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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Beautiful Game of Losing

The World Cup is a global game even for
fans of nations failing to qualify/
As someone who has been watching the World Cup tournament all his life, there are certain given things you take for granted. The football heavyweights that are Brazil and Argentina have not changed. These are two teams I admire most - or rather, I should say I have great admiration for their mixture of football style and talent.

Their passion for the sport, and their sophistication in play is often unbeatable. Or seems to be, and so they are already 1-0 up in the psychology department against any upcoming opponent.

Although the Brazilians have been a lot weaker in the 2014 games than I ever remember them, the Argentines, yet to fulfil their potential too, have seem to overcome their dip in past years. It even looks like Argentina may tango to the top for the first time since the nineties (and so it's all the more disappointing when at the start of it they brought their nation's politics to the beautiful game).

At their best, as sure as a Brazilian samba shakes, their matches are so enjoyable to watch, you can sit back and track it to music. The respect given to their talented footballing style can't be denied.

Give or take the factors of chance, and that any team can really beat any other team at any given time, you almost know when you are watching the World Cup that these two respected sides, with such great (and controversial) histories, will be the ones to watch out for, when every four years qualifying nations send their senior men's national teams to play a series of knock-outs at some host nation.

When you stop to rationalise it, caring so much about the outcome of a football match over which you have absolutely no control could be deemed utterly ridiculous. But it's part of the incredible power of sport on your brain. It's more than the battle to hold up a highly prized trophy or keep a winner's medal; it's the honour of carrying your nation's colours to a global field.

Thanks to the history of competition, in battles we always look to the winning side. It's only natural. It's the victors that get written into the simplified history books after all. Those "nutshell" type summaries that condense the entire history of the world into important dates, who won what, which important person was killed, and so forth.

But to me, sometimes the losing side is just as important. Especially in football - or any team sport really - because when the win comes from scoring points, as it does with football (you score by getting the ball into the opponent team's goal or net) then sometimes it can mean that the team that played the best doesn't always win.

By playing the best, I don't only mean style. I mean heart. Bravery. Trying your best against all the odds, when nothing is in your favour except possibly, by some miracle you are praying for in that pumping machine you call a heart, the grace of whatever divinity you've chosen to believe in.

These are the type of battles I respect. The ones that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. If someone asked me which side I would fight for, if I thought the cause right, it would be for the underdog. What an amazing feeling it must be: to be the few against the many. A small band of brothers fighting against a horde you can't possibly win against.

The Losing Side

Storytellers have used this as a plot in many myths and tales of lore, just to stir the audience and rally them to their fictional cause. For instance, we know of the tales (thanks largely in part to the American re-tellings) that present a heroic stand made by three hundred Spartan soldiers who held off a much-larger Persian force, allowing an overwhelmed Greek army to retreat, regroup and ultimately win the Greco-Persian War, keeping Persia from sweeping through Europe.

For many of us this myth is one that resonates strongly, because it was a "last stand" for Western civilisation. We have been taught that had the Greeks lost, all of Western civilisation as we know it would have been laid to waste by a seething mass of barbarians. Heck, yeah. That's a battle for a man to fight. Right?

Possibly not. Let's put to one side that these "barbarians" had an imperial civilisation to match the ancient Greeks in its barbarity and creativity and longevity, the point here is that there were no small band of Spartans going off on a suicide mission to save the world as they knew it.

As a slave state, Sparta's penchant for enslaving neighbouring areas (it was always warring with its more "enlightened" neighbour Athens) added hundreds of soldiers (some more willing than others) to its outnumbered ranks. There were around three thousand of them, who lost the battle in an embarrassing defeat, leaving the Persians to reach and destroy much of Athens, before they were eventually pushed back at a later date.

That image we have today is a very Hollywood affair: two armies meeting on a relatively level plain, marching toward each other and smashing into each other like two uncreative football teams (you can imagine the plethora of sporting metaphors if participants Greece and Iran had actually met at the World Cup).

