Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Tools Of War

The World Cup has just ended, bringing the planet’s greatest football tournament to another nail-biting finish. It’s no secret that I’m not a football fan, but I observe, albeit with incredulity, the enjoyment that so many people get from watching it. Relaxation is most important in a pressured world and the show that has just come to an end has given millions of people a pleasurable diversion from real life for a few weeks.

But while there is much to admire about the skill of the footballers themselves, as well as the dedication of their fans, there is also a great deal wrong. The fact that the captain of the losing team could be sent off for assaulting another player during the final match and yet still be declared the best player of the contest, speaks volumes. The minor matter of the arrests of numerous England fans in Germany following their team’s defeat by Portugal and the disturbances in Jersey (whose population is 10% Portuguese) around the same time also bear mention. The fervour with which the fans approached the contest and the extent to which the media focused its attention on what is, after all, just a game, is quite remarkable. And fortunate is the country whose time zone is such that the matches fall out of work hours; when play is on during work-time, the number of ‘sickies’ mysteriously sky-rockets.

The number of football headlines may be extraordinary, but the nature of the coverage is no less remarkable. Each match is subject to the most intense analysis imaginable; it goes without saying that every possible aspect of the game is scrutinised. Before kick-off, we are treated to analysis of the selection of players for a team and how their morale is affected by the weather, the behaviour of their fans and a host of other factors. Once the match is in progress, we can read or watch a blow-by-blow account of the game so far, in depth critique of the captain’s strategy and share the pundits’ predictions for the remainder of the game. The slightest irregularity is subject to intense consideration; was the referee justified in castigating a particular player, was a tackle motivated by malice, the likely prognosis following a player’s injury, according to four different experts. On this theme, in the weeks leading up to the contest, the extent of interest in Rooney’s damaged foot was quite obsessive. When the match is over, the recriminations against the losing side begin; resignations, similar to those following lost elections (vis Beckham’s tearful exit), are not unknown. And of course, every moment of the game can be replayed in excruciating slow motion as we are encouraged to consider the long-term significance of a team’s victory or defeat for a national team and its supporters. When a team wins, the reports of the huge celebrations remain prominent for nearly as long as the parties themselves.

These are, quite frankly, the journalistic tools of war, for the only other human endeavour subjected to so much media scrutiny is war itself. When nations are at war, every detail of strategy and shot fired may affect the destiny of an entire people. As such, healthy media reserve the most penetrating tools of analysis for war, yet they are used, de rigueur, to describe the fortunes of 22 men kicking a ball around a field. The conclusion of this is inescapable – football is considered by a significant section of the populace to be of immense importance; the result of a big match really matters to people. It shapes their self-image, their pride in their country and their attitude to other nations. The celebrations of victory, often involving parading the champions as though they are war heroes, reflect the pride and sense of nationhood conveyed by success in a major tournament.

While many will pass all this off as harmless fun, I’m not convinced at all. When the emotions raised by merely observing a game are on a par with those engendered by war, we have lost something vital to the wellbeing of society. Many people really believe that supporters of other teams are baddies; how could they not be, as they are on the ‘wrong’ side. This leads to violence and to occasionally disturbing incidents of xenophobia. While (à la 1970’s cult film ‘Rollerball’) there are those who argue that containing these sorts of feelings within a sporting environment prevents them from spilling into the streets, it is obvious that societal sanction of such sentiments increases, rather than reduces, their nefarious influence. And blurring the distinction between those things that are truly life-significant and those that are actually just fun diversions from reality, has far-reaching consequences in all aspects of life.

Most troubling, though, is what the supremacy of football reveals about those people who believe in it - a profound lack of exposure to what we might term ‘real experiences.’ Whether the intense fervour of Man’s yearning for God, the challenge and meaning in developing a successful monogamous relationship, from a Jewish perspective: the celebration of a family Shabbat or the emotionally draining cycle of Tishrey festivals – so many in our disconnected world are denied ‘real experiences.’ Much of modern life consists of shallow, synthetic encounters; watered down emotions, superficial relationships and phoney ideology. In fact, the Western World almost completely fails to cater for what may be the most basic human necessity, the need to sense meaning and purpose in life. But the desire to identify with a cause and to experience meaning through it does not disappear because a society denies its existence. It will, automatically, find another expression. So profound is this human need that the media, conmen and others who recognise it will exploit it for their own disreputable ends.

The application of the tools of war to football matches is a symptom of an ailing society, one in which Man’s yearning for meaningful existence finds its expression itself through a game, but not in reality. And as society becomes more fragmented and superficial, the significance of events like the World Cup will surely grow; for those living in the UK, the spectre of the 2012 Olympics seems not all that far away…..

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