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The Gnostic World Cup

Stephen Smith's last contrinution to Webdiary was The Carleton Blues.

by Stephen Smith

The Zidane moment in the World Cup Final turned ‘black and white’ in its focus on racial abuse and retaliation. But little comment has followed on ‘light’ and ‘dark’ as we might describe a duality that exists under the skin. Ironically, in a Cup plagued by simulation (‘diving’) it was the simulation - repeated images of Zizou’s head butt - that most exposed his fall from genius to villain; and from icon to outcast. A flash of anger was all it took to accomplish this reversal.

In contrast to the gladiatorial tone of sport, popular culture has often explored such character flaws by way of Gnostic themes. From Buffy to The Matrix this theme seeks to reconcile our inner being with the outer world of threat and hostility. As the Russian film Night Watch proclaims:

"It is easier for a man to destroy the light inside himself than to defeat the darkness around him. "

Lucas Neill’s cruel penalty that ended the Socceroos’ dream run in the World Cup was not an out of the blue event. It hints at a duality at the heart of the ‘world game’. Here we see the spirit of joga bonito - the ‘beautiful game’ - set against spoiling and malevolent elements. Not just in the code itself but of life, struggle and the human condition. It is here we can draw a comparison between football and Gnosticism.

Gnostic dualism posits co-equal forces of Light and Darkness. The Gnostic goal is to distill Good from Evil, Light from Darkness, Spirit from Matter. And so we would love to "expunge man from the world in order to see it in its original purity". [1]

In Gnostic terms, the essence of football is what fans refer to as the ‘beautiful game’. It is the purity we may only glimpse (as in Italy’s late, late goals in the semi-final) but constantly seek to distill from the contest. At the same time the players who represent its every move and strategy also embody its weakness and frailty. (How we would often love to ‘expunge’ them from the field!)

The very concept of duality implies that a reversal may also take effect. One remarkable feature of this World Cup is how through the media lens we see a reversal effect whereby each cliché about faults of the ‘world game’ is turned on its head to become its strength. Critics would once complain that soccer is boring and does not have enough goals. Against this football fans have long believed in the merits of skill, tension and suspense (that ‘joga bonito’ again). As ‘referee’ the media has resolved the matter once and for all. With TV’s hunger for the thirty-second grab it seeks out the ultimate moment. The agony and the ecstasy. The Socceroos heroic ride captured both. Not just on the field but also in green and gold support in the roller coaster of crowd emotions. Thus if there are fewer goals it only heightens the feeling and makes it possible to capture the defining moment.

In the UK, legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said:

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Shankly was referring to the role of football in the lives of ordinary people. It is a theme taken up by Ignacio Ramonet in his piece in Le Monde diplomatique. He sees football as a metaphor for the human condition. It shows "the uncertain status of the individual and the group, the hazards of chance and destiny. It prompts reflection on the role of the individual and of the team, and debate about faking, cheating, arbitrary decisions and injustice."

Gasp! Remind you of the Socceroos vs Italy? Those last three seconds …

At the highest levels - the FIFA World Cup, Olympics, and Tour de France – sport can be boiled down to a duality of good and evil. It is a clash of material greed, weakness and corruption vs the spirit of fair play, heroics and pride. Nowhere is this more apparent than football with its universal appeal. A type of Gnostic dualism is at play as fate runs its course through the contest from the opening whistle to what can be the devastating last three seconds.

What we can learn from football is that the mix of Light and Dark is inseparable. Just as the match itself is impossible without the light and dark strips of the two sides. As we have shown, football is the closest sport gets to a metaphor for life. There is also an association with the other ‘world game’ - global politics. We need to reject Neocon ideologies such as the ‘war on terror’ that promote a polarity between the forces of good and evil. The Bush regime is wrong to assume that Evil will eventually be vanquished by the forces of Good. In truth, it is the eternal struggle of these elements and the balance between them that decides our fate. Like our love of the ‘beautiful game’, to come to know a beautiful life we must deal with its opposites. It is a conflict we need to resolve within ourselves – not externalize as a struggle of ‘us against them’.


[1] Hans Jonas. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity (2nd Ed). Boston: Beacon Press, 1963:233-234; the quote is from: Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1996: 38.

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