Written by guest blogger, Eric Bronson.
Soccer is known as “the beautiful game.” I’ve always believed it. As a coach, I instill it in my team. My faith in the game was never tested. All that changed the day I watched our goalie, my six-year old son, play a critical semi-finals match against the heavily favored Super Ninjas. He was supposed to be bravely deflecting missiles from sharpshooting Ninjas. Instead, at the decisive point of a tied game, my son was casually sitting on the sideline. Eating cantaloupe.
All season long I’d been imploring him to stand up. Get into the action. Make a game-saving save. Or at the very least, pretend like he cares about whether we win or lose. But he’s thumbing his nose at all of it. At me. At the game. At himself, too. After all, he’s allergic to cantaloupe.
I’d been working on this article on Robin van Persie’s incredible flying header against Spain in the 2014 World Cup. So many philosophers before me had made tentative connections to the transcendent possibilities in sports like soccer. I wanted to explore the conditions of sporting events that make such religious connections possible, even likely.
But the more I investigated the game’s English origins, the geometry of the Dutch School tactics, even the building of Fonte Nova Stadium in Brazil, the more flummoxed I became. How can one speak of rebellion, transcendence, and irrationality on the one hand, and in the same sentence note the discipline, lines, and limits of the game itself? There seemed to be a contradiction. Unless there was something in the rigidity of the rules that led the very best athletes to transcend them altogether.
Sadly, we lost that game to the Super Ninjas. In the car home, my son was thoughtful. He was also still covered in hives from his allergic reaction that caused him to sit out the final ten minutes.
“How come you ate the cantaloupe when you know you’re allergic to it?” I asked him. “Even after I warned you not to eat it!”
He didn’t answer. When van Persie was a boy, his coaches questioned his judgment, too. In fact, there is a long list of athletes who went on to make beautiful plays after consistently ignoring their coaches’ advice.
What if his small acts of rebellion are something important, something ancient, something vaguely religious? What if by refusing my grounded instruction, he’s actually learning to fly?
I looked back at my son in my rearview mirror. A painful thought crossed my mind. What if every time he challenges the outside world, he’s learning something about the rational nature of rules and the irrational need to transcend them? What if his small acts of rebellion are something important, something ancient, something vaguely religious? What if by refusing my grounded instruction, he’s actually learning to fly?
Eric Bronson’s article, “Transcending the Pitch: Robin van Persie’s ‘Inexpressible’ Goal,” appears in the Spring 2017 Issue of The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture (Volume 29 Issue 1), available to read at http://bit.ly/jrpc291!