News Declan Lynch

Monday 1 September 2014

Football truly a game in the key of life

This 'experience of enchantment', the World Cup is what life should be like all the time

Declan Lynch

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

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Illustration by Jim Cogan

THE mood now, after a few days of the World Cup, is one of the deepest serenity. It is a common misconception that the World Cup, especially one held in Brazil, is a thing of noisy celebration, of dancing all night long in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, of happy, face-painted people waving to the cameras. And yes, there is a bit of that.

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But we must remember that the definitive sound of Brazil is not necessarily that of the raucous carnival, it is that of Astrud Gilberto singing The Girl From Ipanema, a number that is so laid back it makes the meditations of a Buddhist monk seem like a million Motorhead fans banging their heads in unison to Ace of Spades.

It is a song that seems unplugged from all of life's exertions, that creates a rhythm with which we are not familiar in the physical world, that belongs to some chimerical dimension to which we would like to go some day, perhaps never to return.

That is how many of us are feeling today, that is how relaxed we are.

It is "an experience of enchantment", a description that I take from an essay in Sports Illustrated by the author and philosopher Simon Critchley.

On the game in general, he writes that "for an hour and a half a different order of time unfolds and one submits oneself to it. A football game is a temporal rupture with the routine of the everyday: ecstatic, evanescent, and most importantly, shared. At its best, football is about shifts in the intensity of experience.

"At times it's like Spinoza on maximising intensities of existence. At other times it's more like Beckett's Godot, where nothing happens twice."

You won't be getting that from Robbie Savage on the BBC, but they have done well with their choice of signature tune – they will never again have an idea as brave and as brilliant as Nessun Dorma being the theme for Italia 90, but Stevie Wonder's Latin-flavoured Another Star is a fine touch, a song that has already made its way so deep into the better part of our consciousness, we may not be able fully to release ourselves from it until September.

It is taken from the monumental 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life, which is arguably the best album title of them all, and which reminds us that football is not just a part of life, a diversion or an adornment, it is a game in the key of life – and the World Cup is what life should be like all the time.

Mr Wonder wouldn't usually allow a song of his to be used by some TV programme, but he would know that this one is worthy of his favour, that it is rare enough for the multitudes to be assembled for a single purpose that carries at every moment the promise of excellence.

Again I quote Critchley, who believes that "the World Cup is about ever shifting floors of memory and the complexity of personal and national identity. But at its best it is about grace. A truly great player, like Pele, like Johan Cruyff, like Maradona, like Zidane, has grace; an unforced bodily containment, an elegance of movement, a kind of discipline where long periods of inactivity can suddenly accelerate and time takes on a different dimension in bursts of controlled power. When someone like Zidane does this alone, the effect is beautiful; when four or five players do this in concert, it is breathtaking..."

But that profound peace which has descended upon us, born of the certainty that there will be three matches today, and three more tomorrow, is informed by the knowledge that soon there will be just two matches a day, and eventually there will come a day when there will be just one match, and then no match.

There is a terrible poignancy in this, but we must accept it. Just as death heightens the intensity of living, so we must bear the weight of this knowledge lightly, to appreciate all the more these days of transcendence.

Today, for example, you may be inclined towards the view that there is something else you might be doing instead of watching, say, Switzerland v Ecuador. You may be hearing an inner voice telling you that this might be an opportunity to "take time out" from the journey, to "catch up" on some of the chores of your existence.

You must not listen to that voice of everyday anxiety. I have a friend who decided in a capricious moment that he didn't need to watch a match between the Arsenal and Reading in an early round of the Carling Cup, for no good reason except that he didn't really give a damn about it, and he believed that neither the Arsenal nor Reading gave a damn about it either.

Turned out that it finished 7-5 to the Arsenal, after extra time, that the Arsenal came back from being four down after 37 minutes, that it was enormously entertaining and eventually quite enthralling.

My friend learned a hard lesson that night – you should never not watch a football match.

You should never not watch a football match in the normal run of things, but during the World Cup, the rule is reinforced a thousand-fold.

At this time, it is the only rule.

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