Surely it cannot be true that men have football instead of emotions? --Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.As an academic with an inquiring mind, I find myself interested in a great many things. There are very few things which I have no interest in whatsoever, but field sports is one of them. One of the earliest things which I realised marked me out from among the "normal" boys was my complete disinterest in football. (For the avoidance of doubt, the football I mean here is soccer).
Where I grew up, football was ingrained. Knowledge, understanding and appreciation of football was essential for peer acceptance. I possessed none of those.
While I found it easy to learn the binomial nomenclature of living things, I found it impossible to learn anything about football. Conversely, boys in my class who struggled with the simplest of arithmetic and grammar knew seemingly everything about football: all the names of all the players in all the teams. And the peripheral information too: the managers, the grounds, the histories. Who beat whom in the semifinals in 1982, and what the score was.
Of course, I played football at school. The alternative was complete isolation, which was worse. But lacking any enthusiasm for the game, I was basically rubbish at it (yes, I was always the last kid picked for the team). I still don't understand the offside rule. As soon as reasonably possible, I gave up football completely.
I laughed out loud when I read this extract from the wonderful book, Long Way Round, written by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman. In 2004, they made a trip round the world on motorbikes, telling everyone they were going from London to New York, "the long way round". I saw a new side to Ewan McGregor which I found I really admired, and I found myself deeply moved at many of the situations they found themselves in. I often wish I could do something similar.
In this extract, Ewan and Charlie have just been stopped by the police at a border:
"Are you German?" one of the policeman said.I've had similar conversations with other men my whole life, in which I attempt to feign knowledge or interest in this most uninteresting subject.
"No, British. He's English and I'm Scottish", I said, pointing to the flags on our helmets.
"Arsenal!" the policeman exclaimed.
Not a football fan, I nevertheless realised that I should play along. After all, Jamie [their security advisor] had told us there were two English words that were understood the world over: fuck and Beckham.
"Yeah, Arsenal," I said, smiling and trying to look enthusiastic about a team of which I knew nothing.
"Chelsea!" the policeman said. I racked my brain. I knew Chelsea had recently played a team from somewhere in Europe.
"Three-one," the policeman said. "Monaco three. Chelsea one."
I was lost. Football, the male lingua franca, and I couldn't speak a word.
My problems are not limited to football, but also rugby, which was played at my secondary school in preference to soccer. Football, they say, is a game for gentlemen, but played by hooligans. Rugby is a game for hooligans, played by gentlemen. Either of those sayings may be true in some circumstances. From my perspective, both seem to be games for hooligans, played by hooligans.
New Zealand is a wonderful country in all respects: outstanding scenery, amazing food and wine, delightful people, and a welcoming, egalitarian society which made me feel instantly at home. I have spent several years there. The national game of NZ is rugby, and the national team is the All Blacks, who won the most recent Rugby World Cup in 2011.
As a student, I knew very little about New Zealand. My girlfriend of the time had been to many more rugby matches than I had, and one day told me about the haka. I had never heard of it. It was, she said, a war dance performed by the All Blacks before their international fixtures. A way of intimidating the opposition, it sounded ridiculous and comical: surely something to provoke amusement rather than intimidation.
It took some years before I eventually witnessed a haka. My jaw dropped. Take a look:
This is very similar to the haka which I first saw. In fact, on YouTube there are dozens of clips to choose from. Even the All Blacks' haka is not a concrete thing, but there are different versions which are performed from time to time.
Clearly it is a Maori war dance. The All Blacks have been doing a haka for over a century, so it's not a new thing. In fact, other island nations have similar intimidating dances which they perform before their games. The history and the translation can be easily found on Wikipedia.
But if you knew nothing of any of this, you would just need to watch it. The haka speaks clearly on a level which transcends all language, culture and geographical boundaries. It is the language of the midbrain, the language of pure testosterone-drenched aggression. Fifteen or so of the toughest, strongest and most powerful players in the world line up, roar, stomp, slap themselves and glare at you with expressions of pure hostility. It looks like rage. It looks like violence. It looks like pain. And it is doesn't contain any of these things!
When I first saw it, I thought it was one of the most thrilling and frightening displays I had ever seen. It still makes me want to run away and hide. I surrender! The reason I find it so powerful is that I know that I would have no meaningful answer to it whatsoever: no threat or physicality to offer in return; this is not true of the opposing team, who are also fifteen or so of the toughest players in the world.
I think the haka is an astonishing thing. I totally get it: I understand its popularity, its longevity, and its widespread imitation. I feel quite strongly, however, that it is unfair for the All Blacks to have the psychological advantage of performing the haka, but according to official rules the other team is not permitted to perform any act of defiance or retribution.
When looking for a pinnacle of masculinity, the haka must be pretty close to it. As someone who is not aggressive or traditionally masculine in any way, even I adore it.
How does one respond to this level of masculinity? You can't fight fire with fire, but you can fight it with another masculine gesture, and a dash of wit: