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How (Not) to Watch the Beautiful Game

November 23rd, 2022 | 4 min read

By Musembi wa Ndaita

Growing up Monday mornings were either a delight or a dread depending on which football — what a minority of the world calls soccer — team you supported. If your team had lost over the weekend, you were in for much kuchongolewa at school. The early 2000s English Premier League seasons were, as we would say in Nairobi, moto-moto. Alex Ferguson was at the height of his game but so was Arsène Wenger. Every weekend each ascended to either Old Trafford or Highbury with a fresh bag of tricks.

Almost everyone I knew was either for or against Manchester United. In my school, we were evenly divided between Manchester United and Arsenal, although there were a few long-suffering Newcastle (it was Alan Shearer’s glory days), Chelsea, and Liverpool fans. Manchester City was on no-one’s lips then.

I’ve always been a Red Devil. Over the years, I’ve made friends because of our shared love for Old Trafford. Recently, the conversation with my Lyft driver took a delightful turn, and so did the tip, once I discovered that he too was one of the elect. We even exchanged phone numbers, promising to watch a game together.

It was possible, I later thought, that my soon-to-be-friend and I had shared similar emotions at exactly the same time: heartache on Sunday October 23rd 2011 when Manchester City unleashed their wrath upon us, tears of joy on Wednesday May 21st 2008 after Edwin van de Sar stopped Nicolas Anelka’s penalty to give us our third Champions League trophy, and the inexplicable anxious confidence of Fergie Time that had every United fan on the edge of their seat, if not standing. I belonged to the latter. Those were the days, I tell you.

True fans want their teams to win. There is no neutrality on game day. Unfortunately, as Simon Barnes writes in, The Meaning of Sport, “In sport, all triumph is built on the disappointment of others.”[1] Because, “All sports represent the collision of wills: people or teams who want the same thing and have to cause somebody pain in order to get it.”[2] This explains why earlier this year I heard of a man in Yaoundé who wept all night when Cameroon lost to Egypt in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations. I wish I could report here that I dismissed those tears — like the narrator of the account — to be a just reward for misplaced priorities. No. The all-night bitterness of the soul reminded me of my third year in college when, during the Champions League final, Christiano Ronaldo seemed to have forgotten that on the pitch his legs exist for only one purpose, to score goals. We lost 2-0 to Barcelona. By the end of the game, I’d turned off my cell phone.

Soccer may not be life, but the beautiful game tells of life. On the field, more is happening than just 20 men or women running after a ball. Even in our age of radical individualism, soccer reminds us that to be human is to belong to and be responsible for a community. “I am because we are,” as John Mbiti put it, is the ruling principle in soccer. On the field, individual glory is contingent upon team effort. As Jurgen Klopp rightly observes, “The beautiful thing about [soccer] is that you can’t do anything alone. Anything, believe me.” Lionel Messi may be a genius but pair him with lackluster midfielders and you have a could-have-been.

Not only are the players a community striving towards a common goal — get the ball into the opponent’s net, stop the ball from shaking our net — so are the fans. They shout, sing, clap, and cry together. Their happiness, at least momentarily, depends on what happens to a ball in ninety-minutes. The players may not be saving lives but they sure are impacting lives. They are both storytellers and participants in their own tale. For, as Barnes brilliantly observes, “Sport creates archetypal situations of triumph and tragedy, and it does so bloodlessly, for at bottom, all is play. Nobody dies: Agamemnon is unmurdered, Oedipus unblinded, Troy unsacked, and Penelope’s suitors unslain. And yet the strong myths are created in front of us, and we respond to them with passion and delight.”[3]

The all-night crier in Cameroon was telling a story with his tears. He had hoped for a win and with it personal and national glory. “Cameroon is great, better than Egypt,” a win would have declared. But the Indomitable Lions’ roar wasn’t loud enough to deter the Pharaohs and at the end Cameroon cried as Egypt rejoiced like triumphant generals.

It is impossible to be a hypocrite on the soccer field. A pastor given to anger and impatience may eloquently extol gentleness and patience without anyone in the pews noting that the emperor is naked. Not so on the field. On the turf, truth is on display. Any team that cuts corners during the week is cornered on the weekend.

I hope that as I watch truth on display in the EPL this season and at Qatar this month (go Lions of Teranga) I will be challenged to, as the apostle Paul puts it, live according to the truth I confess.

Now that Erik ten Hag seems to have straightened up the boys, it’s time for my Lyft friend and I to go out for a pint and cheer on the Red Devils, keeping in mind Klopp’s words, “There should be a bigger purpose to this game than revenue and trophies, no?”

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