Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 489), June 20 – July 3, 2014
Competitive as it is, this global sport embodies surprising universal values
By Jade Pearce
Epoch Times Staff
With the 19th FIFA World Cup in its stride, it’s worthy for us to take a step back and reflect on how extraordinarily global the sport of soccer, or football, is.
It is extraordinary how it permeates across social strata and age groups—from young children playing in the local field, to silver-haired old men staring at television screens in coffee shops and bars, to a local billionaire buying a top European soccer club.
As aptly put by Robin Graham, founder of the Peace Club to promote universal values through soccer, “In most countries of the world soccer is a powerful social force, perhaps the most powerful social force in some places. It is even compared with religion.” Soccer divides, and unites, nations.
One of my more philosophical friends, a soccer fan himself, says that soccer unites people across cultures because of the universal values it embodies. Competitive as it is, soccer in and of itself is a medium for building character, and promoting peace and harmony.
Soccer a Medium for Peace
Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout, in an interview with the Vancouver Sun, explains this view with great clarity.
Stout points out that it’s no accident that sports and democracy have tended to spread together, as they are both non-violent, rule-bound forms of competition. “It is absolutely crucial in both that people learn how to play by the rules and be good winners and losers.”
Modern soccer didn’t start off as the tightly regulated, relatively peaceful game we know today. When it originated in medieval England, early soccer was plagued by unsuitable playing fields, a surfeit of participants, and a lack of proper game rules.
Ill-practices of violence and physical behaviour were allowed, and on a particularly competitive day with a boisterous crowd the scene would often descend into violent chaos.
It was thus little wonder that soccer was viewed as a ‘barbaric’ sport, culminating in its ban in 1314 during King Edward III’s reign. For 300 years the ban stood, until soccer was finally legally reinstated by King James I in 1603.
Soccer was subsequently introduced into English schools in 1840 as a means of “building character”. “Following rules, respecting your opponent, not cheating and playing for the game itself, for its internal rewards, were considered by the British masters to be part of what it meant to be a decent human being,” Stout says.
However, as the schools varied in their rules and style of game, with some allowing the rugby style of tripping, shin-kicking, and carrying the ball, an 1848 meeting at Cambridge University produced the ten Cambridge Rules. From there, the game of soccer began to standardise and take off as a national sport.
Rigorous standardising and complying to the rules and style of the game have been integral in making soccer a harmonious, international sport. After all, everyone needs to actively cooperate, and to give and take, in order to achieve peace.
“Peace is not a blissed-out paradise. Peace is active, engaged, a place for competition, but where there is responsibility for behaviour and respect for people,” says Graham.
Without which, soccer may have been banned for another 300 years in merry England, without becoming the global sport it is today.
Keeping a Sound Head
Other values that sports, particularly soccer, can impart are practical wisdom and temperance.
According to Stout, practical wisdom is the ability to size up a situation and make a sound decision based on a guiding vision. Soccer is excellent at developing this, whereas football is not.
In a similar vein, temperance, the ability to keep your emotions in check, is also important. The French player who loses his temper—and his head—gets a red card, a poor reputation, and a historically blighted career, after costing France the 2006 World Cup. While soccer requires some temperance, football requires almost none.
Another virtue that athletes must possess is courage, particularly “physical courage”. While integral in more aggressive sports such as football and hockey, soccer demands a medium amount of physical courage as well.
Some of soccer’s greatest heroes are known for their physical courage and tenacity. One well-known example is Argentine footballer Lionel Messi. Diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at 11, Messi was much smaller than most of his peers. Yet he had no qualms in tagging along with his older brothers for soccer games, unintimidated by the bigger boys.
After treatment, Messi grew to a modest height of 1.70 cm, but which gifted him unmatched speed. Coupled with masterly ball control and a relentless attacking style, Messi has established himself—at the age of 26—as one of the best players of all time.
To many, soccer is more than the material wins and losses in the game. Together as a body, we despair over moral failures, and celebrate the noble and the courageous. Regardless of which country wins the World Cup this year, this global sporting event will likely enact and impart its fair share of universal values for us to learn.
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