Joys of Modern Life: 3; The World Cup

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I DON'T have all that much time for modern life. It is amazing, people say in awed tones, what they can do now.

What amazes me is how little they can do. Modern life mostly consists of a series of claims to have found a short-cut through some natural practicality, which usually results in a more destructive, unpleasant, man-made obstruction being created.

Every now and again, the modern world comes up with something that almost compensates for low-calorie food, roadworks, landfill sites, genetic engineering, global warming, nuclear weapons, and the fact that profit-making supermarkets bleach your carrots and then dye them orange again without telling you. One of those things is the World Cup.

A live international sporting event goes some way towards justifying the existence of television, air travel and vast corporations, without one of which it either couldn't happen, couldn't happen so often or couldn't happen in front of me.

Occurring quadriennially like some arcane astrological phenomenon, the World Cup is the chief comet in the sporting sky. For the next month, thoughts of the M25 will lose their sting. The World Cup justifies the modern world, at least temporarily.

Though it depends on so much that we think of as characterising progress, the principles of the World Cup are in fact the reverse of those of globalisation. At its heart is what almost amounts to a democratic movement: a mass conspiracy to unprofitable pleasure centred around an incorruptible aesthetic. According to this democracy, those powers who usually and indiscriminately control our lives are instead relegated to its fringes as providers and facilitators. In their place are individuals and nations, returning to scale our grossly distorted map of the world. If the modern world is fuelled by generalisation, homogeneity, indifference, speed and greed, then the World Cup is its opposite; a festival of staying in one place, of paying attention, of detail, of caring, of differentiation. Sport is an excellent alternative to war, although the English appear to have difficulty telling the difference, and as well as proving that competition is not the same as hatred, the World Cup is fast becoming a small crucible of humanitarianism.

There may be all sorts of reasons for this; an important one is the moral structure of the game itself. Cheating, violence, racial slander, ungraciousness and ungentlemanly conduct, all of which are casually tolerated in society, are in international football abhorred with Victorian zeal. One-tenth of the self-disgust with which we regard English fans rioting abroad, if applied to our foreign policies, would make the world a better place. The ethical acuity of the football commentator, his obsession with fairness, his hatred of injustice, are positively heretic. Our disapproval of oppressive foreign regimes is suddenly vocal, our interest in Nigeria profound, our support for Jamaica wholehearted, Scotland's lack of support for us is confirmed. The World Cup gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that beneath the problems of territory, material gain, poverty and privilege, we are quite nice.

Those of us who aren't are referred to as a small minority intent on spoiling things for everybody else. If only things were always about talent and team work and fairness and cultural richness, and everybody all together enjoying something that doesn't automatically hurt anybody else. The funny thing about the World Cup, though, is that the only people in it are MEN.