The world is round, and so is a football

(A column published in DNA edition dated June 9, 2010, just ahead of the FIFA soccer World Cup.)

Venky Vembu

On the crossbar of the soccer goalpost in my school playground, back in the 1970s, was painted an unlikely quotation from Swami Vivekananda whose message was way beyond the comprehension levels of our young schoolboy-minds. It read: “You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita.” However, our attempts to invoke its literal meaning in our defence whenever we missed our school prayer sessions in favour of a bit of footie fun only landed us in deeper trouble.

Evidently, the mystic seer’s message was intended to convey the importance of physical fitness in young boys because the Gita could be better understood with “stronger biceps” and a bit of “strong blood” in young bodies.

The football field is, in many ways, the perfect metaphor for the wider universe, even to the extent that that while “karmic” rules are in place to ensure fair play, it’s possible to game the system. It isn’t any coincidence that the world is round, and so too is a football. It wouldn’t do, therefore, to dismiss the upcoming month-long soccer fiesta as a trivial sporting pursuit that holds little relevance beyond the playing field. Wars have been waged over soccer matches, and a passion for soccer has bestirred even one of the most evil human hearts.  

In 1969, for instance, Honduras and El Salvador waged a 100-hour ‘soccer war’, after riots following a qualifying round soccer match between them aggravated deep-seated political tensions over illegal immigration. And in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, its ruling junta whipped up patriotic fervour at home – by beaming television images from Argentina’s 1978 World Cup soccer triumph. And although Argentina lost that war to Britain, it secured retributive justice of sorts in 1986, when its national team, under Diego Maradona, kicked Britain out of the World Cup, thanks to Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal in a quarter-final encounter.

Other war wounds evidently take considerably longer to heal. In 1966, England beat West Germany in the final, thanks to a controversial ‘goal’ in extra time awarded to the English team by a Soviet linesman. Asked at his deathbed about the benighted goal, the linesman gave a one-word response – “Stalingrad!” – suggesting that he had claimed historical reparation on the sporting field for the German offensive against the Soviet city during the Second World War.

A team’s performance at the World Cup can define a country’s national identity and, should it win, send it soaring over the moon with euphoria. After Brazil’s 1970 triumph, a Brazilian newspaper recorded that the country’s victory with the ball compared with the American conquest of the moon! And when Brazil loses, it sets off a wave of suicides back home.

Soccer has been known to stir passion in the most unlikely of hearts. In 1994, for instance, a young and then-unknown Saudi national named Osama bin Laden, travelled to London to raise funds for his terrorist ventures; during his three-month stay there, he went to four Arsenal matches, and bought sporting memorabilia for his son.

Nearer home, Malayalam litterateur N.S. Madhavan drew inspiration from an unlikely soccer hero – Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita, who became famous in the 1990 World Cup – to got over a decade-long writer’s block! In his short story, Madhavan modelled his protagonist, a church priest, on Higuita, who had an eccentric playing style: he would often abandon his goalkeeper’s post, dart out into the midfield, and even try to score goals! Likewise, the priest challenges the sanctity of traditional priesthood roles in real-life situations. The short story was adjudged the best in 100 years of Malayalam literature.

Never let it be said, therefore, that what happens on a South African soccer field over the next month has no bearing on the real world. A penalty kick there could even change the course of history.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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