Soccer and Religion


I belong in Brazil. Right now and for the whole week I should be sitting in a café in Rio in the morning, writing dispatches to all of you about the vibrant life of the streets during the World Cup. I’d do a good job. I’d tell you about the crowd of Argentinians who ran into the sea after their squad defeated Belgium. I’d tell you about the old man from Columbia who buried his head in his hands when his team lost to Brazil, and said, “There is no God.” I’d tell you about Ramona who looked at me twice and then winked, and the rat that ran across the top of my foot, and the color green that Brazilians wear on their shirts.


I’m your man.


I’d make you laugh, and think. I’d help you to escape the dreary life you’ve created for yourself. I’d get you to rock back in your chair and, with hands stroking your chin in a philosophic pose, get you to say aloud, “My, I never thought about it that way before.”


I’d be your own personal correspondent in Rio. I’d even wear khaki and a vest with lots of pockets, and even a pith helmet. I’d write all morning with a bottle of whiskey by my side. Drunk by noon, in a fight with a German by three (“Go back to killing Jews and eating bratwurst!”), eating tacos at sunset with a new friend named Henri from Paris, in the stands rooting for Costa Rica over the Dutch by 9pm, then staggering through the alleys until sunup—this is what you’re missing without me in Rio.


Instead I sit on this American porch with my wings clipped, with my imagination stripped of all color. I run my finger across my forehead and feel the scar of my lobotomy.


Instead of dazzling you with prose that would make you a believer in the God above—I am here, passing my days with the ambition of an iguana. As part of my sabbatical contract, I have to make a series of brief videos on all the little things of English, like the difference between “it’s” and “its.”


I know what you’re thinking: It’s a crime. Imagine Beethoven passing his deaf days teaching a snotty-nosed German boy how to hit a C note. Or Picasso, working in a hardware store mixing paints. Or Michelangelo making coffee mugs with a snowflake design for Christmas.


I repeat: A crime, it’s a downright crime that for eight hours today I made an idiotic tutorial—“it’s” vs. “its,” c’mon, it’s not that hard—instead of waxing poetic about the bronze skin of the Brazilian sunbather, or the passion of the soccer fan.




I am in the midst of a wager. If in the next 7 days I write and post five new blog entries, then my reward will be a beer on Ruth Hagstrom’s porch. Enticing, right? The pigeon in me is responding well to this system of rewards. This is blog #3 with 6 days to go. Ruth, put that beer on ice.




Oooh, this hasn’t happened for a long time. I wrote for an hour this morning on this computer that for days has been telling me that it’s all full, no room, trash some files NOW. I ignored the warnings, of course, and as a result this machine froze up after the hour of writing. Nothing was saved. There was no room to save anything—that’s what the warnings were for, fool.


And so I try to recreate that hour of writing—writing that has taken on a glitter now that it’s gone, maybe even the BEST THING I’VE EVER WRITTEN!


Here goes.


They’re just two numbers, a 7 and a 1, two mere puffs of air without any power or significance. But attach that 7 to Germany and that 1 to Brazil, and you have the apocalypse of yesterday’s football match in the semi-finals of the World Cup, all the more humiliating because it happened on Brazilian soil.


“Apocalypse” is the right word. Images out of Brazil are of children in tears, of adults burning the flag of Brazil, of a whole population walking around in a daze. The coach said, “We beg forgiveness.”


What’s going on here?


This is soccer we’re talking about, a sport, a game, a recreation to lighten the load of real life. Yet I know this sensation well, me having grown up in Cleveland with sports teams that last won a championship in 1964. That’s 50 years for 3 teams. 150 times I’ve hung my head, feeling more than a disappointment about losing a game. I’ve felt a sorrow for my whole town of Cleveland, as if the sports teams ARE the town rather than just a collection of men who play a game in that town. Cleveland is the failure. Cleveland is a city that gets stomped on, gets thrashed, and like Brazil in its 7-1 loss, gets humiliated. To a lesser extent I too am Cleveland, and somewhere in my ragged soul I feel stomped and thrashed and humiliated.


Well, multiply all of that by a thousand and you approach what’s going on in Rio today. Soccer is the blood of Brazil, its one sport only and the sport that unifies all segments of that vast country. Until yesterday Brazilians felt like wild extensions of their team—creative, emotional, latin, wild, skilled, and above all, champions. The team plays like the citizens dance, like the way Brazilians live their life. Brazilians could samba their way across the stage of the world.


And now what?


