When I was little, I learned about war and sports at the same time. I browsed World Almanacs and other reference books and read statistics, my young brain not yet able to distinguish the gap in meaning between Hank Aaron’s 715th home run and the 140,000 people (give or take tens of thousands) killed when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima. “Innocent” and “ignorant” are close cousins.
“War annihilates innocence, and no war more than this one,” says Brian Phillips in this brilliant Grantland piece on World War I and soccer. In Phillips’ view, Europe was wholly unprepared for the brutality of the conflict it had unleashed, thinking of it in terms of the sport that had grown so quickly in the generations since the last major war.
Phillips’ view here is dark, seeing the “war as sport” view as an insidious trivialization of what was happening on the gas-clouded battlefields of Ypres and elsewhere:
(W)e still make the same mistakes, because we still understand war through analogy and our analogies still fail. Now we see it as a video game, or we see it as a component of the NFL’s set of minor paraphernalia, jet flyovers part of the same combo pack that includes beer commercials and classic-rock riffs.
(I’m reminded of a sports journalism colleague, not normally a left-leaning guy and certainly a big fan of the NFL, who muttered that if we saw some North Korea, Saddam’s Iraq or some other country doing military flyovers at a sports event, we’d be horrified. So why is it OK if we do it?)
He’s right, of course, but the war photos and histories also provide us a view of soccer as a means of providing some joy and hope in horrible times. We need to cling to something — a loved one’s photo, a favorite food, or a soccer ball.
After Sept. 11, I wrote a column about soccer’s place in the world. I never got any feedback on it, and perhaps rightly so — it’s not as brilliant as Phillips’ work here. But I expressed a bit of optimism in soccer’s role as a peacemaker:
Games remind us that we are all not so different. The people we see as our enemies become sportsmen and sportswomen against whom we can test our skill. They even become our teammates. Our friends.
As we listen to commentators dividing the world into “us” and “them,” we can look on a soccer field and remember that the “us” far outnumbers the “them.” Players of Middle Eastern descent have graced MLS rosters and will continue to do so. Greater freedom in Iran has yielded a few stars of Germany’s Bundesliga. World Cup qualifying this year included a team called “Palestine,” representing the hopes that all nations share — to play in the greatest event in the world.
We can’t all make it to the World Cup. We can’t all play well. But we can share this unique experience with all who take advantage of whatever freedom they have to enjoy this game — a game that captures the human spirit in every corner of the world, even and perhaps especially those that are suffering or mourning.
Play the game.
Live the game.
My optimism is limited, of course. Soccer didn’t end World War I. It won’t end the conflicts in Ukraine or Gaza. And yet there’s something about this sport that has the power to remind us of our common humanity.
I’ll give the link again to Phillips’ piece, Soccer in Oblivion. And I’ll celebrate the fact that when France (or England) and Germany (or Austria) meet now, they dispute nothing more than the occasional call by the ref.
(So once again, England fans, you can stop booing the bloody national anthem any year now, all right?)