Friday, June 11, 2010

On me 'ead, son!

The World Cup is upon us.

For those of you who remain bewildered by the mysterious global appeal of the world's most popular sport, for example, I can guarantee that this book will bewilder you even more—but in a good way! Attend to the enduring dictum of the working-class Sophocles of England, the legendary former manager of Liverpool Football Club, Bill Shankly. One of the book's essays quotes from his line: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed in that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that."

For those worried by dubious behavior on Wall Street, see the splendid essay "How to Appreciate the Fingertip Save," in which Edward Winters quotes the guiding principle of Albert Camus—the existential novelist who played goalkeeper as a young man in Algeria: "All that I know of morality I learnt from football."

Or, for those who believe that the irresistible universality of the game will be breaking through in America any day now, see the essay "The Hand of God and Other Soccer . . . Miracles?" in which Kirk McDermid cites St. Thomas Aquinas' identification of the crucial elements that make an event truly miraculous.

Robert Northcott discusses Kierkegaard's concept of anxiety in relation to penalty shots, but right now the Danish philosopher's thinking is best applied to England's dark, neurotic fear of what would be a thoroughly deserved national disgrace should the United States beat England in the teams' opening World Cup match on Saturday.

Is there, perhaps, one too many high-flown footballing philosophy in the book? There is. (And there isn't.) The claim that Nietzsche would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the London club, Arsenal, is curiously speculative when everyone knows that he would have rooted for the steamrollers of Europe, Inter Milan. Another of the essayists—raving about the artistic skills of one of the greatest footballers of our time, Cristiano Ronaldo—calls on the aesthetics of Plato and Aristotle to ponder: "Is Ronaldo a Modern Picasso?" To which we might be tempted to respond: "Maybe so. But could Picasso bend it like Beckham?"

And then where would we be? The answer to that is exactly where the authors of "Soccer and Philosophy" want us to be: thinking in fresh and intriguing ways about the Beautiful Game we thought we knew. "The Loneliness of the Referee," Jonathan Crowe's wonderful essay, is particularly appealing to all who, like myself, yell irrational abuse at that ultimate despot and strutting God of the stadium, the ref. But only when his unbelievably blind decisions go against us. The referee, in other words, is to blame for everything.

Mr. Crowe first reminds us that the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was an avid student of football—see his "Critique of Dialectical Reason," where he remarks with undeniable wisdom: "In a football match, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team."

See Icons passim, as ever.

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