They lost at home in a semi-final match, which is bad enough. Had it been a hard-fought 2-1 loss, well, the samba would go on with just a little less kick. But 7-1? What do you do with the most lopsided loss in World Cup history, with 5 goals scored in 10 minutes? And to the Germans, no less—that country that tried to devour the world with its two wars. Surely you have to keep such people at bay. Surely you need a stout defense to pen in the Germans. Surely.


7 goals. No one scores 7 goals, not even in Liam’s league of 10-year-olds. It’s a little terrifying that the German species has the capacity to blitzkrieg across the jungles of Brazil. 7 goals? Who are these people? And who are the people that let this happen? What, did the Brazilians turn into the French 1940? Is the fate of Rio the fate of Paris, with German tanks rolling into the city without any resistance? Did Brazilians awaken this morning to the sound of German accents on their radios, telling them to replace their flags with the black-red-gold from Berlin?


Am I going too far?


As my friend Stefan says, “Soccer isn’t about life and death. It’s much more important.”


Why is this? Why do we care so much about sports? Why do we extrapolate from the performance of our team to an understanding of ourselves? It wasn’t just a team that lost 7-1; it was an entire nation that performed like sissies, that showed the world that they’re weak and foolish, that they’re hardly even men—quite an indictment to a macho society like Brazil.


Here’s my theory.


When mankind sprung fully formed 6000 years ago in the Garden of Eden somewhere in the vicinity of Seattle, God handed us the gift of metaphor. And what a gift it is. Gnats and porpoises can’t kick back their third espresso and say that their caffeine buzz makes them “feel like a battleship is parting my hair.” No, metaphors are for us and us alone. So what do we do with this gift? Of course we mangle it, destroy it, mistake the metaphor for reality.


The metaphor is of battle. In baseball, San Francisco wages war against Los Angeles—a metaphor until a fan is clubbed within an inch of his life and three years later remains in a coma. In soccer, the metaphor of Colombia at war against Brazil in 1994 turns literal when a player mishits a ball into his own goal, and then is shot dead 12 hours later.


You want more mangling of metaphors, turn to religion. The story of Christ dying on the cross and resurrecting is a metaphor about our own capacity to die every day to our lesser selves and then resurrecting to something better. It’s a lovely metaphor—but a deadly metaphor if you mangle it into a literal truth. The Middle East, Israel and Palestine, Myanmar, Istanbul—rattle off any war in the world today, and what you’ll find at its source are people mangling the metaphor. (More accurately, it’s men mangling the metaphor. Is there something in the male brain that turns the leaps of imagination into real live threats?) Religion is all about metaphor and story, and wars are all about the failure of religions to remain in the realm of metaphor.


Sports and religion—same glories, same horrors, and probably alive in the same centers of the brain. For many, sports is a religion, right? I used to pray in 8th grade to God to bring a victory to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. I’ll bet that 94% of Brazilians prayed for a victory yesterday—maybe even lit candles. And today there are 94% of Brazilians wondering if God exists after all.


Was it Lenin who called religion “the opiate of the people”? If so, then religion shares the opium pipe with sports. The more obsessed people are with the birdies over here—lookee here, lookee at whether Lebron James will return to the Miami Heat or go to the Cavaliers—the less any of us know or care about politics. I could rattle off the names of all 25 of the baseball players on the Indians 1995 squad, but I couldn’t tell you the name of my congressman. I can name the first baseman on all 32 baseball teams, but I have no idea who is the prime minister of Canada or the president of Mexico.


Do you?


The more we invest our passion in the outcome of a soccer match, the less we care about any legislation that allows people to bring loaded guns into the bars of Georgia. Look at the birdie, look over here at the birdie….




I’m learning how to play the fiddle.


Are you finished laughing?




Liam wants to know why we call people who love horses “cowboys” or “cowgirls.” They aren’t jumping on a saddle on a cow and galloping across the plains. There might not be a cow in sight, just a barn with a horse named Peppercorn. So why don’t we call such men and women by the correct terms: “horseboy,” “horsegirl”?


He has a point, don’t you think?




Enough writing for today. And I still haven’t written about July 4th and the pie eating contest. I haven’t written about the guy at farmer’s market with the “Free Hugs” sign. Ahhhh, tomorrow.


Signing off for now. Let it be known that this is entry #3 out of the 5 I need to write this week for the prize of a beer on Ruth’s porch.


You can do it, Jimmy.




1 Comment

  1. Argentina to win 2-1

    Having just returned from Rio, I can tell you it’s beaches are fabulous. I love the Brazilians and there passion for life. ps-You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, JT. At least you know whose got a prime minister and whose got a president.

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