Friday, March 26, 2010

Stranger than Fiction: Maradona and Messi

This is the age of permanent record, and as such there is now a growing desire for the sort of personalities that will somehow lift the banal stream of day-to-day news roundups into capital H 'History.'  It is a yearning for the age of "Great Men".  You can see it as pundits react to President Obama signing an inadequate health bill through the House of Congress the other day.  So desperate are they not to simply pass over the moment with a lengthy discussion of tax rebates and small business subsidies that they let their eyes glaze over for moment to wax on about "the most important piece of legislation since this" or "the biggest change in social direction since that."  Then there are the comparisons to Reagan, Lincoln, or whomever, regardless of the completely different historical circumstances behind the decisions taken by each. 

This is, of course, nostaglia.  It was much easier to believe in the notion of larger-than-life personalities changing the course of history before "history" dissolved into a series of atomized current events, innumerable blog reax, a million cell phone cameras constantly snapping in every direction, up on YouTube in minutes and hosted online forever.  

So what do we make of the story of Leonel Andrés Messi?

Let's say you're a fairly successful, upper-middlebrow author on the verge of completing a daring, epic novel spanning thirty years.  It is the story of two Argentinians who sit atop World football as the best individual players of their respective generations, two persons of radically different character, trading respective successes and failures over the course of their two careers. 

You have very consciously chosen their names.  Maradona, the Virgin mother.  It is a wry gesture: Diego is everything innocence isn't, and yet his cheating, buffoonery, drug problems, outlandish relationship with the media and the powers that be, all underline the same inescapable childishness that allowed him to play with unpredictable abandon on the pitch.

Your publisher worries for a long time that the name you've given to his spritual son—Lionel Messi, the Lion, the Messiah—might be underlining the Holy Family metaphor a bit too obviously, but after a three month email and telephone back and forth, she lets you keep the names ("I suppose it's a football novel, so we don't have to be super realistic here.").  Messi has won almost everything there is to win in football at the age of twenty-two and seemingly scores at will, yet there is something formless about him.  His skill is so technically perfect as if made by design, perhaps by a video game programmer.  It is football perfectly executed, but the countless skills videos set to awful pop ballads only serve to underline the realization he leaves no lingering aura.  Even at a young age he seems destined for a FIFA job somewhere down the line.  He is a player very much of his age.

The novel, as narrated by Jorge Valdano, former national teammate of Maradona and a sort of philosopher type character that justifies your excessive reliance on multi-syllabic adjectives (a separate email topic with your publisher that has seen some recent emails marked urgent), is mostly centered around Barcelona.  Barca, "more than a club," allows you to explore the maddening contradictions of Maradona and the saintly distance of Messi.

The first part of the novel begins in 1983 when Maradona arrives as an South American ingenue at a big European club, heralding the age of the modern footballing superstar.  Maradona though fails to live up to his new role.  Not because he isn't brilliant.  The problem is his abilities aren't merely technical, they are profoundly individual, personal even, and therefore maddens opposition players.  He is spat on, called a Dirty Indian.  His leg is broken in vicious style by Andoni Goikoetxea.  He gets in repeated fights with club president Josep Núñez.  Maradona realises he himself might be more than a club and Part One ends with him going off to Napoli, a team which happily and successfully allows him to be just that.  Indeed, when he wins the World Cup in 1986, he is arguably more than a nation.

Part Two picks up toward the end of the 2009-10 season.  Messi has completed a stunning hattrick against Zaragoza, and talk has already picked up about how he could be a break out star in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  With Barcelona he has succeeded where Maradona failed, having already won everything there is to win in European club football, including two European Cups.  And yet he is still under Maradona's shadow, constantly fending off comparisons with the skill of a PR flack.  He is everything Maradona isn't, a poster child, UNICEF ambassador.  He is stable, he plays by the rules.  His face covers video games and posters selling loudly coloured boots.  Yet he's missing something, something vital.

