint Dempsey skip off his hands and into the net. The goal salvaged a tie for the U.S.A., and the deep meaning of it all could be discerned from the comparative reaction of the two countries’ tabloids.

“Hand of Clod!” screamed at least two London dailies, a reference to Diego Maradona’s infamous handball goal that put England out of the 1986 finals. Across the pond, the New York Post captured the spirit of things with its gloating front page: “USA Wins 1-1”.

All told, it was an amazingly accurate re-enactment of the epic Nike commercial that went viral shortly before the World Cup started. For the five of you who haven’t seen it, the story follows a handful of global soccer stars in action on the pitch, and flashes forward to the consequences their actions have back home. England’s Wayne Rooney blows a pass, and he’s next seen living in a trailer home and looking like the Unabomber. Seconds later, Portugual’s Cristiano Ronaldo scores on a free kick and gets a stadium named after him. Even better, he lands a guest appearance on The Simpsons.

Three minutes long and filmed at a rumoured cost of US$24 million, the ad is a frenetic exploration of the central paradox of the World Cup: on the one hand, it is billed as a great celebration of worldbeat cosmopolitanism, a sort of United Colours of FIFA campaign as directed by Peter Gabriel. At the same time, there is no avoiding the fact that the game is about winning and losing, and the fate of players’ lives and the self-confidence of entire nations hinges on what happens over the next month in South Africa.

Soccer is usually billed as “the beautiful game,” something closer to ballet in cleats than a mere sporting event. But like all sports, soccer is an essentially partisan affair, and it is pretty much impossible to be fully engaged in it without cheering for one side or another. This is what distinguishes it from the other “higher” art forms such as painting, music, or dance. It is also what motivates a lot of the anti-sports snobbery that you find, on the grounds that anything that serves as the vehicle for such regressively tribal emotions can’t possibly be a serious art form. The arts, after all, are supposed to give expression to the higher virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness. Sports, meanwhile, is for troglodytes.

And by this standard, many see soccer as the most troglodytic sport of all. That’s pretty much the conclusion drawn by Ilya Somin, an American law professor who argued recently that, unlike American professional sports, international soccer “often promotes nationalist and ethnic violence and provides propaganda fodder for repressive or corrupt governments.” He observes that pro sports in the U.S. don’t seem to engage the passions of their fans the way soccer does in other countries, and he concludes that, “on balance, it is a good thing that it doesn’t.”

There is no question that there has long been an ugly side to the beautiful game at the international level, from the 1969 “soccer war” between Honduras and El Salvador that killed 2,000 people, to the grotesque propaganda effort of the North Korean regime this year. But this isn’t an argument against soccer. Rather, it is an argument against tyranny and oppression, and it is worth exposing the reflexive anti-nationalism that underlies these sorts of arguments. On this view, all partisanship is inherently bad, and what distinguishes cheering fans in a soccer stadium from the chanting crowds at a Nuremberg rally is simply a matter of degree.

But the interesting thing about partisanship is what it can teach us about the world. One of the more surprising aspects of watching the World Cup is realizing just how much each team has a characteristic style that is often such a close mirror of the nation’s stereotypical identity. The German team’s play is clinically anal, the English game is fast and rough, and the Italian team is dramatically operatic.

And so the World Cup is a league of nations in the most literal sense, where the competition between countries masks an underlying commonality of values and purpose. For a clear example of this, look no further than South Africa itself and appreciate just what a miracle it is that the World Cup is taking place there, only 16 years after the fall of apartheid. The racist regime took over South Africa in 1948, and in 1963 the country was suspended by FIFA. A number of other organizations followed suit, and by 1970 the country was subject to a large number of overlapping sporting boycotts, including golf, tennis, cricket, and the Olympics.

These boycotts alone didn’t bring down the apartheid regime. But they did focus international pressure on the country, and by shutting its teams out of the leagues of nations, it gave widespread moral legitimacy to the armed struggle that was being waged inside the country. By making a clear distinction between right and wrong, between acceptable regimes and those that are clearly outside the global community, this was partisanship of the best sort.

A few weeks ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said that “South Africa hosting the World Cup is a triumph for humanity.” He’s right. Sometimes the fate of a nation does hinge on what happens on a playing field. And sometimes that’s a very good thing.