At a superficial glance, much about the World Cup (now in its 21st iteration and currently being hosted in Russia) would seem not particularly conducive to personal reflection and development. The premises of the World Cup have certain aspects to be wary about from a philosophical perspective. It divides teams by their affiliation to inherently artificial nation-states. It is by nature factional for few good reasons other than conditioned pride and attachment. The fervor and devotion displayed by fans toward the teams they support can be intense, sometimes incomprehensibly so to outsiders.
And then there is the competitive nature of the game. Truly involved parties will always want one side to win and one side to lose. Equality—playing to a draw—is boring and unpopular—unless the draw means that one team can advance. Only by victory or defeat can the tournament progress and reach that titanic clash between two finalists: a sporting version of the ultimate drama, the climax of a great battle in an epic film.
As many commentators and fans of “the beautiful game” have pointed out, however, unity, friendship, and common interests can still be found in a meeting between rival teams and spectators. Perhaps the strongest affinity linking a Brazilian and an Indonesian on the other side of the world might be (at least during the World Cup and apart from both desiring happiness in life) a love of football. Football is the core of many Saturday clubs, social media groups, and high school friendships. It is commonly said, perhaps justifiably, that football is not only beautiful, but also a “populist game,” one of the most relatable and social games invented. In a very serious sense, our competitive and nationalistic spirits are far better channeled toward football teams rather than armies and conflicts.
Of course, contact, dialogue, and friendship can only take place if everyone is a decent sport and willing to approach the other in a spirit of good-natured competition. If players and fans alike are representing their nation, then their personal character becomes a reflection on their country’s national character. After all, people make countries, not the other way round. With the right spirit, competition encourages people to see through each other’s differences and just enjoy the game together, with their nationalities simply being proxy conveniences or excuses for a friendly rivalry. Furthermore, competition is not necessarily a bad thing if offered in a nuanced, fair, and controlled environment. In a similar global spirit to the Olympics and Paralympics, the fires of limited adversity best test the human spirit, especially in the relatively safe environment of the sporting arena: a competitive “middle way.”
There is an analogous idea in traditional Buddhism that invokes a “sweet spot” between adverse conditions and an ideal environment. It suggests that one can’t engage in spiritual practice in too hellish a realm, but too heavenly an environment is also unhelpful. In the realm of the gods (devas), one lives too long and too pleasurable an existence to care about enlightenment. In the hell realm and that of the hungry ghosts (preta), one’s suffering is far too all-consuming to be able to think about anything else apart from the pain and torment. The world of human beings contains enough ugliness to stimulate one to think about the meaning of life, but also the right amount of good conditions (not least our immense brains and capacities for practice) to strive for a spiritual life.
In a much more mundane way, the football pitch is as good a place as any to test one’s character in adversity. There are stakes, as there are in any worthwhile activity, but it is not the end of the world if we lose, even though for a while it might feel that way. As anyone who watches sports knows, games, players, coaches, and strategies are given generous and thorough analysis, and post-game commentaries are a particularly important ritual: why a team won, why a team lost, what players need to improve on, and how the competitors have grown from the game (or not). We rightly celebrate those who have grown, those who have come out better people, in victory or defeat.
In this sense, is there a possibility in football to even cultivate certain spiritual ideals? For example, do football players not need courage in the face of aversion and difficulty? Do they not need to maintain non-attachment in the face of loss and defeat, but not become complacent after victory and maintain their assiduous practice? Are they not seen as role models who should practice kind thoughts, words, and deeds, and by extension be gracious in victory and defeat?
An encouraging fact of life is that apart from the most Machiavellian of participants, everyone (in any sport) is united by their distaste for bad sportsmanship. No one likes sore losers, or mean-spirited winners. In this World Cup, one of the biggest upsets (Germany’s 0-2 loss to South Korea) has observers lampooning Germany because of its coach’s previous arrogant and graceless behavior following his team’s 2-1 win over Sweden. There has conversely been praise for the graciousness of Japan’s team, which suffered a shock turnaround 2-3 loss to Belgium. They responded not just by leaving their locker room as good as new, but also with a thank you note in Russian for their hosts. These are true role models for many, including young people, who look up to footbalers as heroes.
It is important not to read too much into this. Professional football, at its heart, is a group of grown men chasing a ball, supported by a billion-dollar industry and multinational corporations. Seeing it for what it is, however, we can very much appreciate it for its incredible international appeal, its nuances, and its undeniable fun, camaraderie, and character-building potential.