Where Champions Are Born

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Content advisory 18+ Consumed as I am by my passion for football and the World Cup, I inevitably run into those flustered, exasperated souls who just can't understand what all the fuss is about. Usually, these nay-sayers spill from the ranks of the intellectual elite for whom Sport, like Religion and Victory Gin, is simply opiate for the masses at best, and, at worst, a slavering, blood-spurting reenactment of gladiator-style war games. Accordingly, they conjure up visions of mob rule, vigilante justice, public hangings, and chaos in general.
Barbarism leftover from the ancient world.

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Or else they see it as a fickle diversion from the more serious things that we OUGHT to be thinking about, such as how to help all the starving people in the world, what to do about global warming, and, above all, Human Rights. Why should all this money be spent building sports stadiums when it could be used to feed the Hungry, bring Warmth to the Freezing, and give Sustenance to the Destitute? No, they rail and thunder, the footballing masses must receive their fix at all costs, and the future of the human race be damned.
And with a sweep of the hand and their heads cocked in self-assured Social Piety, they return smugly to their academic journals, leaving the rest of us BRUTES to go forth to ogle and relish the mindless mayhem.
Well, for one thing, none of that money would be spent on all those idealistic things their imaginations proclaim, whether a football was ever kicked or not. It would find its way into the pockets of the powerful and corrupt. So let's get that one out of the way right upfront.

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But we should also address the main tenets of those who see sport only in a negative light, right? Fair is fair.
A prominent man once wrote that when he opened a newspaper, the first section he always turned to was the Sports because it was the only place in the paper where he could read about anyone actually SUCCEEDING at anything. The rest of it was all depressing, bad news. OK, OK, maybe we can dismiss that as being merely anecdotal; however, the man did have a point. If you don't believe it, buy a newspaper yourself today and have a look. Even with all the scandal and muck-raking that afflicts both sport and sports journalism today, it really is the one place you can read about people winning rather than just losing.

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But that's an aside. In a larger sense, we might be able to agree on two points: (1) humans are social creatures; and (2) humans are very competitive. It is, as they say, 'the nature of the beast.' Sports, without question, brings people together. It creates a common bond and a common identity. This is not restricted simply to the working classes, although many times I have tried to make the argument that for some basic guy, maybe (to state it cruelly) no more than a nonentity without any positive prospects for the future -- just the factory, the fat wife, and the ugly kids-- perhaps the local team, Whoever United or Dynamo Whatever, provide a sense of a much more positive SHARED identity, and if this team goes on to become champions or Cup-Winners, then, in a sense, it means that Mr. Nobody is a champion too, right? I mean, sort of. He can wear his scarf and parade around the town and he can FEEL like a Winner because his team just won the title. I see nothing wrong in that. Sure, he is living vicariously, and just as surely come Monday morning the factory will still be the factory where the gray hours of his life unfold. But if he can chortle with his equally gray mates, "We won the Cup!" -- it is something that he will probably remember for the rest of his life and feel validated by.

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But it is no different among the corporate high-fliers and business executives. Why do you think there are so many sports idioms in the business world? (I am an English teacher and I know about these idioms !). Well, I'll tell you why. It is because most of these central directors would RATHER be Christiano Ronaldo down at the stadium scoring goals and winning championships if they could. This is most certainly true in America and the UK; there is just no question about it, and that's because a lot of these big fish business men wish that their balls were a lot bigger than they are, and if they can live vicariously in the moment through the sports heroes, then -- during That Moment ! -- their balls really DO swell.
They are living the Moment just as surely as the working stiff in the factory. They are living outside of themselves. And loving it. Fantasy? Sure. And why not? Who among you (readers) don't spend some -- or a lot -- of your time fantasizing about places you will never go and lovers you will never have? This makes you somehow...pathetic? Absolutely not. I had a quick one off the wrist the other night dreaming about Brigitte Bardot (yes, I am old). Does it mean I don't love my wife, or that my own life has been nothing more than an endless wank? Not hardly. But I have always been in love with Brigitte Bardot. That's what it means. And I know I will never meet her except in my mind. I won't ever play against Ronaldo either. But I can dream.

