A joyous history

The word sport apparently stems from the Greek word for pastime, or a short form of the French word “Desport”. If the latter, that can only be seen as unfortunate, given the current French antics at the World Cup tournament in South Africa. Most research leads to unexpected knowledge: in this case, I learnt that the Greek word gymnasium means place to be naked. Since in northern Europe a gymnasium is a high school, it all becomes rather confusing. Perhaps it explains some of that teen promiscuity.

 Any sport must have three qualities in order to be successful; it must be competitive, it must be fun to play, and last, it must be interesting to watch. Most of the sports that captivate large audiences are team activities, not surprising given that human nature favors gregarious interaction over individual achievement. A couple of weeks ago I overheard a twenty-something guy in the strip joint (aka the gym) explaining that he didn’t go there much because it was like going to a meeting where only one person showed up.

Team play teaches kids to be part of society, and most team games reinforce solidarity, role playing, and the will to excel. Some, like baseball or cricket, even encourage role reversal (batting and fielding), giving youngsters deeper insights into alternate models for future life, or a better understanding of the enemy. Because of course all team sports are ritualized combat. Many individual ones too.

The soccer world cup presently being disputed in South Africa fascinates me in a number of ways. The first is the role of small countries, clearly punching above their weight. Think Paraguay, Ghana, Portugal. The second is the emergence of the underdogs, watching the US play England, or New Zealand play Italy. In the mix, the huge emotional load of an African tournament, a whole continent dreaming of an African triumph. It won’t happen, not in terms of bringing the cup to Africa, but the tournament has already shown that Africa can make this big event a great success. And in that sense this is already an African triumph.

The third and most worrying is discrimination – allowing Brazil’s Fabiano to control the ball with his arm,  or disallowing a perfectly legal US goal. Money talks. Very loudly.

Which brings me to the Magnificent Seven. Yesterday Portugal defeated the DRK to the tune of 7-0, practically guaranteeing their passage into the knockout stage of the cup on goal average alone. After the second goal, the North Koreans looked fragile, and after the third, it was clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction to save the day. By the time the ball bounced off Ronaldo’s back, over the top of his head, and fell in front of him to be kicked in mid-air for the sixth goal, it was quite clear that God is Portuguese.

But I feel for the guys who bet the opposite side of the trade, the poor fellows whose family names are Kim and Pak, the people who must go home after the next game and explain they set the record for the biggest loss in decades at the final stages of a world championship. The greatest difference between war and sport is that in the latter there is only ritual killing. Additionally sport should be fun, but a glance at the DRK squad makes it clear that no one is enjoying himself. Even before the debacle. Glum faces, grim thoughts. What a contrast with Ronaldo and the others on the Portuguese team, who smiled ruefully at fate whenever an opportunity was denied.

Of course the Portuguese soccer team has a twelfth player, and this is not widely appreciated by the other nations, particularly the Europeans. The Brazilians understand, since they are another side of the same coin, and hope to bask in reflected glory if the Portuguese fall by the wayside. When you read The India Road, you too will understand what’s going on here. We’re in South Africa, for centuries a British colony, but you don’t see much local support for the English team. As you won’t do when the World Cup is held in India, a few decades from now. It’s the capacity to find a way to the heart of local communities, to intermarry and create bonds that endure, which fills stadiums with supporters of Portugal, black, white, and all intermediate shades. All laughing, smiling, cheering, providing a world class lesson in integration and harmony. And joy.

Without joy the beautiful game turns into an ugly scene. Apparently this was one of the rare times a world cup game had ever been broadcast live in North Korea. The commentator wrapped up the live transmission with these words, widely reported in the media today: “The Portuguese won the game and now have four points. We are ending our live broadcast now.” Followed by images of the Dear Leader among happy factory workers.

Now go and celebrate your day, and count all of your blessings with joy, sparing a thought for those poor players and their families.

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