Tom Rachman, a Canadian novelist based in Britain, is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
I envy those who don’t care about sports, just as I envy those who claim not to care about cake: They’re missing out, and they’re spared.
For thousands of hours of my life, I could’ve cultivated my mind, or at least tidied. Instead, I spent them goggling at 22 grown men in shorts running up and down a field, trying to catch up with a ball, only to wallop it away with their feet.
If you do not follow sports, spectatorship seems like the silliest – and arguably, the saddest – waste of time. But even the sports-averse should care, if only because it’ll consume so many people around you who, like me, will spend the next month gaping at a TV screen during the World Cup, starting Sunday.
Sports fans have endured a bad rap ever since Ancient Rome, when the satirical poet Juvenal sneered at fellow citizens lulled into passivity with “bread and circuses.” (By “circuses,” he meant sporting events such as chariot races at Circus Maximus stadium.)
Another recurrent jibe is that the athletic spectacle is just blood lust in disguise. “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell wrote in 1945. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
While aggression may indeed lurk at sporting events, this is largely because aggression tends to lurk whenever men are crammed together. Attend a women’s professional soccer match, where crowds are more mixed, and you’ll likely not hear depraved chants or worry about fisticuffs. In other words, it’s not the spectators – it’s the thugs.
That said, there is a weird emotional charge that comes from watching sports. Even when alone, fans howl at deaf screens, or leap from the La-Z-Boy shrieking “We won!” – though they themselves won nothing.
These emotional spikes – half empathy, half ego – have few equivalents. Storytelling can produce a similar effect, when you’re gripped by a helter-skelter movie, or agog at a friend’s anecdote. The difference is that sport unfolds, live, before you: It’s drama with a kickoff time.
My father was a professor who strictly limited his contact with bouncy balls – he preferred to read and read, more words than breaths in his life. Yet this dedicated intellectual also remained in the clutch of sport from boyhood to old age.
In watching games, he claimed to find something uncorrupt. That would sound peculiar today, given that this World Cup was sullied before it even started; the notoriously crooked governing body of soccer, FIFA, awarded the hosting to Qatar, a wealthy peninsula of Arabian desert without any notable past in soccer, but with a notable present of rights abuse.
But what my father meant, I think, was that athletic contest is sincere: excellence testing itself against excellence, human endeavour stripped raw; a clash between those who flounder and those who exceed; the certainty that right now matters more than anything; and the recognition that we must always try again.
It’s the striving that addicts people to watching sports – this prospect of next time – even as others push in the opposite direction, and the ball bounces away, and all race after fate, believing they might cut off its path.
As a spectator, you can moan, whoop or pray aloud, but then a final whistle sounds, and the facts are set, and the issue closed (though with much left to debate). All the unbridled noise and bluster may be why sports obsession is more common among men: Many consider emotion an all-or-nothing chaos, and fear that they’d lose face or control in outbursts. So many repress the far ends of passion, except when granted an exemption in sports.
However, spectatorship is more than therapy for the emotionally clogged. It’s also witnessing creativity, produced in real-time. It’s willing a stranger’s triumph. It’s the worldly intrigue at each World Cup: the cast of characters from every inhabited continent, each team presenting cultural styles and historical burdens, the globe pursuing this single end, rivals yet siblings. It’s a multigenerational saga, the latest scenes of which are about to be written.
In our own lives, loss rarely comes with the promise of another try. Nor is victory typically etched on a trophy, or celebrated by crowds. Our triumphs usually flare and hurry past, swallowed by larger ambitions, or they vanish under the weight of coping with next week. There are no whistle blows to conclude your events.
Bill Shankly, the famed former coach of Liverpool Football Club, once denied that soccer was a matter of life and death to him. “Listen,” he confided, “it’s more important than that.”
For spectators, the opposite is true: Sports matter because they don’t. They stir us to heights, but they cannot destroy us. We’re not on the field, never defined by the missed penalty kick (or the scored one). We will never even step out there. We ate too much cake.
So we hitch our hopes to the talented, those chosen to run fields in pursuit of a ball, primed by pitiless training, years of trying and trying and trying and missing, longing to achieve a marvel some day. And here’s a chance, starting this very Sunday, with the world watching.