It should be. The world is clearly much happier fighting for a trophy than devising seesaw strategies for dominance which inevitably explode into war when fear touches the trigger.
Wars once began in the fantasies of conquerors. Today, the expansionist impulse has been curbed but not erased; even as the rise of terrorist ideologies that promote radical mayhem drains blood from the slippery arteries of geography. History is the narrative of too many warmongers impelled by the lunatic compass of ego. So much violence is born of an illicit marriage between an imagined past and a phantom future, shredding the present with weapons that measure their price on the scale of havoc. The origins of conflict mean little to the dead.
The only lesson of war must surely be to avoid it; but mention the thought and you get dismissed as a wimp. The well-meaning are cowed down into silence, for war is backed by great rhetoric. The victims of aggression, ordinary people who pay the price in the death of a generation, can only search for eventual resolution in amnesia. The most brutal conflict since World War II was in Vietnam. One cannot admire the Vietnamese enough, now engaged in a calm peace with America. They have not allowed the incredible trauma of American napalm raining on naked children and chemicals devastating crops to become an obstacle to the economic productivity that can improve lives. The Vietnamese have excised hubris from victory. That is the foundation of their growing prosperity.
The world of sport has been shaped by the cool genius of a few for the vociferous pleasure of the many. Passionate argument is the elixir of peace, and may it long thrive. It does not really matter that sport gets space on the back page of newspapers rather than the front. Sport lives in the attic of the mind.
It is so much more intelligent for England and Germany to dispute ferociously over the legitimacy of a goal in the 1966 World Cup than clash for world domination. Sport, counter-intuitively, nourishes a much longer memory than war, for both its pain and elation are civilised. You can be sure that 56 years later today’s grandchildren will be reliving Harry Kane’s wayward second penalty against France, while teary-eyed Moroccans repeat the Dance of the Mothers and talk of Achraf Hakimi, whose mama held his face in a joyful beam to celebrate his penalty against Spain. As for Argentina, the 2022 World Cup will enter theology course as they ponder and re-evaluate the meaning of divinity. To find one god in a lifetime is an immeasurable blessing; to get two, Diego and Lionel, makes you a chosen people.
Neighbours make the best frenemies. Without controversy there would be no conversation between them. It is silly to believe that technology can end disputes. Experts have already begun to pontificate that the long VAR delay before the crucial second penalty stressed Harry Kane far too much, affecting his mental health. In the more prosaic world of the 20th century, an error was called human, not insanity.
PARADOX HAS ITS VIRTUES.
We have reached that happy moment in human existence when the only true supremacist world conqueror is the television set. The British once boasted that the sun never set over their Empire. That is passé. Television has made sunset and sunrise irrelevant. There is television even in the lands without the sun for half the year, around the North and South Poles. When man, preceded undoubtedly by woman, established a settlement in Tycho crater on the moon, television would travel in the baggage. Mooners will watch the mix of trash, trivia and delight that consumes 90 per cent of television time. The point is not the presence, however, but the impact.
Television is the beanstalk that has transformed football from a club stem to an international magic tree.
Our proverbial 56 years hence, 200 nations will compete for the World Cup. Even India. By 2078, FIFA will occupy the United Nations building in New York, after rebuilding that worn-out skyscraper. The Security Council of FIFA will have five permanent members: Saudi Arabia, in its own capacity and on behalf of the autonomous regions of the Gulf; Brazil, as Latin soccer supremo; the North American Federation; Morocco from Africa; and a Franco-German alliance of convenience. Japan, China and the Iberian Peninsula will be permanent invitees without veto powers; England, Argentina and Japan will pop in and out as rotating members. India will get a seat as lead engine of a second-tier competition called the League of Nations Cup.
Thus far India has globalised its fan base, largely (but not exclusively) between Brazil and Argentina, with headquarters in the feisty side-streets of Kolkata. Fans cannot be neutral. If their own country is not in the fray, they will shift their loyalty.
Neutrality is the morphine of sport. Brazil and Argentina are two nations capable of filling India’s emotional space without anchors getting hysterical on its national television news. Let us look beyond the usual suspects for their animus: if Indians supported England the anti-colonial lobby would rise in disgust, and if it tilted towards France the Anglophiles would raise their voices. Germany would provoke memories of the shabby treatment given to Netaji Subhas Bose. And why support Spain or Portugal when you can get a much better deal with Argentina and Brazil? By 2050, however, India will have a national football team as part of its Swabhiman Project.
The paradox lies in the consequences of televised football. Football has turned television, the bridgehead, workhorse and totem pole of globalisation, into the chief mascot of nationalism. Without national passion the World Cup is about as interesting as ditchwater. National identity makes adults weep and children distraught, or both delirious; it sells multi-patterned T-shirts which will never be worn again; generates a fortune in supplementary kitsch; and forces nervous presidents to call up their equivalents for a seat in the front row. Emmanuel Macron did not fly to Qatar to watch France play England because his television set at the Élysée Palace had broken down. He went because the electorate would have given him a pretty sharp kick in the pants if it discovered he had other things to do. Being Macron, he overdid it, hanging around on the sidelines, competing for attention with the French coach; and chained to the formal seats in the final.
Macron is particularly relevant because he is a cheerleader of globalisation, preaching that nationalism is dead and globalisation is the only way forward. He even argued that the word nationalism had become abhorrent, and those who still adhered to such old-fashioned sentiments might content themselves with a synonym, patriotism. That suggestion did not fly.
