The transcendent essence of the world's game
That illness which we-dare-not-speak-its-name has not yet reached its zenith but already it has claimed a number of victims, football among them. Temporarily – we all hope – but safe to say for those of us devoted followers of the Portuguese game, an abundance of time has unexpectedly become available. A gaping hole has opened in our lives.
Descending into this void, we do what is natural and search out our own unique form of repose.
Full disclosure: not everyone may enjoy this abstract tale, and I will not hold that against you. Those who know me well have observed my proclivity to delve into the tempest of philosophical musing, and I hope this attempt to share some of those thoughts will be a welcome reprieve from the penetrating boredom that even now is creeping into your life.
Yes, I’m talking about you. Huddled there on the sofa, compulsively scrolling through the written detritus your phone offers you for sustenance. Culling voices reverberate through your social media platform of choice with stories of death and pestilence, a potent reminder that for all mankind’s sophisticated scientific accomplishments, even the most primitive and seemingly insignificant life forms can still make a mockery of our self-assured dominance.
And here we all sit, each in our respective quantum-of-solace, waiting for the all-clear to ring out.
These are the moments, folks. The times are ripe for that manner of reflection which stills the soul and sharpens our focus. This hiatus from not only football, but travel and social life and much more, will not last forever. Let us make the most of it.
Have you ever thought about the meaning of football? What is happening to you whenever you observe grown men wearing gaudy costumes compete over the placement of a small spherical object into a net strung between rudimentary posts? But something is happening, isn’t it? I’m convinced I have felt every imaginable human emotion while watching football. Love, hate, and all else in between. How profound it is that a game children often play in filthy slums with rolled up socks or a newspaper loosely bound by string or with a small, hard piece of fruit can so dramatically impact our psycho-emotional disposition.
Did you know suicide is quantifiably less common in World Cup years? It’s puzzling because only one team at a time can win the World Cup, and only eight nations have ever won it. The joy of football then, is not a function of winning or losing. Otherwise, most everyone reading this might have given up on the sport entirely after watching Portugal’s greatest generation of players somehow lose twice to Greece in the same tournament in 2004.
No, the transcendent power of football is in its dynamic representation of the eternal struggle.
The mighty and the frail, the renowned and the chastised, good and evil on the same pitch, embroiled in the kind of fight which hardly seems a mere pastime. Characters and personalities so absurd, yet so relatable, they seem like people we know personally. People who are indubitably possessed of the very same human spirit, yet so distinctly removed from our own prosaic reality that they seem as the gods of Olympus. Football strikes a primal chord buried somewhere deep within our subconscious. The plight of humanity described in 90-minute segments.
Football is the rebirth of classical mythology in living color. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Hercules, the villains, the heroes, conquests, and even the love affairs (John Terry, anyone?). Tales so grand they defiantly wander into their own category of believable-fiction and astonish us by how captivating they remain centuries later.
They contain the unabridged catalogue of human experience embodied in key representative figures: gods, goddesses, titans, demigods. The tapestry of human culture and behavior is woven with these threads - sacrifice, betrayal, forgiveness, pain, rapture, cruelty, irony, paradox. Impossible feats of skill and strength performed by ordinary people. And again, man’s infinite struggle against his physical environment, existential circumstances, and more poignantly, against himself.
It’s all there in football just as in these narratives which poured out of the creative minds of the men and women who wove these stories of antiquity into patterns that seemed to design the scaffolding of existence itself. Tragedy, comedy, love, death, eternity. And that strange, inexpressible longing: saudade.
In Greco-Roman amphitheaters thousands of years ago, actors brought their dramatis personae to life, divulging stories rich in allegorical meaning. Gods and human agents interacted freely, and the fiction was so compelling that the literal truth value was simply ignored. The plotlines, music, and pageantry resonated with human beings at a level bordering on the mystical, if not divine. Each and every performance was a specific iteration of some objective moral or ethical construct nested within the larger narrative of human existence.
These stories were not arbitrary contrivance to the people of those times either. Decorative frescoes and mosaics commonly adorned the walls of ancient homes as well as public bathhouses and city centers. Scenes of mythological heroes and villains seemed to be strategically positioned to remind passers-by of the transcendent virtues embedded within. Many scenes depicted the height of battle between opposing forces, representing a clash of moral wills such as the famous mosaic found on the floor of a Roman home in Pompeii which featured Alexander the Great leading his men against Darius and the Persian horde at the Battle of Issus.
