The Un-Choice of Virtue or Effectiveness, Or What I’ll Be Cheering For At The World Cup Final

July 8, 2010 § 1 Comment

This sounds like a far darker post than I intended or felt. This is what happens when you let me get to musing about things. I think I took Shoals’s “liberated fandom” theory and managed to argue we are now free to reject the very theory of success, failure, right, and wrong. Yikes.


Few things written in the blogosphere have been as gut-punching or inspiring to me as “The Age of Miracles” by Brian Cook at MGoBlog. As a middle-of-my-twenties Michigan grad who dreams of writing for a living and is uncertain about 3 months from now let alone 5 years down the road, it gave me a sense of narrative that was both terrifying and comforting. Life is a swarming mob of demands, responsibilities, and desires that will never feel perfect and you’ll wake up at 6:30 one morning when you’re 35 and say “How’d I make it here?” but that’s okay. In the end, life is never as spectacular as you dreamed it would be but it’ll end up in a place where you’ll be alive and (if you play your cards right like Brian) probably have a significant other that runs a kickass food blog. Knowing that it wasn’t just me, that the chaos and terror and anticipation and giddiness of all of life and its potential wasn’t just my little hell, was deeply comforting. All of the above is the long-winded way for me to say: go read Brian’s piece. Now. It’s old, and most of you can ignore the Michigan-specific stuff near the end, but it’s better than anything you’ll ever read here. And it will relate to how I’ll be watching the World Cup on Sunday. I’ll wait.

I bring it up because I was reminded of it this morning when I read Brian Phillips’s piece for Slate about cheering for the Spanish over the Dutch (btw, apparently the key to writing breathtaking prose is having the name Brian). If you aren’t familiar with Phillips’ blog Run Of Play, please get so. He might be the best sportswriter out there right now, and he’s definitely one of the top 5. In the piece, he describes the vast history of Dutch soccer and its choosing a style of play over success (obligatory Brilliant Orange plug here). This Dutch team that will compete for the World Cup championship on Sunday, however, has wandered far from their historical Total Football, while their opponents the Spanish have adhered to a form far more religiously. All in all, it’s a very convincing read, but I’d like to register my dissent, to suggest that the thinking person shouldn’t pick sides.

Soccer is one of the best sports in the world because it best reflects the world. The world is a bunch of people running around trying to do their best and every so often an individual or a group of people manage to do something crazy. As Phillips himself has noted previously:

Compared to other popular sports, there are many forces [in soccer] interacting simultaneously and their interactions are remarkably sustained. We might think of this as imposing a high degree of resistance, both to understanding (in comparison to, say, tennis, soccer is hard for a novice fan to follow) and to the emergence of clear intention (what players mean to happen is seldom entirely clear, and even more seldom what actually happens). Another way to describe this would be to say that where many other sports attempt to create an arena in which the randomness, flux, and contingency of life—the forces that work against our own everyday intentions—are largely excluded, football conspicuously lets them in, in such a way that when a clear intention does emerge, when a player scores an improbable goal or completes a visionary pass, it often carries with it the special exhilaration of seeing an affirmation of the potential of the human will.

Word. Just to get these quotes out of the way, I’m going to toss in a third party for reference, Joseph Campbell:

When you go through life … it all seems accidental at the time it is happening. Then when you get on in your 60s or 70s and look back, your life looks like a well-planned novel with a coherent theme … Incidents that seemed accidental, pure chance, turn out to be major elements in the structuring of this novel. Schopenhauer says, ‘Who wrote this novel? You did.

More than any other sport, I’d argue, soccer is inherently unpredictable. In football, we know there will be kickoffs, first downs, runs, tackles, and passes. Know it. Baseball, you have pitches, swings, grounders, throws, catches. Know those will happen. Soccer, however, can take almost any turn. We don’t know if it will be an offensive frenzy or a possession slog-battle. 14 corner kicks? Sure. A penalty kick or an unexpected red card? Absolutely. Hell, even the referee, the man charged with applying some small semblance of order to the game, is unpredictable. We have guesses and hopes, but there is precious little we capital-k Know will happen in the next 90 minutes. After the final whistle, however, we can look back at the game and see the early influences’ later effects. We can see how one decision, if differently chosen, affected the entire second half. Looking back, it all makes sense. And, as Brian Cook and Joseph Campbell both say in their own ways, so is life.