The World Cup is Messi's last major footballing honour and it looks miles off.  He is a shining star on an aging team that by all accounts is poorly managed.  Valdano argues Messi does not yet have the force of personality of a Maradona to single-handedly win his nation a World Cup.  Meanwhile you have Valdano drop casual references Maradona's rise and fall in the intervening years, leading the reader to believe he is either homeless, in an institution or dead.   

Except toward the end of one chapter you have your narrator Valdano skillfully describe Messi's trip to Germany for an Argentina friendly, culminating in Messi's stepping out for training, and suddenly locking eyes with Maradona.  Here?  Is this a dream?  No, he is the Argentinian national team manager (twenty minutes after filing this chapter, your publisher calls you.  You turn off the phone, check it the next day and find ten messages, all marked urgent.  Even you worry about narrative credibility).

So now you're sitting over your breakfast table, lined Hilroy pad in front of you, and you can't figure out how to finish the damn thing.  You want Maradona to redeem himself somehow for his debaucherous life, and for him to impart something to Messi about how skill isn't enough for greatness, that it takes something more.  But having Argentina win the World Cup with Messi leading the team in Maradonian style would kill the novel, it would ensure his publisher would order a rewrite, or indeed drop the whole thing.

How the hell does this end?

   

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hear AMSL Talk!

Do you want to hear me blabber on about this and that with only a semblance of coherency for over forty minutes?  Then pull this string. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Is Football Better Heard than Seen?

Some of you may remember earlier this year when I wrote that I'd lost a bit of interest in the football.  At the time I put it down to the diffuse pixelated mess that is illegal live streaming.  Anyway, I've got this new fangled iPhone device and so far the neatest thing on it is my little global radio tuner app.

And so it was yesterday during my unglamourous joe-job that I listened to the second leg of the Fulham v. Juventus Europa league fixture on BBC London 94.9.  I should mention that it was terrible radio play-by-play, as far as that genre goes.  The "ra-ra for the London team" approach by the announcer and co-commentator (I'm too lazy to research their names but I also think it might be kind not to) felt idiotic to say the least.  You'd think you were watching a disabled orphan throwing rocks at an exploding H-bomb based on the hyperbolic hyperventilating about the difference in stature between the two teams.  And anyone venturing to make a drinking game based on the number of mentions of "Juventus' tired, aging legs" would have fallen over dead by the end of the first half.  That plus the habit of the colour man to begin every phrase with, "Yes, that's exactly right" should have rendered the entire broadcast unlistenable. 

So why I did I end up enjoying it so much?

Well, yes, it was an exciting game.  As we were reminded twice by the announcer, it was "the best game of the 2009-10 season."  No arguments there I suppose.  But I think my enjoyment of the match had a lot do with the medium of radio itself.  Football, though without pauses in play, tends to be a pretty casual game for the viewer.  Although you can watch full matches with your eyes on every movement (for some reason I have a love affair with Cup semifinals and can't look away), chances are if it's two-nil after twenty minutes and the ref is blowing his whistle for every fifty-fifty challenge, you're going to be tempted to wander off, either in thought or action.

Radio wipes a lot of that dead space away.  Even the worst commentators usually gloss over the boring bits.  Defensive throw-ins, the sometimes interminable pause between the linesman raising the flag for goal kick and the restart of play, the futile flutter of action on the bench after a questionable player injury; when viewed on a static television screen, this is the stuff of eye-rubbing boredom.  Yet on the radio, these moments disappear.  Instead, during these pauses the announcers fill the silence with their own thoughtless observations, the kind of football opinions that a fifth grader could likely take reasonable issue with. Which is annoying, yes, but at it least fires you up, makes you formulate counterarguments, keeps your focus on the game.  In the same way many newspapers employ crank opinion writers that nobody agrees with just to get their readers riled up and interested, so too does the schlock radio announcer grate in order draw you into the game out of sheer, appalled anger.

But the best part of radio is the same thing that makes good fiction enjoyable—the often unpredictable ways your imagination fills in the visual blanks.  Yesterday afternoon, my brain painted quite the impressionistic picture: Duff's blurred legs as he made one tearing run down the left flank after another, sending in searing crosses that only just missed their intended target; the psychotically-determined look I decided to put on Bobby Zamora's face every time he was on the ball; David Trezeguet's bratty, ever-present smirk.  Even challenges and off-the-ball scuffles, the sending off of Zebina, took on a Shakespearean quality they almost would have otherwise lacked (although Cannavaro's initial smile when the first red card was shown was too brilliant for my imagination to come up with on short notice).

The only major event my brain failed to capture was Clint Dempsey's stunning, tie-winning chip/cross/shot at the 82nd minute.  Although the resulting celebrations I envisioned at Craven Cottage outdid what I later saw on television.  I think I decided to give the Fulham ground a standing-only terrace, and had it lurch forward, banners and flags in tow, as Dempsey cartwheeled around only to go and bear hug Roy Hodgson.  Which didn't happen.  But at the time, listening alone in my office, it did. 

I took the streetcar home from work yesterday, already tuning in to Liverpool v. Lille, thinking that I may discard my illegal feeds altogether this weekend and opt instead for a pleasant walk.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Internet and Football

The other day, after catching some of the Juventus v. Fulham Europa League game live on my computer via an illegal internet feed, I left the house and clicked on my iPhone radio app to catch the remainder of the first half on BBC Radio London while I did my grocery shopping.  As I checked the mangoes in my local Toronto neighbourhood fruit stand while listening to up-to-the minute traffic updates from a city an ocean away, I had one of these moments we all sometimes have, contemplating the days of rotary dials, twenty-channel basic cable, and cassette tape walkmans, realizing how far we've come in such a short span.

One day when I was in Grade Five (Fifth Grade for Americans, whatever you call it in the UK), my class was told to gather round our lone classroom Apple computer.  Our teacher said that we were going to connect through a giant grey modem to a classroom computer in Russia.  While I had known it was theoretically possible to communicate over long distances via a computer (the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick was a childhood favourite), to see it actually happen in front of me, to witness whatever it was they were instantaneously sending to us show up on that computer screen, was something else.

While I've written before about the obvious importance of television in popularizing the game here in Canada and the US, there are growing signs that the Internet (or digital media, or whatever you want to call it) is changing traditional football culture so quickly we've hardly had time to notice.

In 1994 the Premier League had finished its second season, the USA hosted the World Cup, MLS was a mere concept, and the world had just learned about the World Wide Web.  In 1994 we watched World Cup games alone or with family, or in packed bars.  We probably read a couple of newspaper stories about it.  Sometimes during the year, the local paper printed a European league table.  And even if you were absolutely hardcore Euro-soccer person, chances are you didn't likely know much if anything about any underlying financial issues coming to the fore, nor was there a very constructive way to compare one European league to another.  And a few years later when MLS launched, you'd be lucky if you found anything about it in the paper, even if you had a team kicking off near you. 

Sixteen years later and Americans and Britons send messages to Twitter trading do-it-yourself op-eds on MLS collective bargaining talks in between cracking jokes on a Premier League fixture everyone's watching live.  Irish bloggers write posts on for Premier League fan sites based in the Midwestern US, Canadians write comments mere minutes after articles appear on the Guardian Sport page.  London-based football fans trade notes on fan culture in DC, while Canadians attempt to sort out the financial problems of League Two clubs in Northwest England.

In other words, it's 2010 and we're all up in each others shit.  In the past I used to think it was neat to read through the sport sections of foreign newspapers, but none of the dizzying blur of regional references and unknown personalities would ever stick, so I'd go back to the simple life of scorelines and league tables.  Now anyone with an internet connection can find out all they'd need/want/stand to know about AEG's corporate holdings in MLS, or the rules and regulations of the Premier League board of directors.  Now I can troll through over a hundred years of newspaper archives in a matter of seconds.  Old match programs are reprinted, classic matches are search-able on YouTube.  The web is performing a non-stop, live-in-real-time autopsy on the entire history of the global game.

