The not-so-glorious origins of football


AS Australia’s holiest weekend of sport approaches, it’s worth recalling the not-so-glorious spiritual origins of football.

To celebrate the start of Lent, hundreds of villagers in the Middle Ages would skirmish in the streets for hours for control of a ball-shaped pig’s bladder.
The world’s oldest and maddest football game could be violent. There were only two rules _ no murder and no playing after midnight.

To the uninitiated, Aussie football can also seem a bit rough.
Canadian sportswriter Jim Murray was stunned after watching just one quarter. “What is this?’’ he said. “Is it a sport or a concussion?’’

Historian Donald Horne once said sport for Australians was life, and the rest was shadow.
Sociologists suggest our obsession with sport thrives on the illusion that the outcome matters.
The contests thrive on symbols, rituals, gods, disciples and worship songs _ there’s plenty of that in Australian sport.

We make sportsmen and women heroes, for a while anyway, in a celebration of physical achievement rather than spiritual attainment.
We often expect too much of the heroes. Many are so busy achieving their personal bests they have no time for anything else.
“The moments of victory are much too short to live for that and nothing else,’’ observed tennis champ Martina Navratilova.

Yet so many sports people fall for the myth. In 1984 more than 100 Olympians were asked if they would be prepared to die within five years in return for winning a gold medal. And 50 per cent said they would.
Theoretically, when people fail at discovering meaning in their lives they may use sports to fill this vacuum. But what is the win at all costs philosophy doing to our souls?

Author George Orwell, in his essay written in 1945, said sport had nothing to do with fair play.
“It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words, it is war minus the shooting,’’ Orwell wrote.
The world of sport can be a godless place. It can be very competitive, individualistic and elitist.

It’s true that sporting clubs often use sport as a way of teaching children about values such as fair play. But at the pointy end of Australian sport _ where the big money is _ other factors are more important than fair play.
Still, there’s something special about seeing the big spectator sports as a canvas on which natural dramas are played out. The line between victory and defeat is clear and there are no second chances. The overconfident and proud often fall and the underestimated can be victors.
Life is a lot less definite than sport. Maybe that’s why we are still so keen on gathering in our tribes to yell for a bunch of young men chasing a pig skin.


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