Football and Plural Identities

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, June 19, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

Great sport events like the 2006 World Cup give us an opportunity to reflect on the oneness of peoples, notwithstanding our colors, our politics, our multiple identities.

To illustrate, let’s deviate a bit by citing an example involving then US President Richard Nixon, the “outlaw” journalist Hunter Thompson, and American football.  Of course, American football is vastly different—less rousing and less inspiring—than the football played by the rest of the world.  The story goes that Nixon invited Thompson for a private meeting.  They were hostile to each other.  Thompson wrote near-libelous statements that inflamed Evil Dick.  Yet, the scatological Nixon invited the bitchy Thompson for an exclusive interview so long as the subject was limited to American football.  Their talk was serious and lively.  Evil Dick even gave Thompson a friendly whack on the thigh in a moment of exhilaration.

I wonder whether Gloria Arroyo, who, like Nixon, belongs to the hall of the infamous (at least, Evil Dick won the elections) could emulate Nixon by having a private talk on sports with hard-hitting columnists like Conrad de Quiros and Manuel Buencamino. Both de Quiros and Buencamino are certified soccer aficionados.  And they perhaps won’t mind being whacked by Arroyo so long as it is done in the context of football story-telling.

Mrs. Arroyo may not be a soccer enthusiast, but a conversation on the art of cheating in football would catch her attention.  She might be surprised to hear that the Hello Garci incident also occurs in the world of football.  As told to me by an Italian friend, the Genoa football club was stripped of its division championship and barred from playing in the premiere league after the team owner was found guilty of bribing to win games. And the evidence?  Taped phone conversations.

That bribes, not to mention vandalism and violence, mar some football events does not diminish the sport’s stature as the most exalting, most beautiful game on earth.  The beauty of football does not just lie in the game’s grace and hustle, in its roughness and elegance, in the tackles and tumbles.  Its beauty is not just about the skills, agility, polish, physique, cleverness, and intelligence of the individual players.  Nor is it merely located in the strategy, the tactics, the technique, and the teamwork.

Football has a profound if not abstract beauty, for it symbolizes universality, collectiveness, and social bonding.  Here in Jakarta, taxi drivers, street hawkers, receptionists, waiters, activists, women dressed in gilbab, politicians and their bodyguards engage you in either small or serious talk about the World Cup.

They and other sorts of people gather in restaurants, bars, and other public places to watch the games and cheer their favorite teams. A German national was rooting for the Poles in a match pitting Poland against his beloved Germany.  And he was trying to convince the brown-skinned locals to favor Poland for the reason that Poland’s flag has the same color as Indonesia’s.

The Speaker of the Indonesian parliament was a TV guest but he was not talking about dull subjects like politics and Constitutional change.  He was annotating and analyzing the game between Argentina and Serbia-Montenegro.  I realized that the House Speaker and the taxi driver I met earlier were equally knowledgeable about football.

In Vientiane in 1998, I was awakened at a wee hour by the noisy crowd gathered on the street fronting my hotel room.  The Laotian proletariat, the communist cadres, the French restaurateur plus his staff, and the tourists and expats roared in unison to celebrate France’s triumph in the 1998 World Cup. Despite French colonialism, the Laotians loved the French, especially the team captain Zinédine Zidane.

Such scenes of friendly, vigorous interaction of different peoples are again being played out all over the world. In Germany, Iranians and Saudis are bound to mix with US citizens without fear, unmindful of the brutal war on terror that Dubya Bush unleashed.  The Americans donning baseball caps are likely to mingle with the Mexicans wearing sombreros, putting aside issues like illegal migration and unfair trade that upset US-Mexico relations.

Football underscores a point made by Amartya Sen that people have plural identities. Zidane is French and colored; he is passionate about football but has other pursuits, especially now that he is retiring his jersey.  Many Latin American football stars—the Ronaldinhos and Crespos—play for European clubs, joining forces with Africans, Asians, and others in rainbow teams. Across Europe, it is no longer surprising to find competing teams in which the overwhelming majority of players on both sides are foreigners of many nationalities.

Sen’s insight into plural identities is a simple yet powerful idea.  An Arab or Indonesian whose faith is Islam should not be seen simply as a Muslim.  His self may include being the breadwinner, patriarchal yet supportive of the rights of women and gays, the citizen who believes in secularism and pacifism, the intellectual who reads Sen and Thompson, the humanist who listens to avant-garde music, and the sport fanatic who enjoys football.

A failure to appreciate the pluralism of identities has negative results.  Sen points out that it is not only warmongers but also well-meaning people who commit misguided actions or policies in relating with Muslims.  Naively, they think that having a dialogue between Muslims and Christianity or separating the good Islam from the bad Islam is the way forward.  Wouldn’t it be better to dialogue with Muslims on the basis of being citizens and having common concerns such as peace, human rights, knowledge, technology, culture, sports, etc.?

And can’t we learn from how football links peoples? The 2006 World Cup is showing us the way on how patriotism and globalization, partisanship and solidarity, unity and struggle can go hand in hand.

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