I don't want to wax romantic that the interweb is one huge Hegelian synthesis machine, but it's certainly fun to guess where all of this might be headed.  As television moves to the web, North Americans will be able to access Sky Sports from their living rooms, just as Europeans will be able to pick from any number of live MLS matches, live or to order. Our 'distinct' football cultures will slowly begin to merge and overlap in new and interesting (if not always lucrative) ways.  As more fans are able to compare sporting financial models from across the globe, football administrators will face even more pressure to adopt global 'best practices' in running their respective leagues.  And as large, ungainly media outlets are forced to cut costs and broaden content, in-depth sports journalism will be left to a sea of independent, often fan-biased bloggers working with their own resources.  Many club supporters will be smarter, more connected, and more knowledgeable as information about club and league power structures are exposed to an increasingly-global fan base.  Supporters' Trusts will be better able to organize as fans can more easily connect, and become aware of the broader issues at stake with their club. 

I suspect too that, much in the same way as massive advances in scientific knowledge over the last century led to a wave of religious fundamentalism/fanaticism, so too will a global football knowledge trust lead to an even more impassioned regional supporters base, and possibly a rise in 'ultra' fan culture.  As football culture goes global, the ground will take on greater and greater importance as the locus of fans' shared hopes.  Just as the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of the original artwork's 'aura' in the age of mechanical reproduction, so too will the 'real thing' —the live football match—take on a hallowed importance as club histories, best matches, to-order vintage replica shirts and astonishing goals compilations are only a few short clicks away.

Anyway, I'm certainly no Faith Popcorn (does she ever get anything right?  What a scam.) All I know is sixteen years ago I sat in front of my television amazed at the World Cup, knowing next to nothing about how other supporters viewed any of the games, with only Associated Press stories to guide me through any behind-the-scenes intrigue.  For many North American soccer fans, even though the football was being played in their backyard, USA '94 was a lonely experience.  Now, club debts, league financial guidelines, and prospective team owners are under the purview of amateur researchers with access to an ever-increasing global database of knowledge.  Now I can read the instant reaction of half of England to an international goal, in seconds.  Everything is exposed.  I'm all up on Richard Scudamore and you're all up on MLS CBA talks.

The only thing I can say with certainty is that it will be some time before we can fully gauge the effect this on-line panopticon has had on the global game.  I imagine it's likely not been all bad.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Finally Finally Finally

I wish I could tell you that these past two months had been spent carving out my own bit of HTML magic, building a Wordpress template from scratch that somehow made Canadian soccer history interesting to anyone outside of me, Colin Jose, and those guys at the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame. 

Really, the last couple of months has been what John Lennon once called life—that thing that happens while you're busy making other plans.  Well, screw you John Lennon.  I am happy today to announce the "launch" of The Spirit of Forsyth.  Now, I have to remind you I am no Wordpress expert, so I'm sure there are many among you who will come back at me with daggers, or perhaps friendly suggestions to make the thing better.  I know it doesn't have a links page and some of the pages are empty-looking.  The problem is I don't care right now.  I will care when more people read it and make disparaging comments though.

That's why I think having this out there will be enough to make me want to make it better anyway I can.  And in the interest of gathering as much interest in this site over as long a period I can muster, this will be the first of several mentions, followed by a Twitter account, followed by emails to persons of interest, then a Facebook fan page, maybe a t-shirt and/or scarf down the line.  Hey, they didn't build Rome in a day.