I am sure someone brilliant will now emerge with a theory about hard nationalism and soft nationalism. May we pre-empt this with a request for more clarity on hard globalisation and soft globalisation? One ancestor of globalisation, colonisation, became so harsh that it turned brittle. Today’s Big Tech economic neo-colonisation is heading in the same direction unless someone starts some course-correction through the enactment of international law for an international phenomenon. But the Big Powers, who gain financially from tech monopoly, have no interest in creating a legal framework for space where the crucial battles for the future have begun.
Emmanuel Macron did not fly to Qatar to watch France play England because his television set at the Élysée Palace had broken down. Being Macron, he overdid it, hanging around on the sidelines, competing for attention with the French coach
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The world could learn something from football. Break the law and there will be a stern penalty applicable equally to anyone who is guilty. That keeps the game credible. Nations are the local guardians of law. That is why they remain the building blocks in the architecture of global stability. Globalisation works as a partner of nationalism, not its antithesis.
If the world is a village, who owns the grocery store?
Microsoft? Apple? Amazon? Is globalisation merely the means by which a handful of 21st-century multinationals deliver the same computer from the same shop to maximise profits for their golden squad of shareholders? Is globalisation nothing more than the latest attempt to transfer the wealth of nations (a term familiar to traditional capitalists) to the banks of a few domineers, a funnel to transfer money from 99 per cent to 1 per cent? (If domineers is a verb rather than a noun, let us change the dictionary; the word is onomatopoeic.) Big Tech is uninterested in nationalism, for it does not believe in the values, rights and priorities of people or nations. Nationalism would strengthen resistance to multinational power. Big Tech must be waiting for the day when hapless billions become Lilliputian Elons after Musk has implanted his device in every human brain.
My one reason for relief is that the savviest investor in the world, Warren Buffett, chairperson of Berkshire Hathaway, still buys shares mainly in companies which fatten you or serve you or squeeze you in traditional ways, like Coca-Cola, Occidental Petroleum, Bank of America, Kraft Heinz, railroads and of course Apple. He sees Apple as a product company like Samsung, not a social media titan.
I have often wondered why empires did not participate in sport competitions. There was no British Empire football team playing an Ottoman Empire Eleven. Athletics, football and cricket did not deliver Empire teams because there was no common Empire identity. Indians belonged to an empire; the empire did not belong to them. Dhyan Chand’s magic men played hockey in the 1928 Olympics for something called “British India”, an absurd nomenclature. Indians wanted Indian India. They suffered subjugation in passive frustration or active resentment. Australians were kith and kin of the English but not on the cricket field. MCC did not waste its limited resources of sympathy when it unleashed cricket’s infamous leg theory in 1911-12 and then ramped it up to killer levels under Douglas Jardine in 1930, with Harold Larwood pitching it short and fast at the body of a batsman. Australians played for Australia. They did not want to join a cricket team of cousins. Empire was a political fact, not a friendship project.
Remarkably, English became an Indian language only after the end of the Raj. Till 1947 it was at best a useful language, suitable for upward mobility on the higher stretches of bureaucracy, or for social engagement between the sahib and the brown sahib, not a popular means of discourse. English acquired its unique reach only when it spread by free will. You cannot order a language into foreign consciousness, as China’s President Xi Jinping will doubtless discover when his proposal, accepted by Saudi Arabia, to make Mandarin part of the Saudi school curriculum runs into sand.
IS THE WORLD geography or imagination? Without imagination geography is no more than the street where you live and the slab of floor where you work. A frontier is entrancing, not because it is a wall but because it is a gate to the unknown. India was at the end of Alexander’s flat world. Once he had defeated Indians beyond the Indus, he could call himself a true World Conqueror. Aristotle, his tutor in ethics, politics and debate, had a glimmer of a better idea. He realised that the earth’s shadow was spherical no matter where a partial eclipse took place and conjectured that the world could only be round. He did not necessarily persuade his compatriots who could not see more than the ground beneath their feet. Greeks fit the world into compartments of earth, air and water. Their contemporaries in Mesopotamia thought the world was a disk floating on water below a hemisphere without beginning and end.
One cannot admire the Vietnamese enough, now engaged in a calm peace with America. They have not allowed the incredible trauma of American napalm raining on naked children to become an obstacle to the economic productivity that can improve lives. The Vietnamese have excised hubris from victory
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In Taksila, Alexander had a famous meeting with a yogi sitting under a tree and was so impressed that he wanted the yogi to become a fellow traveller. The yogi was content with his existence; he had no more worlds to discover after he had conquered his inner universe. If Alexander had indeed crossed the Indus, his enquiring mind might have begun to understand the Indian view of the world as an illusion. The Vedas valued concept over shape; the world was surrounded by four directions. The Yoga Vasistha described human beings as ants crawling on the coat of a walnut, which is not an equivalent of but closer to what we know now. Indian philosophy discovered the world in a sound, Om.
Science eventually found the shape of the world but not its meaning. Life remained a conundrum spinning in space.
A flat world reflected life as we experience it; it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. A circular world is a better metaphor for mystery, and the unfathomable meeting point of birth and death. We do not know why we are born and why we die. We are born helpless. We die helpless. Medicine is only another illusion among many. Jaques, a melancholic realist in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, mourned the evidence of the eyes:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages…
You know the rest. Or should.
Your world ends in a “second childishness… Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. Sans meaning, sans time. Dust to dust. From God to God. For those searching for a consolation prize, an eastern proverb: there is nothing terrible in life for those who believe there is nothing dreadful about death. Amen.
Apologies for the gloom. Cheer up. There will be another World Cup in four years.