Let us agree to call it football for the remainder of this essay, since that it what it is when you disallow the use of hands and reward intricate side-stepping.
Where are you from? I do not mean where you currently stay. Nor do I want to know of your college. Your school. The place where you work for money. The places where you spend that money. The places where you save that money. The place where you had your first kiss. Or lost your virginity. Or heard Bob Dylan's divine cribbing for the first time. Or met your spouse. Buried your dad. Circled self-indulgent truths. Reconciled with life's stylized facts. Failed an exam. Ate an ice cream after breaking up. No, not those trivialities.
What I want to know is where you were born. Where your parents come from. Or maybe your grandparents. Or maybe even theirs. Now that is important. Really important. I got disappointed, upset and drunk (in that order, I think) when Italy lost the Euro Cup finals to Spain. And not just lost, it seemed as if the amateur band which opens for Metallica started performing a really bad OC in between 'Master of Puppets'. Really, it would have been a far superior spectacle if Spain had divided its players into two groups and played out the ninety minutes. Italy was juvenile, and their performance in the final was reminiscent of someone who works hard to enter an Ivy League just to flunk the first semester. Terrible. Pathetic.
I really wanted them to win. I cannot remember supporting any national team other than Argentina and Italy ever since I started watching football. I can mark with a pen the exact point where Baggio's penalty hit the crossbar, and I believe I can guess how old Batistuta's stubble was when he cried. Or maybe it is just because I owned their jerseys. I really do not know. So that night, at a bar, I was mad.
A guy who sat next to me quipped, "But you aren't Italian. So why care?"
And that got me thinking, why indeed?
Is it because rooting for a sportsman or a team goes beyond nationalism? Is it because a professional sport is much more meritocratic than it already seems to be? Or is it because we search for glorious universalities in a much fragmented world, where the need to hold on to something permanent supersedes all considerations, rational? Is it because we now as a race are collectively hunting for surrogate wins? My team beat your team, so I beat you. My James jumps higher than your Bryant, so stand I stand taller. Mine has a forehand that shapes like a shy, auburn country road in September. Romantic? Delusional? Desperate?
I come from a country which plays cricket really well. And when the national team loses the entire nation seems concurrently stabbed in the same place of their hearts with the same needle, and they feel the same pain. But there are regional teams and when they play the nation performs a mathematically clear but morally muddled self-division, and the remainders lash out at hitherto heroes. The same happens with club football, 'I love Cole, I hate Cole.'
And perhaps that unclear mast messes up our sense of direction. We end up like the spectators at a tennis match, keeping a careful eye on the most uninteresting part of the proceedings, the ball. As with everything else, we revolt for menial things and accept the dispossession of everything important, a trait common for our generation. Like the shirt colour of the guy on a football field who does an almost atheism-dissolving 'thing' with his (mostly) human foot. We lose the bigger picture, that when you watch a group of un-freaking-believably talented supermen compete with each other, the point is that. They stop being English or Spanish or French or Czech. They are barely our species. They are Simon & Garfunkel's neon Gods. They are Nietzsche's Zarathustra. It doesn't matter that they were not born within a few hundred miles of you regionally, what matters is that you can watch them, feel a tinge of jealousy and then a whole lot of love at being lucky enough to share the same set of vital organs. It is a humbling experience to watch Federer or even Nadal or Ali or Pirlo or Messi or Tendulkar or Bolt or Isinbayeva, to consider that they too stare up at the sky and wonder in absolute ignorance, that they have no secrets and that you have so much left to be, human. Asking why Italy and why not England is akin to asking why your mom is your mom and not mine. What is just is and there is no there there.
I wish I had thought of all this that night in that bar. It would have blown that dude's mind. Instead like an idiot I shouted back, "Because Pirlo rocks and Iniesta sucks!"