So, there.  Welcome to The Spirit of Forsyth.  Think of this as a beta test.  If there's anything messed, let me know (but don't talk about the template.  PLEASE don't do that).  And if it looks threadbare on the content, don't worry; there is so much goodness coming down the pipe, I can't STAND it. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Plea for the End of Footballer Profiles on Sports Websites

Reading through my daily football feeds, I noticed the Guardian proudly included notice that several of its journos got awards from the Sports Journalists' Association.  Well, you know, congrats (what's with the sad faces in the photos?).  Yet I am a big proponent of recognizing both good and bad in any profession—hence I tend to take more interest in the Razzies than the Oscars.

Giving awards to the worst football journalists is out the purview of this simple Canadian blog, but I can offer you a sample of the sort of article designed to make me hate sports journalism.  So today we look at Jim White's story for the Telegraph, for which the headline reads, "Theo Walcott hopes trophies at Arsenal can book him World Cup place with England."

Let's start there, shall we?  I imagine Theo Walcott is a probably very pleasant young man.  Certainly that's what his dad told the foaming-at-the-mouth reporters who invaded his living room days after his son scored a hat trick for England in Zagreb those many moons ago.  But of all the beans spilled in his chat with White, this is the headline we're left with?

Now we all know journos don't often write their own headlines (a perk left to we happy few slogging away in blogger hell), but if I were White I would have insisted on either of these: "Little Girl Tottenham Fan to Theo: Lennon is Better than You", or conversely, "Walcott Blames Dad for Injury Woes" (said Walcott to White, "My shoulders come from my dad, he's to blame").  A stretch?  Definitely, but already miles better than incorrectly linking Walcott to the vague hope that Arsenal winning trophies will somehow blind a Champions League-winning Italian tactical master to the fact Walcott's not playing very well at the moment (Walcott actually said, "If I perform for Arsenal, that will get me on the plane. Simple as that," which is so dully obvious you wonder if the editor mangled the quotation in the headline to make a point about the general pointlessness of the article).


This is a puff piece, plain and simple.  De-syllable-ize some of the adjectives and this thing could go in one of those weird, comic book football mags for kids who aren't cool enough to read When Saturday Comes.  Walcott is "endlessly polite," he is "unruffled by attention," he has "instinctively...grasped the fact that a footballer of his standing becomes a role model," he is "easy, kind, thoughtful."

White lets us in on why he isn't very good at the moment— it's "karma," manifold injuries to "his shoulder, his back, his side, his ankle, almost every part of his body...enough to furnish a medical text book." "Every time he seemed to have recovered this season," White scribbles unconvincingly, "another setback came his way."  Theo is football's Job apparently, a living saint beat down by an angry god for reasons only known to the divine mind.  The hearts of the world's stricken burn with empathy. 

The problem isn't with White.  I can picture Jim at his London bureau desk, pleading for his editor to send someone else to North London as he's busy cracking the case on Leeds' shifty owners.  And later, Jim finds himself sitting at his desk, head in his hands, a few minutes to deadline, itching to write that Walcott confessed to being a chronic masturbator and to recreational LSD use while on international duty.  Jim's editor comes over to reassure him there is an audience for this sort of thing, perhaps Arsenal supporters, or the more sentimental England fans, I imagine.

And then Jim looks up at him with indignant, red eyes, sore from spinning bullshit, and cries out that these empty player profiles litter the English dailies.  From whence, Jim asks, comes this need for sports pages to remind us they're not just footballers, they're people too, and we should care about their feelings?  Why did I have to go to some elementary school in North London just so I could come back and write about what a humble and wonderful a young man Theo is? Was it to try and convince our readers what a shame it is that this nice guy who earns more money than just about everyone else on the planet won't be able to play on the English national soccer team, but will have to settle for just playing for one of the most famous, best-supported sides in the entire world instead?  Is that the deal Theo's agent struck with the Telegraph so Jim could get his notebook within three feet of the Arsenal forward?

The editor shrugs and walks away, but Jim isn't done, and yells after him, "only you have the power to stop this!"  The door to the editor's office closes and Jim is left alone with his thoughts.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Politics of Sports Nationalism

 
A photo taken by me at a Toronto bar, seconds after Canada won 
gold in Olympic mens hockey. 