But that is Hollywood for you. It rarely lets the historical truth it portrays step up to the plate. With its Nazi past, its Jim Crow movies, its white-washing Westerns and its attack on turgid Turkish prisons for jailing unsympathetic criminals (over crimes American courts now imprison their own celebrities for), Hollywood has an overt racist past it doesn't try to hide, either. It presents the most stylish of these cinematic outpourings with Academy awards (even if in apology).

And as immoral as America's heartland may treat its film industry (and that is just another stereotypical supposition), mainstream Hollywood has never been a ground-breaker with what it brings to the curtain screen. It has a way of shying from scenes it feels are publicly unacceptable to the trends of the day, much in the tradition of the ancient Greek theatre it idolises.

Like sport, it's just entertainment, after all. Right? A favourite film director of mine Alfred Hitchcock (with no American Academy nods to his name) was under no qualms about the industry he was in, and is quoted to have said that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.

Hitchcock knew that Hollywood didn't want to bother people with thinking about reality (obviously idolising Greek theatre doesn't require you to understand it). Thus Hollywood took a long time to (fail to) catch up with homosexual discrimination, racial integration and the like as subject content for its output. American actor Samuel L. Jackson has gone on record to say that Hollywood, by and large, still avoids dealing with racism and that 12 Years A Slave is a perfect example of that.

Many films that orientate towards one or the other are still viewed as marginal indies. Instead what the Hollywood mainstay gives you is a new race of baddies for patriots to kill depending on the country currently being politically blackballed in the nation. To this end the Pentagon maintains an official Film Liaison Office in Hollywood with the express purpose of manipulating public perception to aid in recruiting and dictating foreign policy.

It's a fact that kind of destroys your childhood films when you look back on the Hollywood villains you unwittingly cheered to their death. Films where the Persian du jour becomes the Russian, and so on, and back again, taken (if this were a Hollywood movie) from some CIA menu, no doubt, which lists all the "enemies" of America depending on the decade.

American blockbuster films are perhaps much like its food culture, and its sportsmanship. Don't look for sophistication in hamburgers, fried chicken, deep-pan pizza, hotdogs, cola and fries. Yet, the thing about North American cuisine is that it might be unsophisticated and fat-laden, but it travels well. Everybody loves a burger, even if it is nothing more than fried meat paste in a bun.

The Winning Side

American footballers travel increasingly well too, and there are quite a few playing in European leagues. However, the United States World Cup team lacks the subtlety and sophistication of the best Europeans and South Americans. Like their films and their collegiate tracks to semi-stardom, their field play often feels like Hollywood hyper-stylised Greek history: mythology with muscles.

Again, it's perhaps why such culture and films are easy to make fun of as well. It's why possibly the best thing to come out of the Hollywood version of the Sparta myth 300 was the viral video "It's Raining Men", a clip of the movie's Mediterranean men in various states of brotherly togetherness, set to the disco tune.

But that's what happens when you deal in caricature, there's only a thin line that separates you from it. In fact the Hollywood version, itself taken from a graphic novel, does disservice to a great battle, where the Greeks were indeed relatively outnumbered, and blundering into a fight, did their best to win it. If we are to believe their historians (who were writing for the eventual victors so let's note the bias they'll have had), the Spartans didn't run away. Despite their circumstances, they stood their ground and took the fight.

The irony is that the biggest slave-owners in the region were fighting against their own enslavement. After all, it was Sparta that turned the entire region of Messenia into a dependent serf state. It's kind of like when the Texans cry "Remember the Alamo" - as a heroic struggle against impossible odds, a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. Which is Hollywood myth at it's most lavishly ludicrous: a considerable factor in the Texas Revolution was that Mexico decided to outlaw slavery, and that didn't sit too well with the American slave-owning population.

The same mythological ringing cry for freedom rang out in Sparta Hollywood-style. Yet, when fact versus our fiction, we find our fiction sorely lacking. I understand that movies are an escape from reality, but it feels like they've forgotten what reality is actually like. It wouldn't matter if it were only harmless entertainment, but there are people out there that believe this stuff.

I'm not wanting you to moralise over ancient history or slavery, here. The Greco-Persian brouhaha happened over 2,500 years ago, when almost every society in the ancient Mediterranean world had slaves. And all relegated women to a relatively inferior position. Who bore babies and risked having the more vulnerable of their children thrown down wells due to Spartan upbringing.

On the other hand, Athens was different in its thinking in parts, suggested by the goddess they chose to represent their city. It was a centre for the arts, learning and philosophy, home of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. We widely refer to it as the cradle of Western civilisation and the birthplace of democracy.

In fact the ancient Greeks did not completely realise themselves as a single nation state - as we understood it in the 20th Century - until much later; they were warring, competing tribes that came together over time. There were elected governments, ranging from the constitutional oligarchy at Sparta to much broader-based voting in states like Athens and Thespiae. The two most powerful city-states, Sparta and Athens, had very different cultures and became bitter enemies, but these fighters and thinkers joined together to stop a bigger threat to their way of life.

Most importantly, in this fragmented "Greece" there was a burgeoning belief in unfettered expression and self-criticism, although people were still penalised for speaking it. Aristophanes, Sophocles and Plato questioned the subordinate position of women. Alcidamas lamented the notion of slavery.

Such openness existing in the ancient Mediterranean world possibly makes Greek barbarity towards their vulnerable citizens even worse. You think they'd know better, because clearly there were a rare few that did. But Greek freedom of expression in general was limited to a certain class, or gender, or race - it was not universal. It was misogynistic and xenophobic.

The Blind Side

One of my favourite lecturers on the classics is Mary Beard, a professor at the University of Cambridge. Her talk on how women's voices have been silenced in the public sphere throughout the history of Western culture is an eye-opener to what we believe were enlightened times in ancient Greece. She starts from Homer and goes on to trolls targeting women on social media today.

And every Greco-Roman classicist knows that in comparison to today, those times were, and would be, a terrible place to live. Persia even worse (and indeed any ancient civilisation or past century). And, I assume, it's what future generations will say about our times. That is the proof of progression.

But, for now, thanks to North America's cultural conquistadors, where their culture reigns supreme, all we have is an Hollywood image. For many it's what they believe to be the truth. For those on the other end of the historical stick, it's a chance to go digging for it (300 made Iranians reconnect with the region's past they now shared), or find a more agreeable version of it. But the truth isn't a referee judging the winner in a game of two sides. We just tend to see it that way. That's the world of Hollywood movies.

The danger comes after a nation (now a world) breast fed on reality off a cinema screen naturally becomes disappointed when the real thing fails to meet expectations. When right and wrong are not so clear-cut as all those overused movie tropes, we can get confused. Why are "beautiful" people not always "good", "ugly" people not always "bad"? Why are things never simple as good guy kills bad guy? What happens when the "good" and "bad" sides become hard to differentiate, because their actions begin to mirror the other - as it does in times of war?

It follows that telling stories and being creative, however, shouldn't only be an entertaining escape, but be a source to guide to truth, even if in some fantastical form. Else we need to educate minds to differentiate fact from fiction much better than we do at the moment, and better diagnose mental illnesses that cannot.

Maybe we can also start being a bit more creatively responsible, too. We have seen throughout history that sometimes being creative, even if it's to inspire people to a good cause, means taking liberties with the truth - which to me is just being lazy. It creates persistent stereotypes (often racist ones) that are unhelpful. We don't need to learn lessons or teach them at the expense of other people.

The idealist in me says we must always use the truth to inspire; the truth is never popular, but maybe its time to raise its popularity. Often it isn't as visually pretty as fiction, its ends don't wrap up as neatly, but the truth doesn't let you down in expectation. It helps us strengthen our internal bullshit detectors, and realise that the best antidote to a lie is that of time. If that sounds story book perfect to you, then you're right in part. It is. Perception and interpretation may always muddy again any truth cleansed by time, for whatever agenda.

