The beautiful game

was my Trade Tripper column in the 4-5 July 2014 issue of BusinessWorld:

It's not easy to wax poetic about a sport when you’re living in the only one of two countries on Earth that isn’t crazy about it. But really, there’s no getting around it: football is the beautiful game. And if there’s anything that the ongoing 2014 World Cup in Brazil is doing, it is to demonstrate to the world how dramatic, unpredictable, elegant and powerful football is.

Many will perhaps shake their heads in disbelief. It is after all just a game with 22 men running up and down a field kicking the ball and getting crazy should it happen to go behind the net once or twice during the game.

But Ann Coulter (right as she often is; proof of which is how she drives leftists and progressives nuts) was wrong to say in her column that there are no MVPs in football, that scoring is merely accidental. If that were so, there would be no Messi or Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo. And scoring in football is far from accidental. It is ability.

Football is not to be compared to basketball, the sport, which most Filipinos go gaga over. Basketball’s strength is in its repetitiveness.

I don’t buy it when Phil Jackson said basketball is a spontaneous, fluid sport. It is repetitive. Even Kobe Bryant said this in so many words. The plays are crafted, then memorized. Both teams, at the highest levels, actually know what’s going to happen next at both ends of the court. Basketball all boils down to execution, of which Bryant and Michael Jordan are its primary executioners.

No. The better comparison would be to chess. After the first 40 possible moves, chess progresses to 400 possible positions. By the fifth move, one could possibly log 4,897,256 potential moves. Football is the same; although, in some ways, even more complex: moves are not fixed to alternating between players, the 22 “pieces” are moving (and moving fast), and the movements don’t remain on a flat square.

Admittedly, football has problems translating to media. It does not lend well to being made into a movie or for TV viewing. The fact that it has no breaks except for half-time means that advertisers get left out. It’s not broken into quarters and statistics for TV analysts to comment on during lulls in the play.

Football keeps moving -- unlike, say, baseball. Baseball is easy to shoot as a movie or to write as a novel: with all the breaks between innings and pitches, the writers have the opening to put personal drama (or comedy) in between the actual action (see For Love of the Game or Bull Durham as examples).

Football, on the other hand, has to be savored directly. And this is to be emphasized: watching those moments on Youtube won’t be the same. Those moments have to -- must -- be experienced.

So contrary to what some say that it’s a sport where the ball just gets kicked back and forth, a closer look reveals the sheer artistry in footwork that even a Nijinksy would envy, the athleticism that an Ali would admire, or the speed that would exhilarate a Senna.

And then you have those supremely, shatteringly magical moments that last you a lifetime, imprinted in your brain, replayed over and over to marvel at and, yes I’ll say it, remind you that life is good. And much like life, the good comes with the bad.

The bad: I remember being 16 years old watching Maradona in 1986 shamelessly celebrating a goal he handballed over the Brits. But then, I also remember, of moments later being rendered speechless as Maradona dribbled from mid-field, at full speed, past one, two, three, four, five England players and finally blasting the ball into the goal. I could still hear, in my mind’s ear, the announcer shouting in disbelief.

And like life, football has its ups and downs: there was frail Roberto Baggio, going against the powerful Nigerians and with Italy facing elimination, in the Round of 16 of the 1994 World Cup, miraculously left alone within the penalty area, and scoring in the final two minutes of the game. He’d later score another cardiac-arresting but utterly sublime (no other word for it) goal, again in the last two minutes, against Spain in the quarterfinals. He’d then authoritatively stamp his will against the much bigger Bulgarians in the semis. In the finals against Brazil (which had Bebeto and the great predatory Romario), Baggio -- exhausted, in pain -- would be blamed for the loss, missing in the decisive penalty shootout.

Thinking about it more, ultimately, perhaps, there really are no ups and downs. For in football, it’s not the tedium or the disappointments or the hooliganism that one remembers. Like life, it’s about those fleeting moments when once in every great while, amid all the complexities and confusion, you get to live perfection.

It’s a beautiful game.