Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
a webzine of new and unpublished work

The Phenomenology of Ball Games

Rugby is to soccer what Anarchism is to Marxism. Marxism is all head (ideology) and feet (marches of history, and March 1871, the Paris Commune’s ‘all for one and one for all’) and no hands. While Anarchism is full bodied passion, dangerous to know. But, when given the chance, settles down into the pastoral where harmony based on mutual understanding and tolerance minds the sheep. Anarchism is joyous, looking out rather than in, unlike Marxism which is in a constant state of self-examination. Show-trials are the penal outcome as in soccer when a penalty is awarded the ref’s withering crooked finger is pointed at the offending side. Punishment makes its world go round. In rugby the finger is flourished towards the winner, a just reward.

My Anarchist’/Marxist analogy, I know, is a game, a mind one. But one justifying factor stands out. Marxism lends itself to standardization internationally (which is why it won the great ideological battle between then in the second half of the 19th century). Anarchism defines itself within self-contained, communities. Soccer is a world game. Rugby is limited to ex-British colonies, where Webb-Ellis’s ‘run with the ball’ sport’s culture freed schoolboys to break the received rules, a Light Brigade charge form of football.    

My mother decreed that soccer was how British squaddies passed the time in garrisons, between  massacres. It was forbidden to play, though I wasn’t tempted. Nevertheless my father, who fought the Black and Tans, said I should go to a game and judge for myself. In Cork we didn’t have much of a team locally, and television required visiting a family that  showed English matches in black and white and he wouldn’t have approved.   

When I moved to Wembley in England I consulted Shocker, my all-knowing college half French friend and main source of intelligent conversation (his not mine). He told me that soccer is a game that could be played with a Turing Machine (a robot devised to the break wartime codes without understanding how one got there). ‘The decyphering was to anticipate the result, after ninety minutes play often a nil nil draw.’ Shocker added with a wicked smile, ‘Goal scoring at best was the painfully delayed outcome of constipated peristalsis. It’s no accident of baptism that the current number one player in the world is a Brazilian called Kaka (merde in French)’. 

I went to a few professional matches and it seemed to me the lowest common denominator of time-wasting. Shocker had called a scoreless draw a fini fanny en berne (French for the OO bottom at half-mast of the fat lady in seaside postcards). Mistakes seemed to be made all the time, and when punished by free kicks it was belted wide or over the bar. There is something deadly predictable about a round ball. An oval one lends itself to the unexpected. I was not fortunate enough to see a great player like Eric Cantona until years later. The boredom made him do astonishing things, that refs didn’t understand and whistled him. When I went to Brazil and discovered lack of facilities and equipment redeemed the game. Poor boys got on with playing on beaches and forest clearings, fabricating handmade alternatives when leather balls were not affordable. The purpose of the sport was better understood than the rules. Cantona knew that. He was brought up in cave dwelling on a Catalan mountain. Football came down from pre-Columbian times, before the International Football Association existed. And it wasn’t just fun.  

Teddy Roosevelt in came across a footballing tribe in the Amazon (Through the Brazilian Wilderness, 1914). The same Nhambiquara chronicled by Rochette Pinto a few years later and that Levi-Strauss studied just before they went extinct in the 1940s. Amiable people who pilfered shamelessly and could turn nasty with strangers without apparent reason. Nasty meant they would kill you. The ball, a rubber-coated coco-nut, was headed between teams. Players seemed to Roosevelt to be able to play for days without the ball touching the ground. He learned that the sport had been with the Nhambis as far back as the elders could remember. Pre-history was Rochette Pinto’s opinion. Albert Camus, as a goalkeeper for Algeria, could mock his teammates as morons with abbreviated career because of brain-damage due to headers. He was wrong. The Nhambis maintained the exercise hardened the poll into a helmet to protect them in battle.

The improvised Brazilian game for boys is available to the poor everywhere. You can see the same anarchic skills in the back alleys from Dundee to Outer Mongolia, from Bali to the outskirts of Paris. In my lifetime the gulf in professional prowess between the sharks of established countries from South America to England and Germany and the minnows of Asia and African minnows has narrowed significantly. Due no doubt to the informal, improvised game (back alleys are not safe anymore in the economically advanced countries). There are bound to be more budding Diego Maradonas, Georgie Bests or Kilian Mbappes in coastal towns of Bangladesh than Belfast (better beaches). Beach and street-boys await big European club scouts to discover them. It is evidently happening in Europe but once global soccer draws more deeply from the poor everywhere the universalization of the South American unpredictable game will be complete and I will be a fan.

Though it has a long way to go. I learn that David Beckham Academy in London takes on teenagers for long weekends at three hundred and sixty-four pounds a head, and he makes five million annually from those who can afford it. The cost per pupil would keep an average village in the Third World in clean water and bread for a year. What happened to giving back something to the sport? Eric Cantona has championed beach soccer on the less prosperous West Mediterranean coast. The proles of local teams have begun to beat premier league professional ones in the French championship. Marx would be gratified. But, of course, the best players emerging will be snapped up into the money game. And it will be less what Eric has in mind. The heads will go soft.      


The anarchism of rugby makes it a game whose character reflects the community more than, say, soccer. But the indigenous is not cosily conservative.. A good team is in a constant state of family quarrels, and plays on the edge of breaking up with  the friction which keeps the flame of competition burning. But the arrival of strangers who aclimatise can broker the infighting. This has happpend in Ireland  in recent years and has made it the second best team in the world. For example, Hansen, Aki and Gibson-Park have become more Irish than the Irish themselves.   

The only European country that won a rugby World Cup was England and it was with  a plodding power game derived from army camp training. The Southern hemisphere learned to integrate neigbours to bring new life into staid insolarity. The South Sea islands most notably. South Africa has assimulated black players into what was once an exclusive all-white Boer sport. And it has brought them two World Cups with Boer forwards backed by forward flair. Rugby there is is politics and war rolled into a secular religion that unites a country struggling with its apartite past .  

The global standardization of rugby won’t happen unless Union becomes less and less itself and mutates into Rugby 7s like cricket when it went one-day and rugby League, a much-reduced game. So far, the integration of migrants has intensified the local culture by teaching it new tricks. It has been a triumph of multiculturalism particularly in countries with a history of emigration like Ireland and Scotland. The return of those with native family origins simplifies the integration and opportunities with the national team, but it doesn’t exclude those who don’t. Ireland has been prone to foreign invasions since time immemorial, and each has contributed richly to Irish culture from the Normans to the English and Scots. Rugby includes Ulster in its international team and Orangemen are as passionately pro Ireland as southerners.  It doesn’t happen with soccer to its detriment. Interest in football is primarily with the English League. In fact, a united Ireland has uniquely been achieved by making it a four-province sport.

In conclusion, rugby though open to outsiders looks inwards and the turf it’s played on (mostly muddy) is the arena. Soccer spreads itself thin on worldwide artificial surfaces and has become a global Capitalist phenomenon with more money involved that is good for it. The danger remains that rules will be changed to make rugby more attractive to consumers. This is being broached cautiously as yet. Love of the game not money still reigns. For how long, o Lord, remains to be seen but it will last if coaches and players regard winning as part of fun and games. A Spanish coach of a nameless English league team said his motivation was not to win but to see others lose. That is where sport ends and wars begin.              

PS: Rugby 7s has become an Olympic sport. So far 7s has been sidelined into matches played in non-rugby countries, a version of sports-cleansing. However, as one-day cricket superseded in popularity the five-day game, this is a possibility. That is, if rugby clubs make it a priority. As yet this remains unlikely. 15 into 7 won’t go.