By Humra Laeeq
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”, said Billy Shankly, legendary Liverpool player. Sport almost never remains within the bounds of the art of just playing it. It expands beyond individuals and societies. What makes football a matter of ‘life and death’ is unique to the world’s favourite game.
Football: the world’s favourite sport
An estimated global fanbase of 3.5 billion, that is half the world’s population, makes football the biggest sport on the planet. The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is set to award the whopping prize money of $700 million to the winning team. Enter frenzied followers wearing Messi and Ronaldo jerseys across the globe, popping open bottles in celebration and electrifying the atmosphere with an impalpable energy. “Going to a football match is a religious experience” quotes one soccer-mad soul. For others, the obsession with football derives from a hyper-nationalist fanaticism that finds its way through sport. The question is, what does football offer that other popular sports don’t?
The pride in the art of football
Those with an astute eye for football also have an astute eye for culture and recognise just how often the game tells the history of a nation like no other sport does. Though England was the pioneering country of football, distinguishing it from rugby in 1863, the art of play has never been taken as a direct English import. Since the World Cup in 1974, the Dutch popularised ‘Total Football’, a strategic football theory, based on the idea that the field could be altered by a team playing on it. Spain adopted Total Football with its own style of ‘tiki-taka’, a celebration of the ball and possession strategy. Then Argentina developed ‘La Nuestra’: short, crisp, passing interplay that captivated the world. Brazil captured the ‘arte del fútbol’; a style more akin to dancing than running with the ball, demonstrating African roots that date back to early African immigration in the country. Uruguay champions the ‘garra charrua’ nostalgic of the Charrua Indians, who had a reputation for being brutal in battle before being wiped out in the 19th century. In a hilarious turn, the internet went crazy during the 2014 World Cup when Uruguay’s Luis Suarez bit Italian defender Chiellini on the shoulder when the former was losing. One popular joke about the Uruguay team then surfaced: “If you can’t beat them, just eat them.”
Hooliganism and the dirty side of the game
“Football fans are the last group in society that can be demonised without anybody questioning it”, declared Amanda Jacks of the Football Supporters’ Federation. Football fans aren’t just proud of their cultural roots, but express that pride in a nationalistic fervour. In England, the land where football originated, people are born into clubs. Generations of families supporting a single club are colloquially called an ‘army’ or ‘casuals’. The UK has a worldwide reputation for football hooliganism, which was often referred to as the ‘English Disease’. With films, TV series, books and fashion; it has developed into a cultural industry.
An Amazon search for “hooligan” books generates more than 20 pages of results. All football clubs have many a hard-man or a hooligan telling tales of battles with opposing fans and brushes with the law. A stroll through a football crowd on matchday will find hooligan heydey clothing still worn. Old-school 80’s Adidas trainers and Burberry caps are very much in evidence. As the world has become a smaller place due to football, the welding of cultures through football has now taken on a significance that goes beyond the sport and perhaps creates modern day ‘football tribes’.
Football remains on top
Football retains its appeal because of its free-play style, and the adrenaline rush that follows can re-energize dormant fans and even those who aren’t fans at all. Those with little to no knowledge of the game can be easily seduced under a charged atmosphere. Cricket probably fails to impress as a sport because of the rigidity of its play that demands technical knowledge, so only attracts a selective audience.
It is without a doubt that Sport has the capacity to provoke fevered emotion. If that becomes entwined with cultural roots people take pride in, it turns into a win-win situation. Football lets fans link the sport not just to their sporting ability, but also their ethnicity. It becomes a matter of identity formed by the club or team you follow. And if that team gets insulted, the sentiment runs so high that political violence is a potential outcome. People don’t just lose the winner’s trophy; they also lose a sense of pride, limits of which go beyond eleven individuals.
Host countries too, cannot ignore just how important the audience is for the success of the tournament. While Russia prepares for FIFA 2018, it has invested millions into organising the FIFA Fan Fest across eleven venues, a project started in 2006 exclusively to create a carnival for football fans. It is an official public viewing event that offers an authentic and free of charge experience for local and visiting football fans. More than five million people visited the 12 locations in each 2014 FIFA World Cup. The huge success is due to the momentum built up by fans that come together and celebrate the game and themselves. To emerge as a global competitor and win over the graces of the audience, Russia knows it must host a world-class tournament. The experience of football is no more a phenomenon of the field. Over the years, the fanbase is a more integral experience than the game itself.
Featured image source: pixabay
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius