On Football, Philosophy, and Joy
By Laleh Khalili
June 24, 1998
I have no voice, and although I have a perverse penchant for flowery metaphors, this statement is emphatically not a metaphor. I literary lost my voice at the Iran-U.S. football game on Sunday. I found myself at the Sporting Club in Tribeca, New York City, screaming myself hoarse, painted all over with green, red, and white theatrical paint. I have to admit that I was actually quite surprised to find myself there, and in such state of abandon.
I am generally not a great fan of team sports. Most sporting events -- except for the bloody and cruel bull fights -- bore me. I do admit that during my senior year at University of Texas, I attended every football game (why do they call this strange game where they CARRY the ball football?), but I went because 80,000 other people did, and because there was much pageantry and tradition and debauchery associated with sitting under the gorgeous autumn sky on a sunny Saturday afternoon, while the guys in the group carried slender flasks of contraband whiskey in their boots, and friendly old school rivalries disintegrated into unofficial raunchy school songs.
I have also a certain amount of antipathy toward American team sports. Baseball confounds me, especially when American writers I like and respect wax poetic about its lyricism. I don't understand its rules and the pace drives me insane. Basketball angers and bothers me, especially since the incredibly rude and disgraceful behavior of that jingoist and chauvinist bully, Charles Barkley at the Barcelona Olympics. American football is strange and strangely ungracious. Among the American professional games, hockey is the most honest in its violence and graceful in its execution.
I have always loved real football (and I refuse to call it soccer) a little bit, even if it has been for all the wrong reasons: it reminds me of when we lived in Iran, of the dusty aghaghia trees blooming in our street, and the throng of neighborhood kids playing football at sunset. It reminds me of the universality of human joy, especially when a team like Brazil wins: Brazilian fans are the most friendly, decadent, and inclusive of fans. They share their celebrations, they share their impromptu carnavales, they share their caiparenas, and they share their bliss.
I like real football, because gorgeous men who look beautifully balanced and physically poised populate the small universe of football. Their proportions are all human: neither as unusually tall as basketball players, nor as chunky as American football players. And the one characteristic of football American commentators whine about the most is the one attribute of football which makes is so much a metaphor (there you go, I got one in) for life: football players are not constantly scoring. Football can not be won by a 40-point margin. A game that frequently ends in the ambiguity of a draw is much more like life. Or perhaps I am cynical about life, very much unlike the typical American with his eternal naiveté, hyper-optimism, and unfaltering belief in redemption...
Anyway, even despite the fact that I actually find football interesting, I have so little free time that I would rather spend my weekends doing all those things I don't get to do, rather than spend a few hours attached to a television screen watching football. Well, until Iran and the 1998 World Cup, that is, when football became so irrevocably intertwined with world politics that...
Well, it all began in December of 1997, when my friend Siamak dragged me -- at 3:00 a.m. no less -- to watch the World Cup qualifying game against Australia at some nondescript sports bar at a nondescript suburb of Washington. I have to admit -- and Siamak ridiculed this for months afterwards -- what interested me the most in the first half of the game were the spectators. I had not been in a space filled with that many strange (as in unfamiliar, not weird) Iranians since I had been to Iran the prior summer. I found myself overwhelmed with an intense feeling of solitude in that room. We were all strangers to each other and most groups carefully avoided each other's gaze, and whispered to each other cautiously: after all none of us had the usual protective measure of being able to speak in a language no one else understands.
We all sat in our cocoons and brought our collective loneliness and discomfort under the same roof. I am sure that our political allegiances would have created vast chasms between us had we not been there for an incredibly nationalist exercise. And I am very much anti-nationalist. But one is gripped by a fever when watching a game amidst a crowd. It must be a little like demonstrating in a revolution, when the logic of the collective completely overwhelms the boundaries of the individual. In those last eight minutes when the entire room was on its feet screaming, begging, praying for Iran to win (or draw), I was also spellbound. The collective with its green-white-and-red, its flag, its power had conquered me. The crowd had forgotten the comfortable space between their own group and the rest of the crowd. The forlorn solitude I had felt -- all these immigrants, exiles, diasporans sharing their hopes and their nostalgia, sharing their ghorbat-- had given way to a joyous frenetic group -- feel: a little secure, a little amazing, a little scary. Football had suddenly explained nationalism to me.
Siamak made fun of me for my philosophical musings on something as simple as football. But this kind of football was never that simple to me. This kind of football spoke of our desperate need to regain our pride. We Iranians are a curiously arrogant people. We believe that we invented the world and all that matters in it. We -- sometimes rightly -- take credit for language and philosophy, for religion, for the idea of Messiah and angels, for the Manichean binary way humanity views the world, for paradise and for music. This sense of superiority moderated and impaired by all the transgression committed against us at the hand of every conqueror and two-bit invader -- from Alexander the Macedonian to Saddam Hussein -- has created a strange schism in our national psyche, rearing itself in various guises: at best, in poetry (a medium heavily affected by the coded language of the subjugated and the mystical profoundness of the spiritually superior), and at worst in our occasional xenophobia. And the World Cup appealed to this schism in us: we could prove again that we belonged among the elite minority of countries who made it to the World Cup, shoulder to shoulder with the United States and Germany and Japan (so Japan is not a football powerhouse, it's still an Eastern country that made it in the exclusive good-old-boy club of Western nations). Iran could prove once again that it was grand and great.
But Iran's reentry into the world, its rebirth, was further magnified, perhaps made even more magnificent, by the groupings of the teams. As the entire world knows by now, what BBC calls "The Group of Fear" gave Iran a chance to play its love-hate relationship with the United States on the football pitch. I will leave my musings about this love-hate relationship for another time and another place.
As the now-infamous game approached, my life was in a state of massive upheaval and I spent an enormous amount of time in self-imposed isolation, thinking and reconsidering my mistakes, my life, my future, and my heart. I had even planned to watch the game alone. UNTIL. Until on the Thursday night before The Game, my friend Colin called. Colin is an amazing human being. He is smart and articulate and interesting. He is a writer and a prison-reform activist, an anarchist, a great dancer, and an amazing man. He and his brother Craig have spent a large part of their lives in Asia and the Middle East and Latin America, and as such have a deep and abiding passion for football. Colin has even compromised with the great behemoth of capitalism and culture of conspicuous consumption by ordering cable during the World Cup, so that he could watch (and tape) every game.
I often wonder about the power of a game that draws the attention and awe and passions of so many brilliant people. Perhaps then, I am not the only silly person who finds this simple game as a metaphor for life. Or maybe after several millennia, we are still the bloodthirsty spectators cheering the gladiators who perform and personify our bloodlust and our violence, our primeval desire to conquer in a sports arena. I don't know. Perhaps I am too pedantic.
Colin suggested that our football-crazy group of friends meet in a bar where the magnetism of the collective would intensify the bliss and adrenaline of the rivalry. I agreed and found a cool sports bar in Tribeca, with six big- screen TVs and a serviceable hangover-cure greasy bar-menu (the game was on a Sunday after all, after a Saturday night of fun). Craig and I arrived early enough to watch the Jamaican humiliation at the hands of Argentina (and my god! Batistuta is one good-looking man!), to have the hair of the dog that bit us the night before, and some greasy fries and calamari. By the time the bar filled with all-American young men, we had on the war paint. I was wearing the green, red and white, and the rest of the group was covered in the red- white-blue of American flag.
Apparently this bar has been voted the best sports bar in NYC, and shortly thereafter, masses of cameramen arrived, most of them from European TV stations, and began setting up their equipment and training their equipment on us: we were the most rambunctious and painted and loud group. I was the one of two Iranians in the bar, and the other Iranian was a lovely quiet older gentleman who was generous enough not to be utterly offended by my very un- ladylike behavior.
What I loved the most about the all-American crowd was that a large percentage of them were as horrified and bemused as I was over all the hostage-taking footage shown before the game. Colin, utterly disgusted, even muttered, "why the hell don't they throw in some footage of napalm being dropped on some Vietnamese village?" And he wanted to know what the hell any of this had to do with the simple game of football. I wanted to say, but didn't, that it had EVERYTHING to do with a game of football that has all sorts of domestic political implications at home, a game that can actually provoke an all-out feast/demonstration/carnival in Iran that would violate just about every vice law in the book of Iranian laws and put anxiety in the heart of certain people who do not like the idea of jubilant unofficial crowds taking to the streets. Not to mention the whole rapprochement with the U.S. thing, our own warm-weather luscious version of Ping-Pong Diplomacy.
I have to say that despite all internal resistance, I was utterly won over and charmed by the sentimentality of Iranian players presenting flowers to the American players. And I literally gulped down the tears when the two teams ditched the separate group photos in favor of draping their arms against each other and looking glorious and young and beautiful on the football green, with no borders, no wars, no repression, no empire, no capitalism to separate them for that surreal moment: just football. My cherished and beloved cynicism completely deserted me at kickoff.
I will not recount the game. I am sure most readers of this bit have taped it and will save the video for posterity. (My brother had taped that infamous Iran-Australia game and when I was Down Under visiting my family, they played that tape a couple of times at least). I think what I want to say is that the Europeans in the crowed cheered for Iran. Most were French of course, and perhaps they were also seeing the game through a political looking-glassm -- a much sexier and friendlier version of the Total-ILSA-Iran affair perhaps.
I also want to mention in passing that our group, because it was so loud and colorful and friendly and rambunctious, was interviewed and filmed and photographed by every single crew and journalist in the crowd, all the Europeans inevitably asking me about the significance of the game between Iran and the United States. At that moment, The Game was significant for no other reason than the simple joy of fighting a bloodless war in a green-as-emerald battlefield, where the civilians are saturated with joy, not sorrow. I also HAVE to say here that I found it extremely funny that one of the commercial sponsors of The Game was the United States Army! What's next? The CIA?
What I want to talk about is that watching that game has shorn much of my hip and ironic New York cynicism from me. I hate to admit that I actually loved that hand-shaking going on after the game, the jubilation during the game, even the silly T-shirt waving protest that went on in the stands. I loved it immensely that when I was standing on top of the tables screaming my heart out at the screens, the American spectators smiled at me and not one of them told me to sit down, even though I am sure I blocked many of their views. I hate to admit that I succumbed so easily to goodwill: it goes against all my radical-chick pretensions, but there I was filled with such utter sense of contentment and happiness when those gorgeous goals were planted into the U.S. goal, and even more jubilant when some of the Americans in the crowd toasted me for the goals.
For ninety minutes -- which I wish could last for an eternity only if my heart could tolerate that much adrenaline and my voice-box that much screaming -- life was about nothing but being alive and about peace. When we stepped out into the sun-drenched streets of lower Manhattan, desolate in their Sunday-afternoon loneliness, I had become a little bit of a kinder person, much more serene and maybe a bit more accepting of the notion of redemption.
The morning after the game, I got an email that Howard Stern had read from a news piece where I was quoted as rooting for Iran despite my dual nationality. Apparently he cursed me on his radio show and suggested that I should be thrown out of the country. I guess I am an improved person since the game: the news made me laugh out loud. What a funny strange world we live in!
- Also by Laleh Khalili:
* Loving an Iranian man