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Isn't living 'vicariously' what many fathers and mothers do through their sons and daughters? Maybe in sports, maybe in terms of the professions and 'society' they want their children to enter? Yes, and -- agreed -- when done obsessively, many horror stories unfold, but on the other hand how many generations of fathers and sons in particular have been united in joy and devotion because of a passed-on love for the local team? The elites, especially present day feminists, can smirk scornfully at the 'male bonding' absurdities they imagine, as if it were all about just a bunch of hairy guys sitting on a log, swilling beer and having a communal circle-jerk. But it's more than that.
Did you notice how happy a place Moscow seemed after the Russian team beat Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Please tell me when was the last time that you saw so many Russian people looking so happy? Please. I am waiting and listening. Maybe the end of the Great Patriotic War?

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As I write this the date is 1 July, 2018. This evening Russia plays mighty Spain, and by the time you read this the match will be long finished, and everyone expects Russia to lose, maybe even lose badly. But if somehow Russia wins, and anything is possible, you will see a collective outpouring of ecstasy that NOTHING ELSE could produce. You will see strangers jumping up and down and hugging each other in the streets. You will feel the stadium rock to its foundations. And at work the next day, it will be all anybody talks about, and everyone will be happy. Except, of course, for the terminal curmudgeons who just can't understand what all the ‘fuss’ is about.
I remember sitting in a public house in Bath in 1977 watching Liverpool play Borussia Monchengladbach for the European Cup championship. Everybody was intent on the football, as no English side had won the Cup since Manchester United did it back in 1968. Naturally, the Germans went ahead and it seemed Liverpool were finished, but somehow they equalized and the match went down toward the waning moments. The atmosphere in the pub was electric. Then, suddenly, a famous Liverpool player named Tommy Smith headed in the winner (Liverpool got another by Terry McDermott and won 3-1). The place went, as they say, bonkers. The wild, wonderful, shared BLISS that erupted when Tommy Smith's header went in, the lads jumping up and down and dancing around the pub together -- united as we were by FRIENDSHIP in the MOMENT -- was something I will never forget.

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O how I would like to relive that long lost evening in rainy Bath so many years ago.
If you want to laugh at me -- at us -- go ahead. But tell me: when was the last time YOU shared in such a spontaneous outpouring of collective happiness among not only friends but also complete strangers? New Year's Eve at Red Square? Don't even try it. If Russia won the World Cup, the nation would erupt into a form of mass ecstasy that no government, no revolution, no series of sunny days, could even approach. Believe it.

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Sports is the ultimate reality check in terms of entertainment. It is not a film or a book where the outcome has already been crafted and all you have to do is sit back and watch or read. No, in sports, the art and drama and magic unfolds before your very eyes and there is no predicting what you will see. Sports both builds and (especially, in my opinion) REVEALS character. Hearts and spirits are made and broken down there on the playing field. It is a microcosm of everything else we experience, except mostly it is purer and the results are not murky as often is the case in politics and business and the rest of so many dull, routine, automatic-pilot enterprises we waste our lives on. In sports the championships are won and lost by real men and women in the real arena, men and women who overcome pain, bad breaks, lousy referees, falling behind, and seeming to be without a prayer -- just as so many of us ordinary people can identify with because we face it every day too (we just don't make headlines) -- and not by a bunch of bloodless asshole bureaucrats hiding somewhere in the closet.

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Yes, there is dirt in sports. Matches can be fixed, riots can happen, and many of the greatest stars are not so great off the pitch or out of the ring. But don't try telling me that the world would be a better place if it lacked these men and women and the courage, grace, and spellbinding magnificence they can show there on the field of the packed stadium where there is nowhere to hide. Where people get broken for sure.
But also where champions are born.

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===Eric Richard Leroy===

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