Little in this world is as clearly defined as sport: Winners and losers, heroes and villains, feelings of life and death. There is too often no perspective, no sense of balance, no tomorrows.
It is this very idea of the simplicity of extremes that heightens sport’s appeal for spectators. Sport lives and thrives on the raw passions of all involved. The glory or the anguish is rarely contaminated by ambiguity: Sport has little room for emotional subtlety.
The apparently disproportionate nature of reactions to every aspect of sport lures so many people to consider sport as something that is somehow unreal, somehow frivolous.
This doesn’t really make sense. In fact, it is the extreme reactions that often explain just how central sport is to people’s lives, just how much it means.
Take, for example, when Germany beat Brazil 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup. The reaction of the Brazilian public and of the press was brutal. The words that filled the front-page headlines were “disgrace”, “outrage”, “humiliation”, and so on. Nobody who read them could have been left in any doubt as to just how match this match meant to the Brazilian people.
On top of that the Brazilian sporting daily newspaper, Lance, gave the Brazilian players an average score of 1.8 out of 10 for their performances in the match. To put this in context, it is only very rarely that any player will get a score even as low as 3 out of 10.
The agony of the Brazilian players as they played out those final minutes was not easy to watch — it is a cruel thing to watch people being shamed in public in so comprehensive a manner. Cruel, but compelling. And the fact all the players were millionaires could not insulate them from what they were feeling. No matter what else happens in their lives, they will always be remembered for that day — and they knew it.
Just 72 hours earlier, this agony stood in great contrast to the explosion of ecstasy that followed a goal scored by the Brazilian centre-back David Luiz. In the 68th minute of the quarter-final against Colombia, Luiz scored a stunning free-kick to secure a 2-0 win.
After his ball hit the net, he set off on an eye-bulging, vein-popping run with his fist clenched and his face joyously contorted into a scream. His team-mates rushed after him, themselves consumed with elation. In that moment, it seemed as if Brazil was gathering the momentum that might push its mediocre team to ultimate glory. It was this surge of joy and hope that made the subsequent collapse against Germany all the more ferociously felt.
These moments are beautifully captured in an original way in a new book written by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund called Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game. The book consists of letters (emails, really) written between the two men during the 2014 World Cup.
What makes the book is that the men are very different from each other. Ekelund is a Swedish writer who travels widely, loves wine and women and dancing, and embraces life with passion. He writes his letters while living in Rio during the competition.
By contrast, Knausgaard is a Norwegian writer who now lives in an isolated part of Sweden and is deeply introverted. He does not travel to football tournaments, preferring instead to watch them on television. He is the more famous of the two, his extraordinary multi-volume My Struggle having won for him a certain global literary renown.
What is interesting is that Knausgaard at one point writes: “We watch football because it is theatre, it is drama, it is different from our lives….” He wrote those lines after seeing Luis Suarez biting Giorgio Chiellini during the Uruguay-Italy match.
In that context, you can see what he means. But the thing is that the rest of the book entirely undermines any notion that football “is different from our lives”. Instead, Knausgaard shows in page after page just how central soccer has been to his life, just how much a part it is of his everyday. Almost at the beginning of the book, for example, he writes: “I have been interested in football for as long as I can remember. Some of my very first memories are about football.”
He goes on to talk about that experience shared by so many of a childhood spent playing in pick-up games on made-up pitches and of those games running into darkness. He moves on to talk about a more formal involvement in organised games and of the amount of happiness he took from the simple joy of playing football.
And he wrapped his experience of watching football — in person and on TV — all around that. When it comes to World Cups, he sets out his vivid memories of World Cups extending back to 1978 and says of 2010 World Cup: “It was a perfect summer, as all World Cup summers are.”
Ekelund, for his part, has no doubt about the place of soccer in his life: it sits right at its core. Even at 60, he is playing five-a-side and some of the best pieces in the book describe his games with local men on pitches around Rio as the World Cup rolls on across a month. As he says, playing on a pitch allows him to connect with a 17-year-old in a way that is entirely unique.
The best bits in the book are the asides on the place of sport in modern life and just how much it feeds into how society works. Ekelund mentions Belgium and how soccer unites the Flemish and Walloons in that country to support the national team: “Not unlike the Bosnian national team in that respect. Football as a band-aid on ethnic wounds.”
Ekelund also writes about how no supremacy — in sport or anywhere — is permanent: “All empires must eventually fall… Sooner or later every little Napoleon must dislodge from his horse.”
And there is nothing quite like sport to dislodge Napoleons from their horses. It is one of the great pleasures in sport to see even the very successful fall in defeat.
It is worth having a read of this book — although it’s far from perfect and there are parts of it that are boring and self-indulgent and rambling — to be reminded again of the joy of sport and how it adds colour and passion and pleasure to modern life.
And part of the beauty is that, when it comes down to it, sport is cartoons redrawn on playing fields.
Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game is published by Harvill Secker.
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