The World’s Game and Our World

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Recently one of my co-workers, in explaining his zeal for the World Cup, said, “It’s the world’s game and I love the world!”

Football. Futbol. Soccer. Whatever you call it, there is no denying its international appeal. No other form of sport can claim such world-wide loyalty and support. In fact, on a scale of universal popularity, the “Big 3” of American sports – Baseball, Basketball and their version of Football – are the poor cousins to the Beautiful Game. It is played and loved with reckless abandon on every continent. A glance at the crowds at the World Cup will give you red and yellow, black and white;  cultures as disparate as dancing Ghana and stolid Germany; cries and chants and songs in Portuguese, Korean, Dutch and Arabic. In a world that seems to be more fractured than ever, this simple game unites. It is quite literally a level playing field that crosses boundaries, ethnicities, politics and languages. Every four years the nations gather together to kick, pass, tackle and flop their way through the Great Ballet de Ballon. Even if you are a Hater, you have to admit: It is the World’s Game!

That being the case, I began to wonder: What does the World’s Game tell us about our world? If so many billions can share a love for football, then what can football tell us about ourselves? I’d like to share with you some observations I have made while watching and cheering and groaning my way through the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

South Africa worldcup 2010 - fireball

First, after all these millennia, we remain very tribal.

My tribe, your tribe: Associated with the negative side of this perspective is the term tribalism, i.e., to view your group as being better than another; believing in the innate superiority of your tribe over other tribes. This in and of itself is a human tendency but left unchecked it can lead to oppression and violence. Certainly, our world history is full of examples of tribalism, whether based in an ethnic tribe, religious tribe, political tribe or national tribe, that have led to atrocities and horrors galore. Unfortunately, these events are not just part of our past but also part of our present. For some reason we persist in our tribalistic tendencies, needing a reason to elevate ourselves over others, to promote our tribe at the expense of another.

All the flag waving and face-painting and chanting at World Cup time can carry a chilling note. Football has its own ugly history of violence, xenophobia and racism; also a past but present reality that can’t be ignored. The Game has often been much more than a game: Its beauty has been marred by scars and has held a mirror up to our world. If it sometimes seems repulsive that is because we as a human race continue to deface ourselves with self-inflicted wounds.

Does loyalty and pride in your tribe necessarily bring you down to depravity? Does it inexorably lead to fractures and divisions? As the camera pans the crowd at the World Cup games, I’m struck by the peacefulness of the tribes often seated side-by-side, cheering for a different colour down on the pitch but all just a part of a great, vibrant mass of humanity. I often find myself smiling and laughing with joy as I see the displays of zeal for their home side. I can’t help but be swept up in this because it is infectious. The positive side of this is the fact that we find so much common ground in our common tribal mentality. Grown men weeping, children jumping up and down, people grabbing each other in spontaneous embraces: How can you not feel part of that, no matter what your tribe? It is so gloriously human.

The world is full of tribal people like you and me but that doesn’t have to lead down a path of self-destruction. It all comes down to either creating division or celebrating diversity. I hate my divided World but I love my diverse World. The World Cup and the World’s Game has the potential to help us all sing and dance in unified diversity.

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Second, despite our increasingly complex world, the simple things remain true.

Technology sets the pace in the world and that pace sometimes feels like hyperspace. What was once cutting-edge is now outdated in a matter of months. Trying to keep up with this race means money, time and the margin in life to stay in step. This complexity points to the ever-growing disparity between the Haves and Have-Nots in our world today. Quite often, the poorer citizens of the earth do not have the resources to keep pace. Mostly they are just trying their best to survive, to support their families, to put the proverbial daily bread on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Those of us in the richer nations take our life margin for granted, believing this is the way everyone lives. However, this is not the case. I have the money to afford the laptop I type this on and the margin in life to have the time to do so. In other words, I have at my fingertips what billions of people in my world do not have the resources to grasp.

Where is the common ground in all of this? Is it even possible to find common ground between the wealthy few and the struggling many? Simplicity is where we find commonality. The simple things of life hold true for me, you and everyone else that shares this small planet spinning in space. Love, family, laughter, music, creativity, work, play – these things are true everywhere and with everyone. And included in that picture is the simplest game ever created. A game that needs only a patch of ground and something that resembles a ball. The Beautiful Game, the World’s Game, could easily be known as the Simple Game because it simply is so.

Twenty-five years ago I was struck by these thoughts as I spent time in a small village in the country of Liberia, West Africa. I was visiting with a professor of mine and a small group of college students from the U.S. and Canada. From Monrovia we were driven deep into the forested countryside, late at night in a place no electric light interfered. At times on the drive in through those ridiculously rugged roads I felt like I was entering Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Our first night we pitched our tents on a large open patch of ground. It wasn’t until dawn that I realized we had pitched on the pitch, that is, the football pitch that had been carved out of the forest for the use of the village. It was certainly not a level playing field; some stumps were left that were too stubborn to remove; out-of-bounds was the dense rainforest that surrounded the pitch. Yet a lot of hard work had gone into making room for the World’s Game in this remote corner of the world.

In that village I saw people living in abject poverty; living without so many of the things I thought were essential. Yet we found common ground in the simple things like sharing a joke, goofing around with the kids, attempting to dance, and even running around on that rough-but-ready soccer field, kicking a ball, playing a simple game together.

Boys play football, Senyah, Liberia, 1989

Boys play football, Senyah, Liberia, 1989

The World’s Game tells me that much of my world is poor because the game can thrive in the poorest of places. It is so simple and takes so little; that is where it finds its genius.

The World’s Game also tells me that my world can find common ground when we lean on the simple things. If we define ourselves in other ways, based on our wealth or power or influence, we create deep divides between ourselves and those who can never attain those jaded virtues. But if we define ourselves based on the simple things, we create bridges that bring us together, that make us realize that we hold much more in common than we realize.

Defining what it means to be human can always be boiled down to the simplest of things. The World’s Game, the Simple Game, has the potential to help us see each other as simply another human being, one with the same joys and fears as me.

It is, in the end, just another game. But also, in the end, I’m just another human being.

Ultimately, what do I take from my observations on the World Cup 2014? It is the World’s Game. And I love the World.

 

 

 

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