Friday, April 28, 2006

Something More Important than Life and Death

Something More Important than Life and Death

The last FIFA World Cup 2002 was a great street fiesta for us in Asia. Jointly hosted then by Japan and Korea, all the matches were played and broadcasted live during prime-time hours in most Asian countries. Pubs, restaurants and any public place that could accomodate a television set became soccer-viewing arenas. Many of them charged an entrance fee because seats we limited. Owners were laughing their way to the bank. Everyone had a great time cheering for their favourite team.

I was working in Jakarta then, and I remember viewing the Brazil vs Germany final with my friends at the JW Marriot Hotel in Mega Kuningan. I also recall watching one of the matches at a nasi padang restaurant in Puncak. Almost everyone in Indonesia was football crazy. What a good time it was then. 2002 remains one of the best years of my life.

And guess what: it's World Cup year again! But this time, I'll be watching most of the matches from home in KL. Held in Germany this time round, match-time won't be as convenient anymore. Some matches will be played at 3 am. Everyone will be going to office bleary-eyed. Let's all brace for one crazy month of no work! Thank God for the World Cup once every four years to inject life back into our humdrum middleclass existence!

For one month, soccer fans all over the world will be united as brothers and during this sacred month, nothing takes precedence over soccer. We'll all be embracing the late Bill Shankly's philosophy:Football is not a matter of life and death. It is much more important than that.

Soccer is the only sport that I love passionately. I used to play badminton too in school but I don't follow the game that much.There's certainly a great deal of wisdom one can distill from both sports. ( read Equanimity and the Badminton Player and The Wisdom of Football).

I find it very interesting analyzing the "intelligence" that a soccer player needs to possess. A good soccer player has to make decisions during a game at the blink of an eye--to shoot, to cross, to make a run, to commit to a tackle--all that requires good instincts and timing. This skill is partly honed through practice and also partly from the player's natural talent.

Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink gives a good account on how the human mind handles split-second "thinking". Sometimes we call it instinct but can such instincts be learned?

For example in soccer, certain players have a knack for scoring goals while others don't. The interesting thing is that technical ability alone does not make you a good goal-scorer: you need to have the ability to size up a situation, to anticipate, to arrive at the right place at the right time, to judge the bounce of the ball, to aim and decide where best to shoot to beat the goalkeeper--all that has to happen in an instant during a game. It is a huge amount of information to process but a good striker knows how to "thin-slice". That makes him a prolific goal-scorer.

But let's not make football too intellectual; it's just a simple, even ridiculous game--22 grown men chasing after a ball for 90 minutes with millions of spectators worldwide yelling their heads off cheering for them. But that's it's beauty--the simplicity of it all. And once every four years, we all forget who we are, we leave our jobs behind, ignore our wives and kids to become happy simpletons again, uniting together, to worship this simple but beautiful game of football.

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