Soccer—or football, as it is known in the rest of the world—presently takes up more of our species’ brain function than anything else, with the possible exceptions of survival and sex. Any progress from the era of the Caesars, of gladiators and circuses, must be sought in our capacity for polluting, for communications and firepower, not of heart or mind.
I grew up in a country were football was supreme. Long before boys reached the age when sex or jobs became meaningful, they took to the sport with an earnestness which was withheld from all school subjects or patriotic myths. They learned team formations by heart, and endless statistics, not to mention the terms of the art, English words severely mangled, like fútbol, orsái, gol, penal, fisture, centrofórvar. They bought and exchanged pictures of football players, much like the Christians sought, adored and exchanged relics of the saints. And on Sundays, there was the ever-present murmur coming from the radios like a Latin mass punctuated by long, ominous crescendos which culminated in savage screams when someone scored.
I hated the whole thing. Football was a good education for misanthropy, but you had to be careful. At the school yard and in the streets, boys would vent their cruelty on anyone who did not openly adore their gods, and so I memorized several teams, which one had to recite with inner conviction and a certain cadence—abc//efg//hijk and l—a being the name of the goalkeeper and l the name of the right wing, I think. The first, all-important step in boyish acquaintance was the question, “Who do you belong to?” I came up with an answer, quite randomly: “Boca Juniors,” the most popular team. Thus on Mondays, I had to feign joy if Boca had won and dejection if it had lost. What to feign after a tie required more knowledge of the details of the game than I was willing to learn.
All that remains valid today. Whenever I go back to my country of origin and get together with my high-school friends, we will be sitting at the dinner table, they will be citing sixty-year-old football statistics, and one of them will ask me, “Who did you belong to?” I smile a stupid smile and say nothing. I am not fearful as I used to be, and so I don’t have to lie and say, “Boca Juniors.” But all the same, I don’t want them to think of me as a monster, which would certainly happen if I said, “I belonged to no one.” The stupid smile is a good strategy: my friends think that I am embarrassed to mention my team because it has had a disastrous trajectory between 1957 and now; perhaps it has descended to the lower divisions; perhaps it now dwells deep down in football’s hell.
I don’t want to give the impression that I was the only person who despised football in my native country. I know a couple of men my age who share my feelings, and then, of course, there was Borges. He is well known for his admiration of everything British, especially literature. But there was one thing, he told a journalist once, which he blamed the British for, and that was the invention of “all those stupid games with balls,” especially football. “Aaah, ¿no le gusta el fútbol, Borges?” asked the journalist, with the unmistakable tone of one who is sarcastically implying: enough proof; why say more; I rest my case; this guy is a moron or worse.
By 1978 my contempt for football changed into hatred. Argentina won that year’s world cup, which was played in Argentina. Henry Kissinger watched the games as guest of honor of the military junta which ruled the country then, and the enthusiasm and vociferation of the crowds smothered the screams of the hundreds who were being tortured in hidden chambers. How could anyone be mindful of those damned in state hell, when the nation as a whole was being lifted to eternal glory by eleven angels? The saddest part of it: I suspect that many of those victims would have died happily if only they had been kept informed, while in chains, of the triumphal procession and ultimate apotheosis of their national football team. Just like the many loyal communists who died crushed by their communist state machines, convinced that they were right, dialectically justified, and still helping history along on its appointed course.
I like to think I don’t hate football anymore. I’m older and wiser, and I understand one must make allowance for many things. Isn’t it great that there is a relatively peaceful way of venting nationalist aggressive energy by means of football? Even though there was once a war started by a football match, between Honduras and Santo Domingo; but it was a very minor war. And if we didn’t have those world football events, plus other sundry sport spectacles, wouldn’t we have five-hundred million more men worldwide watching pornography? You might argue that watching pornography is not as bad as watching football, but I refuse to be dragged into that can of worms. Also, we might be ready to admit this even if politically incorrect: in countries like Honduras, Santo Domingo, Brazil, Argentina, Algeria, Ghana, and the like, people need the opium of sports, whether because of material poverty, lack of education, or absence of any sort of civic and political culture.
But the day after France was eliminated from the first round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I read an article which stirred up my old anger and motivated me to write the present lines. It was an editorial piece in Le Monde, supposedly the most respectable of the French dailies. France had won the 1998 Cup, and now the shame of being eliminated so fast was, for the editorialists, only comparable to the shame which descended upon France on the same month of June seventy years earlier, when the German tanks routed the French armies. That the defeat of June 1940 led to four years of constant, dreadful shame for the French people seems to have escaped the idiots who dreamed up that comparison. Idiocy or football fever, but aren’t the symptoms the same? For the sake of this country, we should hope that the USA is eliminated soon. The American team has advanced to the second round, so the danger is serious: let us pray.
June 23, 2010.