Ryeberg Playlist: The People’s Game

1) Out For Blood

AdamMKeane, “Highlights of the World Cup” (2014)

George Orwell described soccer as “war without the executions,” but it should be remembered that Orwell was a man with war on the brain. Fellow Englishman, Desmond Morris, has always seen it differently: the whole ritual of a soccer match, he says, is a rather precise re-creation of the primeval ritual hunt. The players make no attempt to destory each other; they only want to get past their opponents in order to make a symbolic kill by shooting at the goalmouth — each team acting as both hunter and prey.

Morris says that once we got into biped mode, we began to hunt in groups, and with the right combination of strategy, cooperation, concentration, stamina, skill, imagination, strength, character, vistion, aim, motivation, and bravery, we made fine work of killing our chosen prey. And though this has radically changed since agriculture and the technologies of settlement, our primitive thirst for blood has never left us. We’ve had to devise “reciprocal hunts.”

Of all the modern sports, Morris says, it’s soccer that retains the greatest number of ancient hunting elements (not forgetting what happens off the pitch — think parades, chants, flags, face-painting), which partly explains its massive appeal. You’ve heard the mind-boggling statistics: whereas maybe 25 million people might watch a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, more than a billion people will watch a World Cup Final.

2) Myself I Owe To Soccer

When Albert Camus was asked by his friend Charles Poncet what he preferred, football or theatre, he replied: “Football, without hesitation.” Camus was spotted at the Parc des Princes in 1957, “parmi les 35,000 spectateurs,” shortly after winning his Nobel Prize. When the journalist notes the poor form of the FC Racing goalkeeper, Camus comes to the keeper’s defence: “Il ne faut pas l’accabler. It’s when one is in the middle of the woods that one realizes it’s difficult.”

INA, “Interview de Monsieur Albert Camus” (Paris, 1957)

A goalkeeper in his youth, Camus famously wrote: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” Camus recognized that soccer is a place where our moral attitudes are tested and expressed, on or off the pitch. We know intuitively that when we dress ourselves in the colours of a team, we’re joining a ready-made community with its own particular set of customs and beliefs, and will begin to shape our own self-image in the style and character of the team itself. English fans pride themselves on always winning the FIFA fair play award, but Argentinians say the award is the unflattering consequence of English conformism and submission to political domination: What good is “fair play” against Maradona’s hand? (“Take that you Imperialist swine!”) Easy to see how politics and soccer mix it up so nicely, especially during international competitions.

3) The Midfield Duo Of Beckenbauer and Jaspers

Is the sense of belonging offered by soccer fandom an intoxicating drug administered by the ruling classes to distract the people from their true political and economic interests? Or is it a sweet but empty antidote to the alienation of life in competitive urban, industrial society? People who find little interest in soccer sometimes like to debate these time-worn questions. Maybe they should follow Camus’s lead and get their kit on.

MontyPython,The Philosophers’ Football Match” (Grünwalder Stadion, 1974)

4) Soccer Made For Americans

Ryeberg lives in that neighbourhood of the global village where there’s little passion for the people’s game. Whenever the World Cup comes around, fans of baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and American football come out to rant about how horrible soccer is: scores are too low, players flop and feign injury, and passing the ball is a painful exercise in tedium. We’ve heard it all before. Could these naysayers ever be won over?

SlateV, “How To Get Americans To Watch Soccer” (2010)

5) Football Vs Football

American football is poorly understood in Europe, as is “European football” in North America. Why is that? John Cleese has a theory.

Hermann Vaske, “John Cleese Rants: Soccer vs Football” (The Art of Football, 2006)

Want to know where the word ‘soccer’ comes from? The game was invented in England as an amateur recreation for English school boys and Oxbridge gentlemen. The word “soccer” was coined in 1863, when the newly formed Football Association was still working out the rules of its two newly invented games — “football rugby” (kicking and handling) and “football association” (kicking only). The story goes that one day an Oxford toff named Charles Wreford-Brown was asked if he cared for a game of “rugger.” He replied that he’d much rather go for a game of “soccer” – an abbreviation of “association.”

When the sport got to America in the 1870s, it was first played by the Ivy League Brahmins of Yale, Princeton, and Columbia, and they accepted the nickname used by their blue-blooded counterparts in England. The name stuck. Meanwhile, as soccer spread downwards and outwards from Oxbridge into the urban, working populations of industrial towns, and then exported by traders and bankers to the British colonies, it came to be known by the more illustrative “football” — the people’s game. Now you know (talking to you John Cleese): it was ‘soccer’ first, ‘football’ second.

6) It Could Have Been Soccer

Soccer went professional in 1885. In this fascinating clip, you see one of the soccer greats, Alec Raisbeck, Liverpool’s first big superstar.

BFI, “Newcastle United v Liverpool: 1901″ (Mitchell Kenyon Collection, 2008)

Soccer’s adoption by the masses in England and elsewhere prompted the elite college boys to snub soccer in favor of rugby. Harvard felt so strongly that rugby should take precedence over soccer that it refused to join the soccer league of its fellow universities. This prompted Yale to do the same, and other universities followed. Soccer wouldn’t reappear at the collegiate level in America until 1902, by which time rugby’s successor, American football, had become the number one college sport.

Harvard historian Morton Henry Prince wrote in 1923 that “if Harvard had not refused [soccer] it is highly improbable that the modern game played today – the American Rugby (football) – would have ever been evolved. Instead, all the universities, colleges and schools today would be playing … soccer.”

World Cup Tweet Stephen Colbert

Instead, soccer was pushed off the campuses and into the blue-collar neighbourhoods of North America’s industrial cities. Immigrants fresh from the new soccer nations of Ireland, Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Italy loved soccer, but their desire to assimilate trumped habit and they switched to the people’s game of America: baseball (another sport that had swept downwards from the privileged to the working classes).

7) Soccer Shunned By America

Americans who carried on playing soccer did so specifically because it preserved a connection to their homelands, and from the 1880s onwards, ethnic teams set up their own competitions in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, and other big industrial cities. An American Soccer League was created in 1921, but it only survived a few years because it relied too heavily on immigrant players and fans.

ESPN, “Untameable Passion For The Beautiful Game” (New York, 2014)

Americans learned to identify soccer with entrenched ethnic subcultures, and U.S. Nativists accused soccer clubs of bringing European radicalism with them to America, of fomenting labor unrest, and even of playing a part in anarchist and then communist movements. These charges weren’t without grounds. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the American Communist Party saw in soccer an opportunity to mobilize working class support. Just as the spectre of the “Red Scare” was first being evoked, Party leaders vilified baseball and American football as bourgeois and exploitative, and announced soccer as the vanguard of their workers movement. With this, soccer’s status an alien sport, unbefitting to loyal Americans, was established once and for all.

Charles Demers World Cup Tweet

In other words, there is nothing inherent in soccer that prevents North America from embracing the game. Quite simply, by a few historical twists of fate, soccer got pushed aside by baseball and football just when modern, mainstream sporting culture was starting to develop. Is anybody still afraid of soccer in America today?

8) Gods Of Brazil

It’s well known that in Brazil, host country of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, soccer is bound up with the country’s various myths of national self-realization, with its ascent from slavery to racial harmony. Brazilians will reluctantly concede that they didn’t invent the game, but they see themselves as its adoptive parents. They’ll also tell you the GOAT is one of their own. No, not Pelé. The other one, the little bird with the funny legs.

BBC4,Pelé and Garrincha: Gods of Brazil” (2007)

Ryeberg continues to put in his ballot for Maradona as the GOAT (The Guardian places Pelé at the top of the list), but no matter — all the legends share a certain special quality that stands them apart from the rest: their unpredictability, their audacity, their touch — though never simply in the service of personal glory; somehow their moments of inspired play raise the team.

Lionel Messi has been named as Maradona’s successor, though he has yet to prove himself on the biggest stage. It’s not easy for the little guy. He was trained at Barcelona, the team that epitomizes the modern game of zonal play, which is all about avoiding defeat at all costs even if that means suppressing individual creativity. Barcelona’s players are standardized products of La Masia where control, efficiency, and caution are paramount. Messi still has to shake some of this Spanish professionalism and play the game the way he did as a little kid — that was the source of Maradona’s genius, and Garrincha’s: on the pitch they were happy little boys, show offs, keen to experiment and play and then play some more.

9) A Religion In Search Of A God

In the shrines of soccer, the hymns are sung by the congregation, on occasion 100,000 strong. At some point, FIFA decided to cut national anthems short in order to get through pre-match rituals more quickly, but in 2013, Brazilian fans kept on singing.

Brazil FC, “The Brazilian Anthem” (2013)

Brazilian fans do this all the time now, as do supporters of Chile, Colombia and other South American teams. Communal fervour like this can bring a tear to your eye or an icy stab of dread to your heart. Jorge Luis Borges felt the icy stab, seeing in excitable soccer crowds the rumblings of ugly nationalism: “Soccer is popular because stupidity is popular,” he said.

David Goldblatt in his brilliant book, “The Ball Is Round,” is less cranky and far more measured: “The football crowd is no song of praise for deities; it announces the birth of Durkheim‘s living cults, the celebration of the miracle of our own solidarities, innumerable imagined communities of class, ethnicity, nation, region, neighbourhood and community, struggling to be born.”

10) FIFA Vs The People

If there is an omnipotent force at work on the soccer pitch, shaping or dictating the run of play, it is not a Supreme Being, it is FIFA.

LWTWJohnOliver, “FIFA & The World Cup” (2014)

Give our lives meaning? Maybe the thing soccer gives us is relief from meaning, from our ceaseless need to make sense and give depth. It doesn’t have to be about identity and narrative and politics and commercial imperatives. Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgård, puts it like this: “Soccer is the antithesis of literature because the magic it casts has no consequences; when the match is over, it is forgotten, and the unexpected that opens up reveals nothing other than itself. In this way soccer is closer to life, which literature is always seeking to give depth to, to imbue with meaning, but which presumably only has depth and meaning there, in literature.”

The story that soccer tells is yours to write.

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