Learning Soccer in Nigeria: Reflections, Prompted by the World Cup, on the Beauty and the Morality of Sports

I learned my soccer in Nigeria, at St. Gregory’s, the school I attended in Lagos in the 1970s. I remember one game in particular in which I scored from a half-back position, bursting uncharacteristically through opposing defensive lines to score a goal. It was an exhilarating moment of pure physical exertion. As the teams trudged back to their respective halves for kick-off, a rival player ran up and demanded, “What? You’re scoring nuclear goals now?” It was only after the game that I found out India had detonated an atomic device at Pokhran, thereby announcing its nuclear ambitions to the world. My Nigerian schoolmate, clearly more aware of world news, was alluding to this event in his irate challenge to me.

I confess I later, oblivious to the immorality of nuclear weaponization, swelled with pride at this acknowledgement of my prowess on the field. I was a postcolonial Indian boy in postcolonial Nigeria, not at all a simple thing to be, united with as well as separated from my Nigerian schoolmate in myriad ways by a global colonial history (subject for a future blog). Let us just say that the encounter on that Nigerian soccer field was overdetermined.

By now, you might be thinking I want to draw conclusions about sports and geopolitics but, no, this is a blog that heads in another direction. We know the intimate links sports has with identity—the ways in which, for example, nationalistic decolonizing movements were and are intertwined with sports. Global sports events, such as the cricket or soccer world cups, can hardly be free of these entanglements—indeed, they might very well be primary modes of establishing and advancing identitarian claims.

We know all this. As the soccer world cup in Brazil concludes, as a fan I want to ask rather about the converse—about what might be called the aesthetics of sports. What does it take to isolate the utter beauty of a great sporting event from its political connotations? What does it take to isolate my enjoyment of my own humble goal decades ago on a soccer field in Lagos from the postcolonial context in which it was scored? And what form might a defense of such aesthetic value take? Students of literary criticism will recognize the familiarity of these questions.

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