On a Saturday evening last June, the football world collectively held its breath for Christian Eriksen after the Danish international collapsed during a match at the 2020 Euros, the phrase, “it’s just a game” heard repeated across the globe. When we think about football and use the cliché of “life or death”, we speak to the unquenchable cultural thirst for the game that can oft be found in Central and South America but too often we forget about the life football can breathe into the world. The 90-minute increments of people kicking a ball across rectangles of grassy pitches can be entirely substance-less, just a distraction from the day-to-day trudge, but as an entity, football can be so much more than just a game.
A better life
The professional game, from Addis Ababa to Zagreb is littered with those who spent their childhoods dreaming of more, of a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Not every player will have a story that starts like Dani Alves or Ángel Di María’s do, not every baller came from meagre beginnings, forced to play themselves out of poverty, but for many there is a familiar reality. What is considered a life-changing amount of money for most won’t be the wages that Barcelona or Manchester City players command. For Cameroonian international, Gaëlle Enganamouit, the €70 she could send back to her family each week [in 2012] from her Spartak Subotica paycheque was enough to lay down the foundations for a more secure life.
Yet it doesn’t have to be as far away as the favelas of São Paulo, like the one Gabriel Jesus left behind, that football provides a safer life from. For Andre Gray, football provided an out from the violent gang culture in Wolverhampton that claimed the lives of some of his friends. A deep scar on his left cheek, an all too clear reminder of what could have been for the 30-year-old attacker.
Whilst football is home to many players who’ve forged a better life for themselves through the sport, it’s been a long-standing salvation for fans alike. For those of us who’ve found ourselves adrift, left broken and bruised by the rigors of life, football has offered an escape.
Some have found a home at a club, the highs and lows of a football season drawing them in, as their circle has expanded, bringing in fans of the same team; individuals finding a second family in the community. Others have dived into football’s depths, learning not just about their home league but consuming every morsel of the sport they can find from the Croatian fourth tier to the national football teams of Timor-Leste. It can be an all-consuming hobby but it can also be the one thing that keeps some of us tethered, that gives us something to focus on and divert our attentions to in our darkest hours.
Some will keep that powerful bond with the game until their dying days, others will have an intense fling with the sport before moving off and finding other ways to occupy their time. But that relationship, whether it be a case of Summer Lovin’ or a lasting marriage can be enough to save a person, or change the trajectory of their lives or redefine who they are as people.
For some in can be their point of ingress into laying down relationships with their peers, it can be what motivates themselves to be better or quicker or smarter. It can be enough to take them out of the house, to bond with family members or find commonalties with the strangest of strangers.
Even those in women’s football circles will tell you, that for children born without prejudice, watching women play or playing alongside girls, will stop you from framing men vs women; it doesn’t have to be women’s football, it can just be football. For those children, football can be vital for education and shaping a moral compass, for the basic understanding of playing fairly and not cheating.
For those who fall down the proverbial rabbit hole to the Timor-Leste’s, it can be a chance to learn, not just about new players but of different factors and struggles for those far outside of their own postcodes. That passion can be the trigger to learn about a different culture, to take up a new language, again to seek out those who share the same niche of a widely held passion.
For all the hand-wringing we do when it comes to football’s global governing body, FIFA does at least understand the power of the sport. For the interest some in and around FIFA might have with lining their own pockets, the association is rife with those who want to see the game do good around the world. Those who don’t just want to grow the game and bring it to impoverished areas but to use it to improve the lives of those around the world.
Football is life
In the moment, 90 minutes on the pitch can seem like the whole world but once the whistle has gone and it’s over; each pass, each shot, and each tackle can dissolve into nothingness. Football can go from life to banality, and we can once again say, “it’s just a game.” As Eriksen lay lifeless on the pitch in Copenhagen in June, with his teammates encircling him and the paramedics working to restart his heart, fans around the world watching on horror-stricken, football became meaningless.
We were all faced not just with death but our own mortalities, and the idea of trying to kick a ball into a net seemed so wasteful, so pointless. Football found itself relegated to just a game; a hobby, some filler to occupy time in our lives, a distraction rather than a salvation. By the time the tournament rolled into its conclusion in London, with Eriksen having been discharged from hospital and clearly on the mend, we were all back to being consumers of this game. The knock-outs had taken us to our own limits, our emotions on high alert throughout the summer but away from the luxurious pitches around the continent, football continued to work.
There are moments, like when Eriksen collapsed, that football blurred into the surroundings, when it became an irrelevance for so many, but those moments are fleeting for millions upon millions around the globe. Some find family, some education or employment, but so very many find hope in the sport, so can it ever really just be a game?