A tale of two finals.  It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.  Apologies for the brief absence yada yada yada but it took me a week to mentally process last Sunday's double header: Aston Villa putting in a drab, 2-1 non-event in the Carling Cup final, and the Canadian and US Olympic mens hockey teams putting on one of the best sporting spectacles I have seen in ages.

Let me tell you the story children, gather round.  Normally on a Sunday I'd be at my Cathedral job wailing away to an aging Anglican congregation about how bad people we all are and will continue to be (it's Lent). All in a falsetto voice, of course.  But it was one of those days you ask to have off and everyone knows why.  I watched the first final at home, 10 AM local time, missing the opening penalty and a good chunk of the first half action in search of an illegal feed.

I don't want to talk about that final.  Was it a final?  Villa played with all the passion of Burnley away at Stamford Bridge.  It came off like a preseason friendly, and United's victory dance was so perfunctory as to underline the predictability of it all.  All hail Ferguson's 34th trophy.  And thanks for playing Villa, we'll see you in ten years time ready to drop another one.

The afternoon was another matter.  The Olympic Games always go the same way for me.  Before it begins I rock the hipster cynicism, "What time does it all start again?  Oh god, everyone's going to be weeping if we don't win in the hockey."  And then it progresses, medal by medal, game by game, until I find myself in packed bar on College Street in Toronto in the dying seconds of the third period, Canada leading by a slender 2-1 margin, sweating like I'm in a war.

We all know what happened next.  Zach Parise tied it with 24 seconds left in the game after a mad scramble in front of Roberto Luongo's net.  I don't know what I felt.  I know all the things that they tell you you're supposed to feel: hockey is overhyped in this country, a silver medal in mens hockey wouldn't have taken anything away from Canada in an Olympics that had seen, up until that point, 13 gold medals—already tied for the most won in a Winter Olympics, and three more than any host previous host nation.

That anti-hockey, anti-Olympian cynicism was dying to get in there and alleviate the stress. Susan G. Cole wrote in this week's NOW magazine (a free Toronto weekly that oh-so-desperately wants to be the Village Voice) about the ugliness of all that flag-waving:
All those rabid group-think pro-Canada histrionics, far from inspiring me, fill me with dread. Where does pumped-up patriotism lead anyway? And which Canada was I supposed to be cheering for? Our brand... sorry, I mean our image was at stake here, and we came across as hyper-nationalist yahoos who like to party in the streets and toot our own horn.
This aversion to showing colours for the sake of something as ostensibly pointless as sports (it's just guys kicking a ball or swatting a puck FFS!) is similar to how many of my friends feel in the lead up to the World Cup in this city.  "Is Portugal in it?" they sheepishly ask, knowing that if the answer is yes, they can give up sleeping in their West End apartments for the month of June.  That damn flag-waving.

In these situations, I always try to guess what my brother would think.  In 2002, when Canada beat the US in the mens hockey final at the Salt Lake City Olympics to secure their first Olympic hockey win in fifty years, he recounted the hallucinatory experience of walking down a packed Yonge Street, flags hanging out of cars, attached to hockey sticks.  He felt awe mixed with dread.  But he at least understood why they were there.

Cole is one of those left-wing columnists who makes you kiss the ground in thanks for people like Jennifer Doyle or Rick Salutin, for whom the vagaries of nationalism and sport aren't merely fish to shoot in a bucket, but contradictions to be acknowledged and discussed.  Yes, all those billions would have been better spent on the poor.  Yes, knee-jerk nationalism can be ugly.  But quashing the Olympics will hardly usher in the end of social injustice or lessen the suffering of the impoverished.  Capitalism hasn't "won" because McDonald's played the national anthem in the hockey ad breaks.  Sporting nationalism isn't always the harbinger of fascism.  For whatever reason—the sense that it is the opium of the masses, the enormous player wages involved, corporate sponsorships and the like—sport tends to make ideologues of the left, who when the topic comes up, suddenly employ the sort of "zero sum" speak normally attributed to many on the right of the political spectrum.

