As I’m writing this, news just spread from America that two black men were gunned down by the police in an act of racism and unjustified violence. A few days ago, gunmen tried to bomb a large gathering of people celebrating the Muslim Eid holiday in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Before that, there were Orlando, Istanbul, and Brussels. The list goes on and on. Just a few weeks ago, the sense of xenophobia in Britain hits an all-time high after the Brexit verdict. Friends of mine, one a Londoner of Bangladeshi descent and another a Polish immigrant, say they no longer feel safe or welcome in their own city.
Now, as football fans, we are left to wonder if 22 men kicking a ball around on a pitch really amounts to anything. The answer is, of course, it doesn’t. Not at all.
I have never set foot in Wales, but I watched the Welsh football team play for the first time in the Andorra match on that god-awful 3G pitch. Being the glory hunter that I am, I have not suffered for years like countless Welsh fans have done. I started following Wales for entirely selfish reasons. My club team (Liverpool) were languishing in mid-table, our near misses no longer feel like progress but despair, and I desperately wanted to enjoy football again. On that day, the Welsh team left Andorra with a narrow and hard-fought victory. Almost two years later, they departed France as Euro semi-finalists, having captured the imagination of the continent.
From then till now, Wales have made me feel more hopeful with the state of the world than the words of countless politicians. Strange, really, that we can find such harmony and sense of pride from 11 millionaire lads in red who just run like hell for 90 minutes.
Viewing a football team’s victory as a moral triumph is a problematic concept in and of itself. Can Leicester’s Premier League title win be seen as a moral victory when they have Jamie Vardy, who once threw a racist remark at an Asian man, leading the line? Are Lionel Messi’s victories sweeter than Cristiano Ronaldo’s, only because the latter is seen as the embodiment of narcissistic perfectionism?
We hunger for such narratives, trying desperately to attach an emotional element to the game. Football fans fancy ourselves to be cynics; we are football managers, club directors, top pundits and expert scouts in disguise. Maybe there is no such thing as a “moral victory” in football, but I like to believe that we chase for a deeper meaning in the sports we love because we are ultimately romantics. Perhaps that is why there are still “heroes” on the pitch, “moments of magic”, or people tearing up when a game is over. Maybe deep down, it is because we still hope for goodness to win out, especially when days are bleakest.
So thank you, Wales, for losing but winning. Sometimes, the bad comes with the good, but you have made sure that the good still matters, and that the bad can’t entirely diminish it. This is, despite everything that has happened, an encouraging thought.