No, the publication of this piece after the World Cup is over is not owing to missed deadlines! If you don’t want to take my word for it, maybe the good people of Scroll.in editorial team will be able to convince you. Actually this is a deliberately retrospective reflection for the dedicated football fan who is quite understandably going through some acute withdrawal symptoms.
After witnessing the conclusion of a delightfully entertaining cup final (with an own goal, a dubious penalty, goalkeeping blunders, presidential fist pumps and of course, a pitch invasion!) one is quite justified in celebrating France’s deserving victory as the much needed validation for diversity and multiculturalism in a world plagued with anxieties of “authentic citizenship”. But even as we recognise the redemptive beauty of the game we don’t often make the connection between its global appeal and some major historical trends of late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Three chief socio-political trends of the last century across Europe, Latin America and Asia: capitalism, colonialism and fascism shared an intimate relation to the expansion of football as a truly “global game”. Interestingly, the impulses of modernist aesthetics have also been affected by the currents of these movements.
Naturally, modernist writers of repute have quite often reflected on the “beautiful game” in a moving way: either in their fiction or in more directly experiential (autobiographical) terms. The following passages from the great works (largely non-fiction) of modernist writers is an attempt to be a representative sample of such observations, especially dedicated to the mourning football devotee with a literary bent of mind.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)
When the Russian-American great enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge after the end of the First World War, he excelled academically as well as athletically. Nabokov was an accomplished lawn tennis player and boxer, but his chief moment of sporting glory was playing as a goalkeeper for his college. In his biography Speak, Memory (1966) Nabokov reflects on the stoic solitariness of goalkeeping:
“Of the games I played at Cambridge, soccer has remained a windswept clearing in the middle of a rather muddled period. I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his knee guards, the gloves protruding from the hip pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Photographers, reverently bending one knee, snap him in the act of making a spectacular dive across the goal mouth to deflect with his fingertips a low, lightning-like shot, and the stadium roars in approval as he remains for a moment or two lying full length where he fell, his goal still intact.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Camus’s line “What I most surely know in the long run about morality and obligations of men, I owe to sport” is oft quoted. The line was part of an essay and that, however, is not widely recognised, or translated for that matter. Camus wrote the essay, titled “What I owe to Football” in 1950, for the alumni magazine of his university football team Racing Universitaire d’Alger (RUA). The essay was later reprinted in the famous French football magazine France Football in 1957.
Camus, who was born in abject poverty in Algiers, started playing as a goalkeeper (the legacy of writers as goalkeepers could be the subject of a separate article) for his school team and then continued the run with the junior team or RUA. However, a bout of tuberculosis in 1930, when he was 17, damaged his lung quite significantly and marked the end of Camus’s sporting career. His love for the game, however, was to remain intact, as exhibited in this passage from the essay:
“Yes, I played for several years at the University of Algiers. It seems to me like yesterday. But when, in 1940, I put on my boots again, I realised that it was not yesterday. Before the end of the first half, my tongue was hanging out like those kabyles dogs that one comes across at two o’clock in the afternoon, at Tizi-Ouzou, It was a long while ago, then, from 1928 onwards, I believe, I made my debut with Montpensier sports club. God knows why, since I lived at Belcourt, and the Belcourt-Mustapha team is Gallia-Sports. But I had a friend, a shaggy fellow, who swam in the port with me and played water polo for Montpensier. That’s how one’s life is determined. Montpensier often played at the Manoeuvre Grounds, for no apparent reason. The ground was bumpier than the shin of a visiting centre-forward at the Alenda Stadium, Oran. I quickly learned that the ball never came to you where you expected it. This helped me in life, above all in the metropolis, where people are not wholly straightforward.”
George Orwell (1903-1950)
While Orwell admired football, he has always remained an ardent critic of the toxic blending of nationalism and partisanship. When The Moscow Dynamo, the formidable Soviet club, toured Great Britain in the latter half of 1945, Orwell wrote a remarkable essay titled “The Sporting Spirit”, for the democratic socialist journal Tribune. One of the most celebrated passages from the essay is the following:
“If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will ‘lose face’.”
Orwell’s contempt for the sinister connection between the sedation of leisurely fandom and mass deception is even more clearly charted out in the description of the proletariat in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
“So long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern...Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”
Harold Pinter (1930-2008)
Pinter’s writing reflected lifelong concerns of his working class background, and the celebrated dramatist was enthusiastic about both football and cricket. His Beckettian masterpiece The Dumb Waiter (1957) features a conversation between the two hit men Ben and Gus about a visit to Birmingham to see English football club Aston Villa play:
“Gus: I saw the Villa get beat in a cup tie once. Who was it against now? White shirts. It was one-all at half-time. I’ll never forget it. Their opponents won by a penalty. Talk about drama. Yes, it was a disputed penalty. Disputed. They got beat 2-1, anyway, because of it. You were there yourself.
Ben: Not me
Gus: Yes, you were there. Don’t you remember that disputed penalty?
Gus: He went down just inside the area. Then they said he was just acting. I didn’t think the other bloke touched him myself. But the referee had the ball on the spot.
Ben: Didn’t touch him! What are you talking about? He laid him out flat!
Gus: Not the Villa. The Villa don’t play that sort of game.”
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
It is said that the existential philosopher enjoyed skiing and football. However, the scale of the admiration is too vague and obscure to determine a consistent love for the game. Sartre’s footballing wisdom, however, has been best encapsulated by this line from his magnum opus Critique of Dialectical Reasoni:
“In a football match, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team”.
Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)
To call the celebrated Uruguayan journalist and novelist Eduardo Galeano a “writer on football” would be akin to describing CLR James as a mere “cricket writer”. Yet, his masterpiece Football in Sun and Shadow (El fútbol a sol y sombra, 1995) is probably the most preeminent literary tribute to the cultural impact of the game in Latin America and for that matter, our planet. His inclusion in the list is technically a bit tricky though, because even if Galeano belongs to the generation of late modernists, both his journalistic and fictional writings reflect a curious amalgamation.
On the one hand, Galeano’s socialist empathy was very much shaped by the global currents of decolonialism and anti-fascism. On the other hand, his fictional writings show a much more localised awareness of the changing winds of storytelling in contemporary Latin American literature. The following passage from the introductory chapter of the book is a wonderful representation of Galeano’s radical awareness:
“The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin de siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from the crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, a cat toying with a ball of yarn, a ballet dancer flying through the air with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee. Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not to facilitate play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy, and outlaws daring. Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee, and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.”
Note: Grateful acknowledgement is made to late poet and writer Ian Hamilton (1938-2001), whose 1991 anthology, The Faber Book of Soccer, anthologised both Camus‘s essay and the passage from Pinter’s play. Hamilton was a keen observer and lover of the game, and his anthology remains yet unmatched in compiling the best writings on football in English language. However, Hamilton’s book is especially dedicated to pieces on British football culture.