In his recently-published memoir, Christopher Hitchens devotes a chapter to his friend, the novelist Martin Amis. Rare disapproval comes up in a footnote on football, a game Amis follows and Hitchens loathes. “I have since learned to accept… that there are men to whom the outcome of such sporting engagements is emotionally important,” Hitchens writes. “This is a test of masculinity, like some straight men’s fascination with lesbianism, which I simply cannot seem to pass.”
Hitchens’ pun aside, as of June 11 many men (and women) will indeed regard as emotionally important the results of this year’s World Cup tournament. Like George Orwell, who sniffed that football was “not really played for the pleasure of kicking a ball about, but is a species of fighting,” Hitchens can be right about many things, yet humorless about a game summed up nicely by Eduardo Galeano in a ditty from his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow: “We lost, we won, either way we had fun.”
Football, as experienced from Lebanon, has definitely for me long been associated with fighting, but fortunately not the kind that involves fans or players. The sound of cheering has, instead, faced off against that of the cannonade, and my deep fondness for football comes from the fact that the cheering has quite often overcome the detonations.
In June 1978, when the World Cup tournament was held in Argentina, Beirut was rocking to the sounds of combat as Syrian forces pitilessly pounded the Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh. Four years later, western Beirut was under Israeli siege, and I then learned a lesson that I still somehow find convincing: In the years that Italy wins the World Cup, Lebanon can expect an Israeli attack. How do I know that? In 2006 Italy won the tournament again, and sure enough Israel bombed.
During the 1982 World Cup, matches started at 3:00 p.m. At the time I lived in western Beirut, where we were as a rule without electricity. When an all-important match between Italy and Brazil came around, I decided to go to the American University of Beirut campus, which had a generator. Artillery duels prevented this, until they abruptly tapered off before match time. I managed to find a taxi to take me through Beirut’s empty streets and entered the dormitory’s common room on the run – only to discover my comrades staring perplexedly at a Soviet cartoon on Syrian television, which alone was broadcasting the match.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
No one knew. Then word came through that the Syrians had refused to televise the match because the referee, one Abraham Klein, was an Israeli. But the Israelis were bombing us, we muttered, and we didn’t give a damn about the referee’s nationality. We wanted our match, if only to forget for a time that the Israelis were bombing us.
Over the years my gratitude toward football has lessened somewhat. The club I support, Juventus, has rather too frequently been involved in match-fixing scandals, along with other Italian clubs, and because of that Italy, my beloved Italy, often seems to enter into or emerge from its World Cup tournaments with players exiting suspension or preparing to face fresh disciplinary action. Football is about skill and chance, and it’s no fun when football executives do their best to stifle either.
Club football has become a tale of two tiers, that of the big footballing conglomerates – teams whose budgets read like GDP statistics – and lesser teams mainly there to lose to the conglomerates. It’s now about merchandizing, television revenues, players and coaches who retain no loyalty to their teams if they can find a larger paycheck elsewhere. The powerful clubs have become multinational selections, so that, let’s say, Inter Milan had not a single Italian player in its starting lineup when it won the European championship last May.
In many respects this can be terribly boring. Gone are the national characteristics, and quirks, of top European clubs past. The market has allowed football to grow and to develop, but it has also substantially diluted the wonderful intangibles in the game. There is much less room for variety and eccentricity among major clubs than ever before.
That is why the World Cup remains that rare venue in which there are still surprises to be had. The unexpected is more potent an incentive for supporters than the cliché that football is war by other means. Cameroon is different from Italy, which is different from Germany, which is different from Brazil. Aficionados await this and crave the enthralling differences. Observing lesbians really has nothing to do with it.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. His book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster), has just been published.