On the World Cup and the animal that plays

The man who has no room for play or sports in any form misses much of what we are.

I.

In most of the world the word “football” does not mean football, such as what USC, Ohio State, and the Chicago Bears play. It means what we Americans call “soccer”. Though soccer is much more familiar to Americans than it once was, in my youth it was unheard of and considered a foreign, even a “sissy”, game. The name “soccer” is a British nickname for “Association” Football, the rules of which, in the middle of the 1800s, were designed to distinguish it from, say, “Rugby Football”.

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote a famous book entitled Homo Ludens: Study of the Play Element in Culture (1938). Man is the animal that plays. A chapter in my book Another Sort of Learning is called “On the Seriousness of Sports”. Playing and seriousness are not contradictory terms. When we understand this relation, we will understand much about what it is to be a human being. Some things that need not exist simply cannot be enjoyed unless we take them seriously, yet light-heartedly.

With varying sets of rules about time, field size, equipment, uniforms, and number of players, men have been kicking balls of various sizes and shapes around for many centuries. Things like betting and honor, skill and endurance, go along with the lore of the games. In golf, for instance, a small, hard ball is driven to a distant cup. In basketball, a rather large round leather ball is shot through an elevated netted hoop. In baseball, a small, hard round ball is hit with a bat; in cricket, the ball is hit with a paddle. In tennis, a bouncy ball is hit across a net with a racquet; in volleyball, a larger ball is hit over a net and returned with the hand. In USA football, a spiral-shaped, inflated leather ball is thrown or carried across a line; in rugby, a slightly different shaped ball is kicked through goal posts or run down field.

Track and field sports usually have distant military origins—shot put, discus, javelin, and Marathon. Who can jump the highest, leap the greatest distance, throw the farthest, or run the fastest at different distances (or over hurdles) fascinates us. Rowing, swimming, vaulting, skating, and skiing are variations of these same drives to see who is best at a given task that need not be done at all but without which the world would be a considerably duller place. The man who has no room for play or sports in any form misses much of what we are.

II.

The development of soccer, like many sports, is through the British even though the Brits were reluctant in the beginning to play barbarians including the French, Italians, or Uruguayans, winners of the first international cup matches in the 1930s.The fame of the playing fields of Rugby and Eton is justly earned. The history of modern soccer recounts its gradual spread to all corners of the world. It only takes a ball, an open field or street, and a pair of shorts to play it. While sports such as rugby and cricket are pretty much confined to old British foreign enclaves like southern France, India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, soccer spread most everywhere. The Asians, the Spanish and Portuguese speakers, the Slavs, the Italians, the Germans, the Africans, the Scandinavians, and the Arabs all play it. World Cup and Olympic soccer tournaments are watched by much of the world. One feels almost inhuman not to know why they capture the attention of so many of our planetary companions.

Chesterton used to be amused at the idea of grown men dressed in in knickers pursuing a small white ball with a stick around expansive golf links. But when we think of it, almost all games are varieties of the same idea—getting some ball (puck) over, under, or through some hoop, net, or line. One group of players (defense) always had the thankless task of trying to prevent any successful accomplishment of this goal. To know if someone was good at a given sport, he had to come up against those who likewise thought themselves adept at the same game. When things do not go well, soccer riots are not unknown. No doubt more than the accustomed amount of beer is consumed at many a soccer match.

Sports in all of their variety demand rules and standards. The only way to find out who is best is to have a contest, a match, a tournament, or a playoff to find out. The final decision is made on the field, at the wire or tape, or at the whistle or buzzer. When the best is decided in a fair match or contest, the world is littered with many losers who did not make it. Only one winner goes home from the World Cup. If we belong to the losers, as we usually do, we know that our heroes and our stalwarts did not prevail. We blame the ref, the weather, the fates, the cheaters, to assuage our upsets over the loss. Still, we will return in four years to try again. Losing probably teaches us more about ourselves than winning. The day I wrote these lines is the day the Mexican soccer team lost to Brazil 2-0. There is exhilaration in Rio and desolation in Mexico City. And this is the way it should be.

III.

Most Americans do not know soccer. The very idea of a superior game with the score of 1-0 is repugnant to them, even these days in baseball. And the soccer rules! What’s this no use of hands—but you can use your head as a battering ram with no helmet, or no mothers complaining about concussions? And in soccer there are no pads, no time outs, and only one referee. The game never stops. Strategy is made on the run. I believe soccer has unfortunately introduced at least one instance of that classically awful delay of the game device known as the the replay. But for the most part, much to the chagrin of TV sponsors, soccer games go relentlessly on for ninety minutes with only a half-time break.

The World Cup finals will probably be watched by half of the population of the world. It will make billions of dollars in spite of worries about various forms of corruption in high offices of the sport. China is now into soccer in a big way, though (like the United States) it does not have much to show in the sport. But all the little countries play soccer: Senegal, Costa Rica, Denmark, South Korea, Tunisia, and Paraguay. Sometimes they even win. There are the powerhouses; Brazil, Nigeria, France, Italy, and Spain are always threats.

Watching an important World Cup game is not quite like watching the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball playoffs, or the World Series. Soccer has no cheerleaders, though it does have the garishly painted faces. The players in this year’s tournament seemed especially well groomed, at least hair-wise. The oft-repeated scene of a player down on the turf agonizing and thrashing in pain over a foul one minute, then hopping up sprightly to go valiantly back into battle in the next moment always seems fake to me. But many such incidents are briefly painful. We shake things off and go on. Soccer does not carry off as many in mobile hospital carts as does our football. Besides boxing, our football is the only sport where head-to-head blocking and tackling is part of the game. Rules are, of course, what make sports different.

In this year’s World Cup thus far, I have seen some dramatic games. I love watching the various national fans, so alike and so different, packed into a stadium. Belgium defeated Japan in the last seconds of their game, while two tie-breaking shoot-outs saw Russia unexpectedly beat Spain and Croatia beat Denmark. Most sports that can end in a tie come up with some sort of ultimate tie-breaker. American football does it differently in colleges and in the pros; basketball has overtime periods. But the soccer shoot-outs pit the single goalie, in his outlandish colors, against a rotation of opposing strikers who seem to have the advantage. It seems like the most unfair way to end a big game, yet somehow also the most dramatic.

IV.

Cities and countries around the world bid to host a World Cup. It costs a lot of money; it brings in hopefully more than it costs. This year the World Cup is held in Russia. The next will be in, of all places, Qatar. Previous World Cups were held in such places as Brazil, South Africa, England, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Sweden, and even in Los Angeles. When I watch, with millions (even billions) of others, a Super Bowl, a college basketball or football final, a seventh game of the World Series, I know something is being said here about human nature.

Men want to play—to play according to the rules, to play to see the best, and to celebrate the final victory. They know that with one shot or call it might have been otherwise. But some things, like our games, are final at the gun or the bell. We see what they are. We know that they are worth playing not just for the players, but, perhaps even more so, also for us who watch. We are drawn out of ourselves into the way things are out there. We know that it is good that such things as World Cups exist.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 170 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

4 Comments

  1. God bless you Fr. Schall.

    And soccer is an awesome game, especially when viewed from a seat above the field in the stadium – where you can see all of the players moving without the ball – constantly trying to get in a position to make the next thing happen.

  2. Sadly, I fear that Father Schall does not quite ‘get’ football. Stating that the ‘game never stops’ is entirely wrong. The game is constantly punctuated by stoppages. To be fair, in this WC, referees have done a good job of minimizing these.

    The attraction of football, across the globe, is its simplicity. Any number of people can play a game and in almost any place; a street, waste ground, a public park. If you start young, anybody can play well enough to enjoy it. Hundreds of millions do.

    The other noticeable thing about football is the depth of people’s identification with football clubs. (Visit any city in the world and you will see people wearing the Real Madrid/Barcelona/Manchester United jersey – uniform in American-speak.)
    Overall, this is stronger than their identification with national teams. One of the reasons the WC has gone so well is that nearly everyone has accepted defeat with good grace. At club level, this simply does not happen. Defeat leads to heads rolling and scapegoating. At club level, spending on players and wages amount to many millions of dollars.
    The USA would do well to start taking this game more seriously. It is not as though its global hegemony will be challenged any time soon.

    • In my opinion baseball is the most challenging of sports, where pure skill counts more than size. The game is both an exhibit of power with long home runs and subtlety, such as when a pitcher strikes out a batter with a change up pitch. While not as international as soccer it’s big in Japan and Latin countries. The major league rosters are loaded with players from a variety of places. Not only that it’s a game passed on from generation to generation, one of my first memories is of my dad teaching me about the game and how to play it.

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