“The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It’s nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It’s about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” –Danny Blanchflower, Tottenham Captain during the League and Cup double of 1960/61
It is difficult for me, 50 years on, to extract a consistent message from Blanchflower’s words. On the one hand he has stated that there is something more to football than just winning. But his second assertion claims that the intangible something that transcends winning can be characterised as ‘glory’ (which, still, demands winning – ‘beating the other lot’). It may just be a change in semantics over the years that have led to this misreading but, in the professional sphere today, victory and glory have become indistinguishable.
Semantics aside, we all know Blanchflower’s motive: to express his view that glory lies in the manner of a team’s victory as opposed to the fact itself. But this is not a new debate to enter nor is it a debate that can be settled. Fans and professionals will almost always be happier to win playing an unattractive brand of football than lose attempting to play a crowd pleasing style. But glory is contingent, in everyone’s determination of the word, on success. If winning is the only function of football then it remains second to a finality that can be achieved in any number of sports. Football itself would then be secondary to the concept of winning; it would be nothing more than an interchangeable and easily replaceable vehicle for victory. But we all also recognise that this is far from the case.
Henning Mankell touched on an issue in an article on the FT.com that has much wider connotations than the professional game alone. He mentions a game being played in Mozambique in the mid 1980s when the country was being torn apart by horrible civil war:
“The pitch was a tufty field adjacent to an area on which no one dared to walk, let alone play. The reason? It was filled with landmines…The game was used as comfort in a time of great misery. Those who were playing were poor boys, without shoes and with shabby clothes. The game they played was marked by a furious energy…The boys were not serious about the game, they played for fun. But in some ways, it was also a protest against the bloody hell that surrounded them.”
Football is, in this case, an absolute. The game’s recent importance to the African continent can be seen by the emergence and established performances of players like Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Eboue, and Jon Obi Mikel in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Champions League over the past half decade. These players, crucially, are not far removed from the circumstances that Mankell elucidates. Samuel Eto’o is one player to articulate the power of the game beyond just the professional paramount of winning:
“I’ve always said that football is free. I don’t know of anything else in the world you can get such an emotional jolt from; to go so quickly from anger to bliss in two minutes. Football is the only weapon…it is the most important thing in the world, only surpassed by politics. But where politics stops, football begins. Two countries could be at war, but when the game begins they put down their guns.”
The power of the game and its roots as just that – a game to be enjoyed and played – is easy to lose in circumstance. I mentioned in a previous article (see here) firsthand experience of seeing and feeling the power of football as a linguistic and cultural steam roller; as a medium that dampens differences and turns the volume down on other distractions. And as a practice that intrinsically imbibes unity and identification. There is something inexplicable and transfixing about a group of people having a football and, a lot of the time, winning is a concept that doesn’t govern the enjoyment of the outcome.
I can’t explain why football is as popular as it is. Why kids in this country, in Mozambique, or in India play the game at schools, next to landmines, or on uneven agricultural land is more than enough to indicate its power as beyond a means to just victory. This does at least ring true with a portion of Blanchflower’s words: ‘the great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning.’ Glory, in this case, is more in the celebration and memory that football is to be played and, as Mankell articulates, the coming month is a chance for Africans to teach the rest of us to enjoy the game again.
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