COMMENTARY: Keeping a blind eye on the ball
By Tomi Ervamaa
As a youth, I never learned to play football. I never even wanted to learn.
There was no sense to it all. Why should I be interested in which direction some daft leather ball bounced and spun? The thing could fly into the nearest lake, for all I cared, when we had games at school.
And if the ball came near me, I turned and ran. Hey, come on, that thing could hit you in the head - what's the sense in tormenting people like that, I used to think.
P.E. lessons at school were a real pain, until I discovered the only sensible way to cope with them. I simply stopped going, and I threw myself, along with the other dedicated skivers, into the noble art of occupying a booth at the local café for a few hours, to the general annoyance of the staff. I drank flat Coke and smoked cigarettes, which left me feeling queasy.
Now, many years on, I have tried to follow football from the TV, but I seem to have an overwhelming eye-ball handicap. No eye for the ball - I cannot follow the movements of the 450-gram air-filled sphere.
I simply can't keep up. I'm always a crucial half a second late. Where did it go, and how? Who's that guy there? Someone else was standing there a moment ago! Hey, why are the people in this bar all on their feet yelling and screaming?
Brilliant visionary positioning and passes threaded through the eye of a needle, physical improvisation skills on a par with a John Coltrane solo, shots from the edge of the box with the power of multiple orgasms - it's all Greek to me.
Once I was in the stands watching a game. Not just any old game, either, as I was in the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, watching Real Madrid against Valencia.
It was a sensational experience. I was captivated. Blinding floodlights, packed grandstands rearing up like a slalom slope, and all round me the din of 80,000 very committed and noisy fans. As for the game, I didn't understand a bit of it.
What I have grasped is that football is a "Big Item", a blessing for humankind, a gift from the Good Lord and Beckham just as much for the kids of the Brazilian favelas as for those living in the snug dormitory suburbs of Europe.
We are talking about the passions of hundreds of millions of people, about staggering weekly paychecks, about billion-dollar media deals, and so on and so forth.
Now just before the World Cup got under way in Germany, the rock star and world-hugger Bono has appeared in TV advertising-spots urging the soccer-shy United States to embrace football, which he says: "closes the schools, closes the shops, closes a city, and stops a war."
Hah! Bono has chosen as his publicity strategy the sort of naivité that plays well with five-year-olds, so he should not be taken too seriously. Fair enough, football has for instance quelled the ethnic and government vs. rebel skirmishes in Ivory Coast (who have a team playing in Germany), but it is also worth reading the American political journalist Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.
Foer notes for example how the fanatical supporters of Red Star Belgrade were early-adopters in the wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia, or how the Scottish fans of Glasgow Rangers work themselves into a berserk anti-Papist frenzy in matches against local adversaries Celtic.
Football - like all sport - is a so-called "closed system".
This expression is associated with entropy. Since I also skived off from physics lessons at school, and I can therefore shed little light on James Clerk Maxwell's demon or on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, I will simply say that a closed system does not exchange matter with its external surroundings.
Which goal the ball ends up in has no rational connection with anything outside the field of play itself. It could have an impact on prices on the London Stock Exchange or the public economy of Ghana, but this cause and effect relationship between the motion of the ball and the world is neither inevitable nor logical.
It would be exactly the same thing if these Ronaldos and Ronaldinhos and whosoevers would rush up and down the marked-out grass area attempting to toss different-coloured rubber ducks into a gigantic ice-cream cone erected on the pitch.
In spite of all this, I have for many years watched the finals of the World Cup. They offer an opportunity for a pleasant evening in a familiar pub, in a highly charged atmosphere in good company.
And someone has always been on hand to kindly tell me what actually happens on the pitch.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.6.2006
The column by Tomi Ervamaa, a journalist on Helsingin Sanomat's foreign desk, appears fortnightly in the paper's Sunday section, and examines "astonishing and unpleasant matters at home and abroad".
TOMI ERVAMAA / Helsingin Sanomat