And, just as with life, I find the people who come into the game with a dedication to a schedule, with a forced and preplanned narrative that they expect and demand, are both wrong-headed and futile. Wrong-headed because looking forward in life will, and probably should, never make sense. I have met and know some people who strongly believe that if you do X then Y will happen, and if it doesn’t let’s adjust the plan so we can say that now if X then Z will happen. Work hard in school, land a job, date for a while, marry someone you like and the ups-and-downs of childrearing will bring you happiness. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind and you’ll never have a midlife crisis. The longer you work, the more your pension will grow and your sex life will improve and the “what if’s” will die away.

I don’t know if I’m just the weepy twentysomething who’s seen a bunch of my friends unable to find jobs in our New Great Depression (make no mistake and fuck the pundits: the employment scene is terrible for a lot of young professionals on historic levels) or if I’m too far into the Great Disappointment phase of life to speak properly to anything, but: fuck that certainty, that trust in linearity. The world is unjust and sometimes you find the perfect soulmate and other times Diego Suarez gets to blatantly hit the ball with his hands and his team still gets to stomp on the souls of millions of Africans. Some people have mental illnesses and some country’s best strikers get shot in the head. The Penn Law grad has to work at a laundromat, an honest mistake by a fullback leads to an own goal, and you realize that marriage is an inelegant package for love. Life is leaderless, and those who try to give it one or make promises about living it are mistaken, or at least far more certain than I find realistic.

So the Dutch love for Total Football and the idea that says that there is A Way To Play Soccer strikes me in the same way. Maybe Johan Cruyff has as many secret doubts as the many religious leaders do about their faiths, and his public bravado is a facade. If not, I guess I just find that sad and not a little inhuman. Regardless of what anyone in Brazil or the Netherlands says, there is no one way to play soccer. Hell, I don’t know if there’s one way to do anything.

But cold-eyed pragmatism, the foil to Style-ophilia, is no better. “You play to win the game” might bring laughs when Herm Edwards says it and it sounds nice, but if I may ask, “why play?” I’m surely not the first person in your life to point out the common hollowness that often comes with success so I won’t berate the point that the perceived Carrot of Victory is illusory. To optimize your life so as to acquire the most victories, dollars, girls, or goals scarcely brings more solace than that of the Life Well Lived.

So I can’t simply cheer for the Spanish because it will signify the choice of a national style of aesthetics over Benthamism. I also can’t cheer for the Dutch because their desire for victory is so strong as to drive them to destroy their own identity. I reject Brian Philips’s idea of choosing virtue over effectiveness, or at least reject the idea that either is preferrable. If the man cheering for Spain is an Aristotelian and the man cheering for the Netherlands is a part Benthamist, consider me an Epicurean, someone who has finally become comfortable saying that the world and the game are fathomless things and that all we can expect is for each of us to scratch our own itches and who can say one is right or one way wrong. What I’ll be cheering and hoping for is just one moment where the sport, a material and real thing, does the impossible and makes the leap to unreality, where all the best things lay.


§ One Response to The Un-Choice of Virtue or Effectiveness, Or What I’ll Be Cheering For At The World Cup Final

  • I’m a little embarrassed to comment after you said such nice things about me, but I want to say that I really enjoyed the post. The relations of sport and life have more tentacles than any psychic octopus and the ultimate answer to all of this stuff is probably “it’s a mess.”

    For my part, my take on rooting interest is less “you have an obligation to pick the team that chooses virtue over effectiveness,” and more “if the game is going to validate one choice or the other, I’d rather see it validate virtue.” Those are the wrong words because real virtue doesn’t come into this (I mean, defending isn’t immoral); it’s more that I’d rather see it validate flair, or fully formed intention, over stolidity, or a canny exploitation of chaos.

    That’s not a religion, even for me (Scotland over France is my favorite win in recent history, and it had nothing to do with beauty in the conventional sense), but just a lack of stoicism, or maybe a matter of taste. Watching Spain makes me feel like the world is worth living in, recent grads can get jobs, and bloggers make lots of money . At the same time, I’ve never been the sort of Ray Hudson-style zealot who just can’t appreciate Chelsea. There’s stuff to be fascinated by all over the place, certainly on the Dutch team, and part of me would be happy to see them win. But Spain play the game, if not like artists, than with a degree of technical sophistication that’s just wonderful to see. And since the game has to elevate one or the other, I’d rather see it elevate that.

    Anyway, lots of food for thought here. Thanks.

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