Whenever a standout tournament like the football World Cup comes along, that too on the other side of the earth, reorienting every sane person to reset their body clock in defiance of daily schedule and everyday concerns, it is a good idea to turn to JM Coetzee for perspective.
Long passages of his letters exchanged with fellow novelist Paul Auster, and collected in the must-read volume Here and Now, deal with sport, its appeal, its distractive potential, its power to enhance narrative recaps of our existence, its never-ending questions.
“Is sport simply like a sin: one disapproves of it but yields because the flesh is weak?” asks Coetzee at one point, taking stock of the hours disappeared watching sport. What is it about sport, he and Auster wonder, Coetzee always leading the line of inquiry for his younger friend. When Auster meanders into the aesthetic pleasures of sport, Coetzee broadbases the discussion: “What the aesthetic approach ignores is the need for heroes that sports satisfy… Insofar as I respond to the aesthetic in sport, it is moments of grace (grace: what a complex word!) that I respond to, moments or movements (another interesting word) that cannot be the issue of rational planning but seem to come down as a blessing from on high upon the mortal players, moments when everything clicks into place, when the lookers-on don’t even want to applaud, just to give silent thanks that they were there as witnesses.”
Coetzee and Auster deepen their exchange in diverse ways, but that “silent thanks” for being “witnesses” to “moments of grace” will — already is — a familiar sentiment this month, as the broadcast from Brazil places football in an incredibly complex matrix: the great players, the teams getting it right on the day, the absolute mismanagement of the game by FIFA, Brazil’s special place for the game (and in the game) placed alongside its social and political project for inclusion and equity, the particular dynamic of partisanship (for reasons of patriotism, nationalism or none of the above) that football’s World Cup brings out. In our sleep deprived state, we are thinking of sport and everything else.
Now, it’s an old, time-tested trick to gather one’s perspective on sports by going to the scoresheets, records, tables, comparative graphics, and a new, lavishly illustrated book with barely any explanatory writing is oddly provocative in getting the reader to pose more questions about what is it about sport that so enriches us.
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Sportographica: The world of sport as you have never seen it before by Martin and Simon Toseland collect graphics explaining a particular sport, comparing sports and disciplines, their rivalries, their millionaires, their oddball statistics. For instance, they have the relative size of goals in different sports (2.4m high, 7.3m wide for football, 0.7m high and 22.8cm wide for cricket). There is, in the midst of all this cross-comparison, a special on Lionel Messi, a timely reminder that his is the human story that animates this tournament.
So watch the great football in the dead of the night, but keep switching to the other sports on offer — the big cricket and tennis matches, but also footage of less popular fixtures. Because with the football alone, you may not be able to fully comprehend the “moments of grace” in the stadiums of Brazil.
This story appeared in print with the headline Amazing Grace