Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Sport reflects life - by Nick van der Leek

Let's face it, sport and football fever in particular, is good for us.  It gets us out of dull routines, out of self-imposed solitary confinement, it gets us to socialise and enthuse and connect to the community in common cause.  That's precious. No president or politician can achieve the sort of unifying force that sport like this, on the scale of the World Cup, brings about.  I could leave my keyboard right there, because this is a wonderful affirmation happening in our country right now, and the most important one.  But, of course, I'm not going to stop there.

The image above represents something I find quite quirky about football.  Some supporters will go nuts, not because they won, but because they didn't lose.  Our own Bafana Bafana were treated like champions, and winners, after their 1-1 draw with Mexico.  It was these celebrations that I think took their eyes off the ball, leading to their defeat to Uruguay. Supporters left the stadium in droves and Uruguay went on to score a third goal behind the backs of the exiting fans.

Meanwhile a cursory glance at the news shows you that South Africans are not only still hoping, but also praying that their team does well, after all, the Lord works in mysterious ways right?  SABC3 news right now is talking about 'die hoop vlam op vir 'n wonderwerk' [literally: hope flames up for a miracle].

  • Many believe that when charismatic preacher Angus Buchan - of Faith Like Potatoes fame - talks to God, He listens. In a real leap of faith, the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands farmer told Weekend Argus in an interview on Friday ahead of his trip to Cape Town that he was praying very hard for Bafana Bafana. More.
  • A Cape Town sangoma says Bafana Bafana will make it to the World Cup semifinals. More.
  • “Muti works,” said Miriam Lethaba, a 62-year-old domestic worker from Ratanda, a township outside Heidelberg in Ekurhuleni . “It will make Bafana strong.” More.
Now there are some who will snort at the idea that muti and witchdoctors are worth the investment in time and perhaps - probably - someone's money, and there are others who may say even Christians are wasting their time [and money].  Because the root of it is this: you really really want your team to win and you will do anything, short of running onto the pitch, even running into the changing room, to influence the result in your group's favour.  In a more general sense, people of every culture and creed, are quick to turn to any handy superstition when something that is important to them is not under their control.

Cyclists, cricket players and yes, footballers, and their fans, are all well known for their superstitions.  And let's be clear, a superstition can be a private ritual which one practises entirely independently of religion, but which has no less importance at the time one practises it.

When the investment in a superstition or faith is not rewarded in reality, of course, it is quickly forgotten, dismissed.  Of course when things turn out, unexpectedly or not, in one's favour, those comforting rituals get reinforced.

Even the players themselves represent this oh-so-human tendency towards superstition by kissing rings, tattoos, shirts, crossing themselves or looking up to the heavens, because, of course, God - or the gods - has smiled on them.  The arrogance of this, naturally, is quite appalling; why should God favour one player and not another, or worse, one team above another, but no one seems to notice this anomaly in the logic [or lack of] in belief, because they are so fully subscribed to wanting some particular result themselves.

The drama at work on the field of play is also worthy of a mention.  Let's face it, plenty of acting and exageration is happening, in the hope that the referee can be tricked into offering up an advantage, not entirely earned.  In this sense football is as farcical as wrestling. But the crowds don't seem to mind, the important thing seems to be that that most basic of ego gratifications is satisified - a win [whether by fair or foul means].  This tendency towards co-operative deception and play-acting, drama and pretense towards a shared objective also says a lot about us.

The teams also say a lot about their countries.  Take North Korea.  They have an ultra-conservative, ultra-defensive style of play.  The idea is to choke attacks, and then, on the rare occasion when the opportunity presents, make opportunistic counterattacks.  Naturally, this tactic of defense is the best offense usually does not work, hence the team is ranked lowest in the tournament, and the country itself employing similar tactics is, as everyone knows [except perhaps many North Koreans themselves] an impoverished backwater in comparison to most other countries..
Then the French team, passionate, and emotional.  Of course passion can work for you, but it can also have a dark side when it becomes the master, rather than the servant.  Anelka could easily have apologised to his coach after telling him to 'go f*** yourself' and gotten on with serving his team and his country, but chose a more arrogant stance.  Thousands of other players in France would have given everything to be in a position Anelka apparently is too good for.

Bafana Bafana also say a lot about South Africans.  Emotional, capable of performing, but quick to change state - from tangible fire and passion to self defeat and depression. And thus ultimately lacking substance.

Of course, as any sportsman knows, the real way to influence your chances is through simple hard work, and preparation.  There are other realities at play, including luck, including uncontrollables like the weather.  But superstitions do little more than settle the nerves, and perhaps aid in creating false but helpful affirmations.  The problem comes in when our focus is on the miracle mentality, and not on steeling oneself to disciplined effort.  Faith in an unknown tomorrow lies at the heart of unhealthy delusion.  It's a gamble that usually, unfortunately, doesn't pay off.  Hard work on the other hand does, and the hardest worker tends to be rewarded as a matter of course.

In South Africa the quintessential instrument used to support the teams and players [and let's face it, if the players had a choice, they'd ask their own supporters not to] is the Vuvuzela.  Many aren't sure what they think of it, but one thing is certain, sentiment has changed for the worse as the World Cup has gone on.

I believe the Vuvuzela will start to run out of World Cup steam after Bafana exit the first round on Tuesday.  While a win against 9th ranked France is virtually inconceivable, there are longer odds facing the team irrespective of their result: Mexico have to beat Uruguay.

Personally my objections regarding the World Cup are the same as they've always been.  We've set our standards - both for ourselves and in terms of the team - far too low to present a tournament that we can truly participate in, or do so with even a clear conscience, and thus we can't honestly be proud of either our team or our country.  Sadly. If you can honestly be proud carrots and noddy badges to you. But that said I am sure many visitors are actually enjoying, nay loving our crisp fresh air, and the plenty of wide open spaces that our country affords.  Including certain parts of our cities.  I know firsthand that many can't get enough of our delicious and inexpensive food, and many more of those other things one does not really consider firstoff when rattling off a countries' tourist attractions.

So let's revel in the exposure and the fellowship of having so many visitors in our midst.  It reminds them and us that we are, after all, in it together, and capable, possibly, of influencing the result, as long as we at least make the effort to try.

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