The American Ending

The messiness, subjectivity and imprecision of football are being eroded from the game, argues the Nigerian novelist and football fan.

Algeria fans at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Image credit Nathan Gibbs via Flickr (CC).

There can be a logic to loss, but often it feels arbitrary. The ground beneath the losing party is unsteady, uncertain. To go by a number of recent pieces, American sports journalism wishes to fix football and steady the ground of loss. There is a longing for happy endings: an ending that is happy for the winner, but also less painful for the loser. Football, as it is now, the story goes, is unfair: it has rules, but too many exceptions to those rules.

It is easy to see what could be gained if football became more fair. Video replay could guarantee the accuracy of every call. Added time could be precise to the second. Penalty kicks could be given only for clear denials of scoring chances. Pitches could be made smaller to guarantee more goals and reward the enterprise of teams. These suggestions have all been made, in seriousness, by American sports writers in the past few weeks.

But what might be lost in this micro-managed new world? What if football, like a peak predator, is already perfectly adapted to its environment? Or, if not perfectly adapted, at least evolving at a rate congruent with its enormous audience’s needs? So: no. Let’s not rid the game of its vital strengths: the sense that anything is possible, the joy in getting away with an unlikely victory, the perverse joy in having been robbed (the intensity of a loser’s feelings, an intensity that, as in life, convinces you that you lost through no fault of your own, that you lost because arbitrary forces were involved). Few native speakers of this game would wish to lose the organic narrative that emerges out of its randomness, the way a good novel might gather seemingly unrelated facts and incidents into an emotional peak. If football’s “flaws” were as intolerable as American writers would have us believe, it would neither be the world’s biggest sport nor one of its biggest forms of cultural expression.

Nigeria’s 1996 Olympic Champion football squad.

The contrary is true: it’s the messiness, the subjectivity, the imprecision that are the sources of the stories that are told years later: “Oh we would have won that game if not for.” And how precious and irreplaceable such stories are. Rules are needed, and they are applied most times. That’s enough. Too rigid an apparatus of justice would deny football fans of the feelings of justification that come with perceived injustice. You would have lost simply because you were no good, and that’s a far lonelier way to lose.

In the early years of the Danish film industry, different versions of the same film were sometimes made, depending on its export destination. The films sent to Russia were edited to end in tragedy, but a film with a happy conclusion was said to have an American ending.

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