The turbulent build-up to the World Cup in Brazil should have served as decisive proof that sport and politics are not exclusive commodities. Sometimes, of course, they collide in a positive way – such as Jesse Owens’ triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Sometimes the political issues at hand are too weighted and complex to start passing simplistic judgement. Add to that the fact that there is no small pressure on Brazil to win the tournament as if to somehow (already) redeem the tournament itself after no shortage of stories about far-from-perfect facilities and stadia.
That said, one place where the pre-World Cup atmosphere isn’t impossibly tense and weighted with expectation (thus far) is England. I say this not out of parochialism but out of a sense that in just about every major tournament finals that they have reached since 1990, England (both the football team and the country) has been smothered under an onslaught of press attention and public interest in the team’s prospects often disproportionate to the team’s capacity for actually winning the trophy in which they are playing.
I certainly wouldn’t embrace a tone of aloof disdain in saying that; I am as culpable as anyone of wanting England to do their best in international competition, and that desire just won’t go away. As many a long-time England supporter might testify, it’s a desire that manages to combine elements of the jaded, the self-deprecating and the downright bloody defiant.
Funnily enough, however, there seems to be a relatively relaxed feel to the World Cup build-up this time around, and a consensus among many that England would do well to get out of a group with Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica in it. Anything beyond that would be an extremely pleasurable bonus.
Sport and politics go hand-in-hand. Sport and patriotism may have dissolved into one another a long time ago; parting them might be like trying to part the Red Sea. And yet the (I repeat, relatively) low-key expectations of England this time serve as a reminder to us at Worldly Scandifriend that sport can provide innocent and simple pleasures. In this sense, it has been difficult not to think in turn in recent days of one of the best-ever world cinema movies about innocent and simple pleasures, the 1985 Swedish film My Life As A Dog, directed by Lasse Hallström.
It tells the tale of a pre-teen boy Ingemar, separated from his brother and terminally ill mother and sent to live with his quirky yet endearing maternal uncle Gunnar and his family in rural Småland in the late 1950s. Feisty, athletically capable, a little socially awkward and yet difficult to dislike, Ingemar is drawn to local tomboy Saga (who could be described in exactly the same fashion).
Instead of sport and politics or sport and tense expectation, we get the refreshing spectacle of sport and burgeoning young love – as seen in the scene where Saga and Ingemar, both skilled boxers, find a clinch during a sparring session turning into a fond embrace (just before they are found out by their adolescent companions). It’s a little like Bill Forsyth’s romantic comedy Gregory’s Girl four years previously but with the twist that, this time, both protagonists are proficient in a sporting sense and have to contend with amourousness intruding into their rivalry (or vice versa).
The unsullied and unpretentious nature of Ingemar and Saga’s friendship (when Saga gets jealous of another girl vying for Ingemar’s attentions, she decides that the best way of holding Ingemar to account is in the boxing ring) creates an unforced feel-good vibe that spills over into the scenes recounting two genuine moments in Sweden’s sporting history, indeed two of the greatest moments in terms of achievement.
First we see the inhabitants of Gunnar’s village cheering to the rafters as Sweden, the hosts in the 1958 World Cup, make their way to the final. It perceptively makes the point that the locals have a simple but contented life but that anything else beyond that that unites the community (and indeed the country) further exemplifies why life is worth living (rather than sport being the difference betwen happiness and despair itself). Then, in a moment of pronounced and perceptive sweetness, the film concludes with the village once more erupting to the sound of the radio broadcasting Ingemar Johansson’s defeat of Floyd Patterson to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
I say pronounced and perceptive sweetness because the closing shot of the film reminds us that sport isn’t everything in life (no decisive spoilers here). It reminds us that sport can be both an innocent pleasure and serve as the backdrop to, or as part of a collage of, innocent pleasures and reconciliations that take place all the time. One can only tentatively hope that the same unalloyed positivity might surface (without mawkishness or forced jollity) in the course of the forthcoming World Cup.