Archive for March 2014
I have just visited Brazil, where I spent ten days working on a documentary that I will be presenting for the BBC World Service. The documentary, called “The Burden of Beauty” and due out in May, will take a look at the pressure on the host nation not only to win the World Cup, but to win it in a style befitting their most glorious forefathers. Towards the end of my visit, a friend asked me if I had enjoyed it. I tried to agree, but instead I sort of nodded. Enjoyment wasn’t the word. I didn’t just enjoy it: I loved it. It was overwhelming.
I have always seen football as two things: first and foremost, as a game, and secondly, as a sport. I love the game: the playfulness, the freedom, the spontaneity, the self-expression. So often, though, I have found myself hating the sport: the snarling money-men, the growling profiteers, the blindly tribal. This isn’t what I signed up for when I first set foot upon a ball. I write about football now, something which pays a substantial part of my bills, but I spend more time occupied with the sport than with the game. Learning more and more of the sport’s excesses, I have frequently found myself engaged in the often joyless deconstruction of one of my life’s greatest loves.
I don’t love football because of the sponsorship deals my club has just struck. In truth, I don’t love it because a rival team is struggling. At best, I might smirk if one of them comes a cropper, but it goes no further than that. I love football because it’s the one thing I’ve ever found, beyond even being on stage, which leaves me giddy with the liberation of it all. It’ll sound sad, or revealing, or hopelessly tragic, or perhaps all three, but I have never known any moment more pure than being put through on goal, ten yards from the penalty area, with the wind at your back and the knowledge, the arrogance of the knowledge, that whatever the goalkeeper does you will score.
I know there’s probably some way for a psychoanalyst to explain that – that being through on goal represents breaking boundaries in one’s personal life, it represents going it alone, and knowing I will score means knowing that, when truly under pressure, I will deliver. Yes, maybe it does mean that. But maybe it also means that, whenever I’ve ever felt that nothing else in life is providing answers – when I was coming out of the closet, or having the shit kicked out of me at school – I have sought out the nearest field or five-a-side pitch, put on those boots or trainers, and approached goal thinking: “This. At least, I can do this”.
This is why I love the game that is football. And being in Brazil reminded me why I love this game, and always will. Walking along the Ipanema beach, seeing men in their fifties, sixties and seventies playing volleyball with everything other than their hands, I felt my heart clattering against my ribcage. Standing in the crowd at the Maracana Stadium, as the golden clouds welcomed the evening, I felt as happy on my travels as I ever have. Walking into the trophy room at Santos’ football ground, the home of a team which was the foundation of three of Brazil’s World Cups, I was as breathless as a pilgrim might be on entering a temple. Sitting listening to Carlos Alberto talk his way through his goal, the last one in Brazil’s 4-1 triumph over Italy in the 1970 final, I had to compose myself briefly after he had done so. My grandfather, who coached Uganda’s national team for several years, would have loved to meet Carlos Alberto. He was another great man of football, and the thought of the two of them talking the game together gave me an emotion I cannot, for all my supposed skill as a writer, put into words.
Brazil blew me away. It made me look at Neymar, the player whose transfer to Barcelona is currently surrounded in such scandal, in a new light. Neymar is a man, scarcely in his twenties, who is carrying the bulk of a nation’s hopes; and how lightly he wears that pressure. He is a man who brought the Copa Libertadores, South America’s club championship, back to Santos almost forty years since Pele and his illustrious colleagues had last done it. Neymar understands the burden of beauty all too well, and he bears it with a smile. He is a player who illustrates like no other the sharp divergence of the game, which he plays with such thrilling abandon, and the sport, whose corruption may yet engulf him. In Brazil, I became acquainted again with the former, with the simple and eternal magic of the ball, endlessly welcome at my instep. And, forever, I will be grateful for that.
Happy International Women´s Day; though, in truth, I am not happy at the way that things are. In fact, I am angry. This is not good enough – we should not still be here. The stream of actual and structual violence against women worldwide in our society seems endless. Each new article I see about the state of how things are fills me with a fury I can barely contain, and which leaves me, as now, shivering with rage. It is not difficult for we men to be better people. It is not difficult to set far better standards for ourselves. And those of us who are afraid of starting to improve for fear of falling short of perfection need to get off our backsides, and now. Even now, as I type this, I fear the accusation of self-righteousness. But, at some level, fuck that. There is not nearly enough self-righteousness out there. There are not nearly enough men giving this issue proper thought, or asking proper questions, or doing careful reading, or doing careful thinking. There are a thousand things that do not even occur to us about sexism and misogyny even though these two freely infect the air around us like they were bacteria. This might seem like handwringing, and maybe it is. But there is not nearly enough of that either. There is so much more room for respect and understanding and support and compassion, and I hope that we either begin or continue to see this.
Given the spate of anti-gay laws either mooted or passed in Russia, Uganda and the USA, I thought I would repost this poem of mine, “Love Against Homophobia”; please share it with anyone who you think might appreciate it.
“Love Against Homophobia”
To some people
My love is somewhat alien;
When he comes up, they start subject-changing, and
In some states he’s seen as some contagion –
In those zones, he stays subterranean;
Some love my love; they run parades for him:
Liberal citizens lead the way for him:
Same time as some countries embracing him,
Whole faiths and nations seem ashamed of him:
They’ve tried banning him,
Prayed that he stayed in the cabinet,
But my love kicked in the panelling, ran for it –
He’s my love! Can’t be trapping him in labyrinths! –
Maverick, my love is; he thwarts challenges;
The cleverest geneticists can’t fathom him,
Priests can’t defeat him with venomous rhetoric;
They’d better quit; my love’s too competitive:
He’s still here, despite the Taliban, the Vatican,
And rap, ragga in their anger and arrogance,
Who call on my love with lit matches and paraffin –
Despite the fistfights and midnight batterings –
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
Because my love comes through anything;
My love comes through anything.
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I am seeing several comments, on Twitter and elsewhere, about appeasement. The argument is that Vladimir Putin is proceeding unchecked because the West has shown no recent military desire to rein in the excesses of other autocrats. Here’s the obvious but understated thing about appeasement: it’s neither merely nor necessarily about refusing to confront someone on the battlefield. Appeasement is incremental. It’s about all those times that dictators are allowed to publish their public images long before conflict is even on the cards. Appeasement is the glossy centre-spread in the lifestyle magazine for the despot whose regime is ankle-deep in blood. Appeasement is making no effort to bar said despot and his or her entourage from any of their favourite haunts in your capital city. Appeasement is failing to freeze even those of their assets which you can readily identify. It’s ducking the issue and imposing sanctions on their nation’s people even as they are free to roam the world with all the opulence their hearts desire.
Appeasement is allowing Putin to go ahead with the Sochi Winter Games, an event which made an apparent mockery of several of the principles of Olympism. In that context, appeasement will also constitute inaction around the 2018 World Cup in Russia, allowing Putin another opportunity to project his imperial prestige around the world. These sporting events, in the current political context, look like little more than grotesque marquees. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee both make claims in their founding documents and on their official websites to celebrate the best of humanity; but, by giving Putin two of the globe’s biggest showcases, they may unfortunately seem complicit in celebrating its worst.