The FIFA World Cup is the most popular sporting competition in the world. Football is not just a game but a social ritual practised in every corner of the world. It is not only the new secular religion of fans around the world but also a matter of life and death for many individuals and nations.
Let us not forget that the famous 100 Hour War, fought between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, followed the World Cup qualifier matches between the two countries. Honduras and El Salvador had simmering disputes even before the World Cup, but the matches proved to be the tipping point. There was disturbance after the first match, which Honduras won, and the situation deteriorated after the second. Before the third match, which El Salvador won to secure a place in the World Cup, Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with its neighbour. El Salvador then invaded Honduras and thousands lost their lives in the war. Peace was restored a hundred hours after, but a ceasefire was signed only years later, in 1980.
Football has also been the cause of hooliganism among frenzied fans in Europe and other continents. For instance, on May 29, 1985, at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, fans, mostly of Juventus, were pressed against a collapsing wall while escaping from a breach by Liverpool fans, an incident that left 39 dead.
Football and philosophy
These are unfortunate incidents but football mostly has the opposite effect — of creating a sense of belonging to a community. Jamaican artist Bob Marley used to say football is freedom. Football played such an important role in Marley’s life that he surrounded himself with people like Allan Cole, Jamaica’s most celebrated player at the time. On one occasion, Marley told a journalist who wanted to interview him: “If you want to get to know me, you will have to play football against me.” Marley saw in football the same empathy and solidarity that existed for him in music. Albert Camus thought the same when he said rather superciliously: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” What the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist and philosopher meant by this was that he never felt more French-Algerian than when playing as a goalkeeper for his school team, the Racing Universitaire d’Alger. Standing alone at the goalpost, Camus had plenty of time to reflect on the nature of philosophy. In philosophy, as in football, greatness is a rare virtue. Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein are not produced everyday in the same way that football players like Pele, Eusebio, Maradona, Ronaldo and Salah are rare. Yet, what is a problem today, both in philosophy and football, is that we are the first people in history for whom the celebrity culture has replaced the art of greatness.
To be sure, both philosophy and football lack the virtue of resisting against mediocrity. The mass mania of football can be associated with a form of thoughtlessness which does not honour the critical life of the mind. In this case, it is often impossible to separate the fan culture in football from the nature of the game itself, which is a reminder of the Roman ‘bread and circuses’ (panem et circenses). The expression captures a certain critical view that the masses can be kept happy and away from a sense of reality with food and entertainment. There is truth to the view that people can be kept passive as long as you fill their stomach and give them popular and fascinating spectacles. Maybe that is why Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian poet, once declared: “Soccer is popular because stupidity is popular.” Borges’ criticism of football was indicative of his distaste of fanaticism and nationalist dogmatism. But he approached the game in terms of a thoughtless spectacle rather than as a form of sport where teams can be creative and where individuals can distinguish themselves.
However, for the ancient Greeks, the art of excellence and exemplarity was inscribed in the essence of all sport, especially a globally popular game as football. In ancient Greece, the emphasis was on individual athletic achievement related to the Greek ideal of excellence. Those who attained this ideal through their outstanding deeds won glory and fame. As a result, those who competed for money feared public shame and disgrace. As Herodotus noted in Histories, “When the Persian military officer Tigranes heard that the prize was not money but a crown [of olive], he could not hold his peace, but cried, ‘Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have pitted us against? It is not for money they contend but for glory of achievement!’” As such, in ancient Greece, the truly great sportsmen were those who displayed moral excellence and were explicitly guided by a philosophy of life.
Philosophy as an art of thinking and sport as an ideal of excellence share an origin in ancient Greece. Modern sport, including football, have dramatically transformed in spirit and significance. Football, a manifestation of popular culture, is a mirror to our contemporary societies, but it has also grown in political, economic and social significance. It has become a truly money-making phenomenon. It is, therefore, no coincidence that every four years the eyes of the world turn to the Football World Cup. Imagine an ancient Greek Olympian being transported through time to the present FIFA World Cup in Russia. He would be shocked by the number of advertisements surrounding the football stadiums and alarmed by the absence of moral excellence practised by the fans and the players. But assuredly, one thing would make him happy and that is the individual integrity and creative action of some football players like Ronaldo, Messi and Salah. With their art of football as their only banner, these players are able to achieve things which are not the needs, opinions or wishes of the fans, but are the glory of football itself. Maybe it’s time to think of football no more as a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, but as a game of poor people played by those men and women who are in search of a dream.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace, Jindal Global University, Sonipat