The women of the Middle East are about to save me from the greatest banality known to man. I’m counting on them to care as little about the the World Cup as I do and to keep me entertained until men can once again talk about something other than Wayne Rooney’s groin.
Though I’ve long loved to play soccer, I scorn the watching of its endless buildup passes, the constant disappointment of a game which can be won with a single lucky goal, the sport’s failure to rein in rampant cheating and other pathetic behavior by its pampered players.
George Orwell wrote that international sports – and he meant, mainly, soccer – was a disgusting tribal experience that was intended to keep us filled with nationalistic hate until it was time to have an actual war and go off to kill each other again in earnest. Living in the Middle East, where nationalism is such an incendiary factor and is so often in bloody evidence, I find I have no tolerance for the stupidity of sporting nationalism.
An outgrowth of that nationalism, of course, is the “We” with which England fans, for example, refer to the England team. As in, “We have a good chance of winning.” Actually “THEY have a good chance of blowing it in the quarter finals.” “We” have a good chance of watching them do it. Probably at the hands of a nationa “we” are supposed to despise, like Germany or Argentina. I don’t really have a “We,” after so many years living overseas. And anyway I like my “I” just fine.
The obverse of that negative nationalism is the supposedly inclusive “World Game” hypocrisy. The corruption of the sport’s governing body FIFA is well-documented; it’s almost on Olympic levels. Moreover, a slave trade in promising African boys carried out by minor European and Asian soccer teams feeds the big-money fleshmarket of the top sides and leaves many of the kids alone and alienated, or simply penniless and back on the streets of their original countries with nothing but humiliation to show for their time on the field.
I used to be able to flee the ludicrous experience of the World Cup by hanging around with Americans. It’s not, after all, their sport. But these days the insatiable marketing of the game has infiltrated even the U.S. A Facebook friend of mine in New York noted that the England-US game this weekend is the tournament’s “most anticipated match-up.” (I’d assume that the most anticipated game would in fact be the final of the tournament, but I see what he meant.) Anticipation? For a game involving the US soccer team? Now if that isn’t an illustration that the world’s coming to an end, what is?
In this week’s New Yorker magazine, there’s an article about the US goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays in the UK. It notes that Howard has Tourette’s syndrome. Yet on the field he retains his focus and doesn’t suffer the tics that afflict him at other times, like Oliver Sacks’s Tourette’s brain surgeon in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”
What the article failed to mention is that while soccer represses the manifestations of Tourette’s in Howard, it turns everyone else into extreme sufferers of the syndrome, shouting obscenities at a television screen, hurling abuse at others who’re wearing a shirt in colors they don’t like.
Sport is like drunkenness. We believe it taps us into some inner happiness and allows us to release our true feelings, but in fact it makes us not ourselves. In a remote Jordanian village, I wandered into a café while the menfolk were watching the 1996 European Championship final between the Czech Republic and Germany on a flickering tv. One of the Jordanians told me that the German player, Mehmet Scholl, was of Jordanian origin. Turkish, surely, I averred (and I was right). No, no, he’s Jordanian, the man insisted with great pride.
Now admit it, haven’t you heard the same utterly untrue boasting about connections like that from sports fans? This or that player is from the same town as me. I had an uncle who played for the national team. I’m a friend of that player. It’s the same kind of sad posturing that’s manifested in men who claim to have slept with many more women than they actually have. What emptiness are we trying to fill with assertions of bogus personal connections to this game which is so patently nothing to do with our lives?
Ending the quibbles here, I’d like to put in the positive spin of life in the Middle East.
I’ve written before about how living in an alien culture – in my case, Jerusalem – facilitates the creation of the “bubble of concentration” on which a writer depends. There’s no way I can become a true insider among Israelis and Palestinians. So I’m free to concentrate on my research and on my writing, with a minimum of interference from the pop cultural crap that froths around people living in their own countries. Israelis don’t engage me in chatter about their soap operas, because I’m obviously not one of them, for example.
The same is true of soccer. Israelis, Palestinians, and foreigners living in Jerusalem raise the subject of the World Cup. I remind them that I’m Welsh. It usually shuts them up, because in footballing terms that’s more or less like saying, “Don’t make me feel bad. I only have one leg.” (Wales last made the World Cup finals in 1958.)
Nonetheless, the World Cup is so insidious that I even have to make adjustments to my bubble of concentration for the next couple of weeks. It isn’t quite enough to be among foreigners. I have to make sure that I don’t speak to any men until the tournament is over. Women in the UK or Germany might be as rabidly football mad as men, but in the Middle East at least women are bemused by the interest their men show in the childish behavior of millionaires in gaudy shirts.
So for the next few weeks, look for me in the harem…