But if we want that uncomfortable shifting reality, we should watch a documentary, right? Because reality is filled with too many blind sides, filled with events we never saw coming. There are sides to life that no one sees or understands, and will die not knowing. As clichéd as it sounds, the reality is that rather than seeing ourselves on separate teams playing the game, we need to start realising we are all on the same team. We all have blind sides, and we all need someone to have our back. Even the big guy. Especially the little guy.

This is the basic idea that stems from the story of the underdog, coming from nowhere to cause an upset in the grand scheme of things. It's a powerful one. It stirs the emotions in us easily, and sport channels that like no other.

In Britain (as I assume in most any country), we love the tale of underdog. We admire the heroism that comes from the courage to attempt to win, and not necessarily the winning itself. Bruce Lee said that in great attempts, it's glorious even to fail - and I agree. We love the story of the small cog defying the great machine to have its day to turn. In sport, when the fight is left to talent and to sporting chance on a single day when all playing fields are, for a second, made level, there is no better backdrop to watch such a tale unfold.

Then it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. We'll have heard that in one form or another. So-written by the sports writer Grantland Rice in 1908, in his Alumnus Football. The football he was elegantly writing about was the American kind and not the football of the World Cup, but the sentiment is applicable to every sport there is.

It's not a truth in our reality, but an aspiration to one. And it's linked to a deeper truth, too, that nothing is ever certain. You can come to the playing field decorated with successive trophies and still be knocked out at the first post with your winning game finally having run its course. Spain found this out; as the descendants of conquistadors they returned to a continent they decimated expecting to reconquer, only to be duly sent home in the first round.

But sport is not just how you play the game, it's how you lose it, too. It takes guts to get back up once you are down, and to face defeat. And then, if we allow our challenges to help us grow, the real story of heroism may start.

The Unlikeliest Heroes

Maybe instead of watching reality in a documentary, it's time to make our reality as inspiring as our stories. As enlightened people (or hopefully on the way to becoming more aware of how we should appreciate and allow everyone their right to life) it's hoped one day that all our idealogical battles are done either through discussion and diplomacy or on the sports field.

As much as sport can stoke political and racial tensions and run over into hooliganism, the basic idea of sport (or any game, including toys) is the sublimation of this need in us to dominate; we can fight and battle and war - even do "murder" - with an easy conscience when its on a computer game or playing field. Though who would leave matters of importance to a toss of a coin, right?

Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to leave it to the "fates", for they roll much more interesting dice.

For what has really interested me in this World Cup are not the sure-fire certainties, but the unexpected stories. I enjoyed watching a spirited Algeria side play so well against Germany especially in the run up to their Lent-style fast. The Greek team were as fair and dignified as any "good" Greek character in one of their myths, and the Americans - not often the underdogs in a sport - although may lack the sophistication of the larger teams have surprised many with their efforts. Not easy when you don't have your nation behind you as much as they do in Latin American countries or Europe - where smaller nations have a chance to play for something really global.

More unlikely heroes are to be found in the Swiss World Cup team, who are sending out a multicultural message. Currently ranked sixth in the world, and set to take on Argentina in the last sixteen of the World Cup in Brazil, they have many key Muslim players, in a country which very recently voted to ban minarets (think Islamic church towers, except instead of bells, a person calls out to prayer). These Swiss players are all immigrants or the children of immigrants to Switzerland, where voters in February backed strict new quotas on immigration.

A (somewhat miraculous) win might send a message back home in a tournament that has given us the opportunity to cheer for first-timers, for small nations, for Greek dignity and pride against personal odds, for the American tenacity to give it their all, come what may.

It's a story of surprises, of joy and pain, of ups and downs. That's what makes it beautiful, you see. The diversity.

When you filter that down to a game, then is it any wonder what fans of football call beautiful is not just the skill of feet, or the roar of the heart, but the dignity and honour to know that, win or lose, you played the game well and did your colours proud.

If that means being on the losing side, then I myself am a loser, every single time.

And proud of it.

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