Eight minutes into sudden-death overtime, a bit of rubber crossed a red line on a patch of ice somewhere in Vancouver.  Seems a silly thing to spark what happened next, at least until you think what often leads to flag-waving in many countries: declarations of war, statist crackdowns, military coups.  Canadians don't do political nationalism very well.  In between the second and third periods of the final, the camera swooshed around in search of celebrities at the game. When Michael J. Fox, Neil Young and William Shatner appeared, the bar broke out in cheers.  Then a smug Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared sitting next to Wayne Gretzky, and the place erupted into boos (and no, they weren't saying "Luuuu" for Luongo).  Nobody told anyone in this bar that Olympic success would shore up support for the anti-democratic federal Tories, who prorogued parliament so our democracy would not "distract Canadians from the Olympic games."

When Sidney Crosby scored that goal, I leapt to my feet and grabbed my wife.  I climbed on my seat and tried to take pictures of the madhouse bar, none of which came out.  I watched as patrons unfurled an enormous Canadian flag and hauled it outside to be honked at by passers-by.  A German friend of mine said she hadn't seen celebrations like those that erupted across the county when Sidney Crosby scored in overtime, winning gold for Canada, even when Germany last won the World Cup in 1990.

Over the next few days though, Canadians turned on CBC radio and heard the speech to the throne and the federal budget, and griped and pointed accusations and wrote letters to the editor.  Meanwhile, our folded-up flags were already collecting dust in the basement, waiting for next time, whenever that might be.

Sport is essentially meaningless.  At the risk of sounding pretentious (too late for this blog), it's one of Wittgenstein's self-contained language games—everyone's agreed on the rules, and within the game itself, Shankly is right: it's more than life and death.  Seen from the outside though, it's completely absurd.  Many observers have tried turning to that dreaded concept, "symbolism," to try and save sport from its own essential lack of meaning.  But those pushing the idea that sport is really "something else"—"it's war!" "it's projected sexual desire!" "it's sublimated political alienation!"—are hucksters.  It is interrelated with politics and war, psychology and nationalism, but it's not those things.  It struts about like an irate Johan Cruyff (or our own hockey version, Patrick Roy) with on its own set of rules in a world driven by more practical/political interests.   

This desire to project meaning onto sport, or to point out its absence (Susan Cole), often reminds me of those people who weep and gnash teeth looking for some way of determining what it 'means' to be Canadian (this obsession with meaning!).  I once wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail after a Tory back-bencher wrote an op-ed pushing for Canada to appoint some national symbols ("hockey!" "Tim Hortons!" "John Candy!" "Healthcare!") before the realization dawns that we don't have any and so suddenly wither away and die away as a nation.  I argued that the meaning of "being Canadian" is a simple tautology: you are a Canadian because you are Canadian.  This doesn't make it empty, or less important.  It is vital.  But it too is essentially meaningless, like most nationalisms.  It's a contradiction, or what the theologians used to call a "mystery," if you want to get flighty about it.  Ours is a little more naked than most, that's all.    

In many ways, I think this open, ever-changing sense of who we are in this country leaves me optimistic about the chances of Canada embracing her other "national sport."  Next week I'll be unveiling (finally!) my new site on Canadian soccer history. It's dedicated to David Forsyth, Canada's first and greatest innovator of the game.  While Forsyth, who once made a soccer fan out of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, spoke to the importance of the sport in "bringing up young men," he primarily adored soccer because he believed it simply to be among the greatest sports ever played.  He was as great a Canadian as you can find in the political realm; he was an education innovator, working with the government on ways to improve high school education in Ontrario.  But he was dedicated to Canadian soccer, its development, its care.  Forsyth, who lived and worked when Canada was but a young man in an old mans world, was a living example of the Canadian tautology.  I hope there'll be many more like him to come.