The proper name for soccer, which goes back to the formal organization of the game in England in the 1860s, is “association football.” The fact that we omit the first word shows that we miss the key point about the sport. Football remains an experience of association, of collaborative patterns of play on the pitch and habits of sociability among supporters. Football means talking with friends, fellow fans, seemingly random strangers who share the space of your neighborhood, city, or world and to whom the game happens to speak in the same way. Sure, there are thugs who have done tremendous harm in the name of the game. But these are a tiny minority and do not represent true fandom. Fans are intensely animated and passionate when they talk about football, but they are also reasonable and decent. One treats supporters of the wrong teams with a ribald frenmity. There is no real hate, well maybe apart from my feelings about Manchester United.
What football is not about is money—however many tens of millions of euros players may now be traded for. It is not about construction boondoggles in Brazil or Qatar, dodgy government officials and shoddy labor practices. It is not about Coke or Budweiser or any other Official Sponsor. Nor indeed is it about FIFA, an entirely corrupt organization administered by the extremely suspicious Sepp Blatter, who is the Robert Mugabe of world sports. It is not about the shiny, televised display of tribes and nations in symbolic, indeed rather atavistic, combat. If this were all true, the World Cup would merely be a reflection of our age at its worst and most gaudy, a continuation of war by other means. (In Brazil, where there is a really good chance of major political unrest in opposition to the government’s cynical investment in stadia at the expense of basic infrastructure and social services, that could mean something close to civil war.) As things are, the tournament, despite itself, still has much pleasure to offer, indeed whole bucketfuls.
Connoisseurs like to argue that football is an art form, and it’s true that the enjoyment it generates is fiercely aesthetic. As I’ve written elsewhere, for me, a product of the Irish-Anglo minestrone of Liverpool, football is working-class ballet. There is a great beauty in a deft move or sequence of plays. Sometimes this is the tiki-taka of Barcelona at its peak, the Barca players harrying the opposition into losing possession, then moving the ball relentlessly, then effortlessly tapping it home. Sometimes it’s the physical power and attacking speed of Bayern Munich as they demolished Barcelona 4-0 (then 3-0 for good measure) in the Champions League semifinal last year. As in art, one movement gives way to another. Part of the anticipation for this World Cup is which school will emerge ascendant.
But more essentially, the truly great players possess grace: an effortless containment in their bearing and elegance of movement, long periods of idling interrupted by sudden accelerations and pivots, bursts of controlled power. When a player does this alone, the effect is stirring; when four or five do this in concert—as with Brazil in 1970 and 1982, and Spain in 2010—it is breathtaking.
There’s another component to grace, however. It is the cultivation of a certain disposition, some call it faith, in the belief that grace in its physical form will be dispensed at the crucial moment. Found in the players who have to believe that their bodies will perform at the precise instant when they are called upon, it is what we call composure. Yet it also exists in fans, who may find it hard to be composed, who may in fact be red-faced and screaming their heads off, but who are nonetheless bound up in something larger by their belief that something graceful, magical, is about to happen on the pitch. One hears from skeptics that football is boring, but it is the inaction that allows for the sudden, sometimes absurd, ultimately vitalizing escalations of tempo and drama. You have to pay close and constant attention or you miss those moments, and that lends intensity to the viewing experience; the avid fan, I have noted, is merely seeking to maximize the intensities of existence, as Spinoza taught. He or she gives himself over to football in an almost tantric way. It is a form of a fandom that requires, one might even argue, a philosophical attitude. I would say that—I’m paid to teach philosophy—but it also happens to be right.
Then every four years comes the World Cup, when, especially during the group stages of the first two weeks, one can justifiably maximize his or her intensities for an entire day, getting up only to eat something and stretch the legs. One match ends and—joy of joys—another one begins in an hour. Now, the fan knows that there are very few teams that are actually likely to win it all. Compared with the big American team sports—college basketball, NFL football, the NBA, etc.—in which there really are Cinderella stories, or at least unexpected champions, World Cup football really does tend to follow a script once the knockout stages begin. Since its inception in 1930, only eight nations have won the tournament, and a final without Brazil (five championships), Italy (four), or Germany (three) counts as a twist. The location of this World Cup makes its outcome even more predictable. On each of the seven occasions the World Cup has been held in the Americas (not forgetting the final in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in 1994 and twice in Mexico City in 1970 and 1986), South American teams have won. Chile looks very useful and Uruguay plays like a resilient, coherent club team, but as much fun as it is to think about either winning, it’s really going to be either Brazil, if it can endure the pressure, or (my pick) Argentina. Along the way there will be a lot of rolling around on the grass, time-wasting, cynical tactics, and Mourinhian defensive displays. There will be triumph for a very few and righteous injustice and pain of defeat for the rest of us. But there will be this, too: Something unexpected, wonderful, and possibly even magical might happen. There will be grace.
And then we will talk about it. A lot.
About two hours before sitting down to write this essay, I was walking down Smith Street in Brooklyn on my way to the barbershop. I was wearing a Liverpool Football Club tracksuit, which I wear every day around the neighborhood. My wife thinks I look like a douche bag, but I think I know better.
As I came to one corner, I saw a guy smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk, wearing a faded Liverpool t-shirt—it was sort of nasty looking, a muddy red and gray blur caused by too much time in the washing machine at the wrong temperature. We caught each other’s eye at the same moment and (oddly) both pointed at each other with our right-hand index fingers, then immediately slipped into intense conversation.
We talked about the final weeks of a hugely exciting but harrowing English Premiership season, about how Liverpool failed to win the Premiership, about how we panicked against Chelsea and choked against Crystal Palace, the moments of transcendence entirely the other guys’. Then we talked about whether we would keep our star player, the Uruguayan Luis Suárez, from going to play for Real Madrid and about who else might be leaving Liverpool between now and the start of the new club season in August, when we get to do it all over again. The conversation lasted for about three minutes, at the end of which, we finally introduced ourselves and shook hands, saying hello/goodbye.
I made it to the barbershop and fell right into another football conversation, like a left back completing a long give and go. Daniel and Gabriel—the barbers—are cousins and both orthodox Jews from Uzbekistan. Your natural diehard fans, in other words. We mused about England’s chances in the Cup, with a first game against Italy in the Amazonian jungle on June 14. We are rubbish, I said. What about Wayne Rooney? Daniel said. What about bloody Rooney? I said—was all I needed to say. They’d been watching, too; they knew what I meant.