Votive offerings to gods were connected to a unique part of that patron deities account as written by the great poets of their epoch. Athletic events honored the legacy of heroes or the defeat of villains or a holiday in celebration of a revered icon in the pantheon of gods and goddesses. All of this was done according to ritual and in keeping with ancient semantics on meaning, metaphysics, and how it all made sense in ordinary life.
Football acts similarly as an emissary of profound, transcendent, and objective truths. It stirs us just as deeply.
Haven’t you felt it? You know what I mean – the lachrymose misery of defeat by an arch-rival or the unbridled exultation when an underdog somehow wins? Leicester City winning the Premier League. Portugal winning the Euros while so many pundits moaned of injustice. I had to write a statistical treatise in the appendix of our book, The Thirteenth Chapter, just to shut that nonsense down. But that’s just it: people were deeply moved by Portugal’s unexpected coup, one way or the other. Is the best poetry really that which describes the self-evident, the safe and predictable, the expected outcomes? No, it is in describing the tension and emotional gravitas of human struggle that poetry captures our attention. Like when the long-shot claws their way to the final, and survives ninety minutes in the crucible only to emerge as the Phoenix-from-the-ashes in extra-time to slay the proverbial dragon, the odds-on favorite. That is poetry.
Ever walked alongside a local fan populace to their stadium before a home match? It is a modern-day ritual procession. The chants and songs, both in support of the home team and insulting the away team, the tifos, everyone dressed in the appropriate colors, adorned with scarves.
All orchestrated ‘round the sacred undertaking – men kicking a leather ball about on a plane of grass.
Remember when Cristiano went down injured in the Euro 2016 final? How emotional an episode was that in Portuguese football history! Could well have been a fabled saga about a long-suffering hero and his cohort in defiance of a tyrannical and superior foe. An opponent who the protagonists had never beaten. Then at the vital moment, after so many tests overcome, the invincible hero was struck down as if some maniacal god had intervened out of spite. The hero’s sacrifice and the fading of his pneuma into the afterlife was represented by the passing of the captain’s armband. The football gods are pleased by this votive offering. In his place, they raised up the most unlikely of characters, a man undergoing intense psychological turmoil, to bury a dagger into the heart of the enemy in the dying embers of an iconic battle. All the while the spirit of the deceased hero wills his brothers to ultimate victory from beyond the grave. Do you see?
What do these stories mean? Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, but I think the Greco-Roman masterpieces of old and the grand spectacle of football are united conceptually in some mysterious way. The beauty and savagery and hope and melancholy of football and mythology is episodically describing something about our very nature. These thoughts and feelings we have are not superficial. The human story is being transmitted through football, for better and for worse. Without this telling and re-telling of these stories – we lose our way.
Consider the hero – anti-hero narrative assigned to Ronaldo and Messi. Why did we create that depiction? What are we actually trying to say when we create this manner of analogous confrontation? Surely it is the episodic representation of the light against the darkness incarnated through key characters – the hero and the villain – a very, very old story. Mythology may be considered the stuff of legend as the naming convention suggests, but the need to represent and personify the grandest of truths through allegory – that has survived.
Say what you will about that particular narrative. For me, Ronaldo will always be football’s Alexander-the-Great, who crushed foreign armies through sheer force of will – a historical fact, mind you. But every football story, every great champion, every team, even every goal plays a diminutive role in the metanarrative about humanity that is as enigmatic and frightening as it is captivating.
Humans as a species seem cognizant of our relationship to something bigger than the material world in which we live. “We don’t live in a world of matter, we live in a world of things that matter” as I once read. This profound belief simply will not die no matter how much we often attempt to eradicate it with rationalism or science or politics or petty entertainment or mechanical distraction or nihilistic despair. This hope in something grander than the finite, than the temporal, than the idea that we are all simply in some dreamscape version of reality without purpose – this hope springs eternal. Football somehow connects us to this mysterious and ancient sense of wonder about what this is all really about.
Every time I watch Ronaldo pound the back of the net with a ferocious strike it makes my blood curdle. What a savage, ruthless person he is on a football pitch! But as forcefully and intensely as he expresses this nature, I recognize these things as quintessential human elements beautifully revealed through sport. The way Bernardo Silva carries the ball, floating, dancing, in-tune with some rhythm that only the very best footballers ever seem to feel.
Portugal’s overachievement is no longer an oddity. It has been made commonplace, not by demigods, but by ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. The stories of some of our players, both those who won Euro 2016 and others in the lineage of the Seleção, are remarkable testimonies to the ever-present liminal struggle which humans have been talking about, writing about, and characterizing on stage and through sacred images for millenia.
Football is special in this way I think. It is not itself an ultimate truth, but stands as another representative totem bearing witness to the Divine. Football epitomizes the chaos and psycho-emotional meteorology of the human condition and it is only in these moments, when we are deprived of its role in our lives, that I can truly reflect upon that significance.
That football is the world’s sport only strengthens my conviction the human spirit is typified by a set of core beliefs and feelings about ourselves, a real or perceived struggle between right and wrong, and the need to express these ideations through ritual and game. Cultures may influence their own unique derivation of the human essence, but the foundational themes are never far apart - love and good must triumph over evil. Forgiveness and redemption are archetypical constructs more divine than human. Sacrifice is both extraordinary and incomprehensible. Perseverance is a most prized and rare virtue. Patience is to be rewarded. Aggression and brutality, while vilified, are as much a part of the human story as any other aspect. Unpredictability is equal parts alluring and terrifying. I hardly have the space to further summarize, but these ideas are the representative standard archived the world over through art, architecture, sport, fictional literature, religion, and even language.
Football is a dialect of the human soul.
When I first watched Portugal during the 2006 World Cup, I could not understand the feelings I was having. I had never watched a game of football in my life prior to Portugal’s first match against Angola. I have no Portuguese heritage whatsoever. But the inspiration I felt seeing Ronaldo, Figo, and Deco scythe open the opposition defence was irresistible. As if I was always meant to be impassioned by football, but had never taken the opportunity.
This now reminds me how important it is to reference the sense of community fostered by playing and watching football and how critical that is for humanity in a time when we seem to ponder naught else but to remain divided over everything. I have loved being a Portuguese football fan and have marveled at how interest has grown in our exciting version of the game over the last 14 years.
Portugal’s sojourn across the landscape of football history reminds me of so many themes in my own life. I cannot describe it all but I’d be remiss not to try. In 2006, Portugal were electric. Their tempo and grace were extraordinary. I often regret not being able to understand tactics in those days, but from what I remember Portugal were a maelstrom of attacking power that slashed through defences at will.
But what somehow endeared me to that team and Portugal as a nation just doesn’t make sense. No matter how often or how close they came to scoring, I remember being astonished by how wasteful they were. So many chances went begging. So profligate, and they knew it, the frustration etched all over their faces, especially Ronaldo who was such a virtuoso, but not a lethal finisher at the time. I remember seeing them strike the post and pile up so many near-misses I lost count and thinking “this is wonderful stuff, I can hardly wait until they finally score.” The anticipation was incredible and drew me in with permanent effect.
For the Seleção, times have changed, the squad has changed, managers have come and gone. Portuguese football is unquestionably on the rise. But to this day I have never witnessed another collective entity field a football team that is more wasteful despite their elegant attacking riches. What does that mean? What could possibly be so enchanting about that?
Something about the cycle of missed chances - the immediate disappointment, the furious anger followed by the mysterious restoration of belief there will be another opportunity – it formed an inseparable bond between me and the Seleção which only grows stronger with time. It nearly kills me every time, but that too is a mysterious part of life. Terror and being on the brink of total loss precedes greatness.
How very desperate I have felt at times in my life. How disappointed, and how furious with my own efforts which simply would not yield the goal for which they were intended. But oh how that maddening discontent has driven me! Even this article vexes me. It just will not come out the way I want, but I take encouragement from the fact I am still alive and can improve my rhetorical ability if I continue learning. I’m inspired by those who have the courage to bear down even harder in pursuit of their goals no matter how many times they misstep. Someday I may yet write a perfect article. Someday. And Portugal might convert a few more chances and stop giving me a heart-attack all the time. Someday.
Maybe this particular discussion just does not resonate, or perhaps you feel the Olympics or one of the other major sports communicate the same archetypical meaning which humans have codified for eons through religion, art, and so on. Maybe you are wondering how I could be so callous to think of anything other than the medical professionals, those already sick, the elderly, and so forth. Wherever you are right now, I know you have felt football deeply and that you miss it. Just you reading this far proves that well enough for me.
It is important we understand why our games, our customs, and our rituals exist in the way they do. We feel the pang of their absence in times like these, and that will make their eventual return so much the sweeter. Why does football matter so much? Whatever your particular rendering, I hope it reminds you of our shared humanity and inspires a familiar longing to witness the immortal Cristiano Ronaldo lead Portugal in their next great odyssey, whenever that might take place.
by Nathan Motz