Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Beautiful Game

Just looking at the reaction that the Indonesian national football team’s shining performance in the Asean Football Federation cup is having on the nation’s psyche, I find it amazing how a few victorious games on the field could transform the spirit of a people worn down with life’s disappointment, hardened by cynicism and dogged by pessimism into one of delirious joy and overwhelming sense of pride overnight, like finding an oasis in the middle of an arid desert. But hey, success, as they say has many parents, while failure is always an orphan.

Of course, having drop-dead handsome players to represent the team and the country helps a great deal, never-mind that some of them are not even of Indonesian origin. Foreign-born Indonesian team star players Irfan Bachdim and Christiano Gonzales have become overnight sensations in this part of the planet, not just for their skills on the turf, but also for their comparative good looks, that will no doubt raise the standards for both these qualities for the national team in the future, and the game’s appeal to the female population.

In just a few days, both players have reached national heartthrob status and the darlings of the media, much to the consternation of the team’s coach, who was anxious that all this sudden attention is unhealthy and distracting to the team’s performance. Meanwhile, when Indonesia won against the Philippines in one of the semi-final games, the national team managed to become one of the top Trending Topics in Twitter global conversation, as the reaction to the victory was met with a palpable national triumph.

It is as if each goal scored, each game won, carries with it so many emotions, so laden with significance and so filled with pride and joy able to transport the spectators, nay, the entire nation, to the level of spiritual ecstasy. Football is no longer just a game, and the team’s national colours are not just a uniform. It becomes the embodiment of the human drama with the players on the field running around chasing after a ball, symbolising each and every one of us trying to create a meaning of our existence.

Each score is our triumph, each missed goal our anguish, and each loss becomes our despair. When a game is well played it is a tribute to our collective endeavour; while a bad performance, a vindication of our basic weakness, our pathetic inadequacy and everything that is wrong with this country.

This is the reaction that most countries, if not all, have towards football, as can be seen each time the World Cup comes around every four years: A fervour that grips all with equal frenzy and a fever that infects everybody, young and old, male and female.
Which makes me think, that perhaps football is the only true and genuine human religion on the face of the earth. The game is followed with passion, conviction and fanaticism, with the players elevated to transcendent heights, assuming the roles of the gods of the Greek Pantheon upon which all the worshippers place their hopes, dreams and expectations.

As a matter of fact, football has many positive features that any religious denomination would envy. For a start, the human passion towards the game is natural, instinctive and universal. There is no need for tedious indoctrination, complex rituals and abstract understanding required from its followers. Give a toddler who is learning how to take its first step a ball, and its reaction would be to kick it.
Even for most of us, who generally have no interest in the game, could, when the game represents the things that are most important to us, such as our team, our region and our national identity, easily match long-term football fanatics in terms of zeal, passion and excitement.

Talking to veteran world football star Zinedine Zidane recently, I asked him what it is about football that is so important. Indeed, for him, it is precisely because those positive qualities that the game has. Qualities that celebrate the values that we humans should have that make us noble, such as participation, cooperation, team spirit, hard work as well as a sense of unity and togetherness.

That is why for Zidane it is important to encourage children to play and compete in the game. It teaches them the importance of having a goal in life, of doing their best and of being part of a team. What’s more it allows them to experience in a very real way, the vicissitudes of life, its triumphs and its disappointments and the courage to pursue their dream. Also, to have joy in what they do, which is the basis of all human happiness, which at the end of the day, is the aim of every religion.

In a world where the human faiths often divide us and where systems of belief polarise could polarise people into the fanatics and the sceptics, football, appropriately dubbed The Beautiful Game, when played on the international level, is probably about the only thing that could unite the world, fix our attention and transport us to spiritual heights.

(Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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