The words at the top of our programme blog say we “try to make sense of the world”. For me, though, the question today – given what is happening in South Africa – is can I make sense of the World Cup?
It comes round, regular as clockwork, every four years. So I ought, by now, to have been able to work out what it’s all about. But in the same way as some people just don’t get poetry, I don’t get sport.
Here’s what I wrote at the start of the World Cup tournament four years ago: “I admit I’m not the most devoted sports fan in the world: personally, my life would be none the poorer if no one kicked, threw or batted a ball ever again. But I’m not immune to what goes on all around me, so I do watch the big events, and yes, I’ll be watching if and when England get close to the final.
“Sport does something to people. It re-ignites tribal loyalties, hence the war paint on fans’ faces and the deafening honking of car horns after a win … So does sport bring people together? Or does it drive them apart? … If war is a continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz famously said, then perhaps sport really is a continuation of war by other means.”
Earlier this week, we held a small party to mark The World Tonight’s 40th anniversary, which we celebrated a couple of months ago. The controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer, said some nice things about us (thank you, Mark, they were much appreciated) – and mused aloud about what would be The World Tonight approach to an England victory in the final of the World Cup.
Fortunately, it’s not a problem that I need to worry about. If we do have to come up with something interesting to say, I know our production team will rise to the occasion. And, of course, I will, being the obedient professional that I am, do what is required of me.
There’s a lot, needless to say, that I don’t know about football – although for some reason, I think I do understand the offside rule. And I do understand, of course, why South Africa, which was football mad anyway, is now even football madder as it becomes the first nation in Africa to host the tournament.
But I didn’t know, until I read it in the New York Times, that “the first documented soccer games played on the African continent were staged in … Cape Town and Port Elizabeth in 1862. That was one year before the rules of association football were codified in England …”
I can’t help wondering, though: will everyone be obsessed in India? Or China? The world’s two most populous nations seem rather less smitten with the delights of soccer than just about everyone else.
But I do admit that when I travel, I’m often taken aback when people immediately start talking about football as soon as they discover where I’m from. Just the other day, in Arizona of all places, someone asked me out of the blue: “Will you be OK when we beat you?” It took me a few moments to work out that they were talking about the England-USA World Cup match this weekend.
So perhaps you can help me out here. Are you World Cup obsessed? If so, why? What exactly does it do for you? And if (sorry, when) England do win, how do you think we should deal with the story?