I read a (typically) great post by Brian Phillips on Grantland recently, a Brazil World Cup travelogue but with Brian’s (typical) brilliant outlook: Train in Vain. Lots of good stuff in there about the national character of the country, its history, and some of the problems faced there, in light of hosting the largest sporting spectacle in the world. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the following philosophical aside really struck me.
Think of it this way: Almost every other sport tries to be exciting by augmenting human capability in some way (football pads, baseball bats, tennis rackets) or at least by perfecting it (agile giants flying toward an NBA rim). Soccer diminishes capability. Instead of making athletes superhuman, it gives them an extra problem to contend with: no hands. When a soccer player scores, she’s overcoming not just her opponents but also the absurd demand of the game itself, which tells her to be agile and then takes away the tools of her agility.
If you think of it that way, can you understand the appeal that soccer has offered to billions of people? It exploded among the poor in so many colonized countries in part, of course, because it required so little equipment. But that can’t be the only reason. A soccer player is essentially belittled by the universe. But he outwits the universe. He grins at his ridiculous problem and overcomes it through grace and guile. Soccer is the beautiful game partly because it makes beauty seem so unlikely, seem virtually impossible, and then gives players just enough freedom to do something beautiful anyway. In its best moments — which don’t happen often, which don’t occur even in every match, and which are therefore to be savored — soccer is ballet breaking out of an enforced clumsiness.