Sunday, 13 June 2010

It’s a numbers game

Of football feats and festive feasts: We Maltese divide ourselves in joy and non-joy according to what others go through and the World Cup gives us the opportunity for outrageous fun at other’s expense. A football commentary by Victor I Xuereb

Whether you like football or not, in pubs, schools, exam halls or during foreplay all the talk will be about the playing of football. And the ultimate joy is in winning the coveted World Cup. All that lovely wording about the joy being in participating is a load of crap.

It is all done in the name of a ball and it’s done all over the world. Even if only 32 countries take part, the whole world is mobilised. All discussions of heat waves or climate change are stopped; wars lose their urgency and the eternal squabbling about our power station cools down for a month of feuding football. The perennial discussion of whether the government party won the game of who voted yes and who voted no and whose goal was disallowed or allowed gets taken over by what England did and what Italy didn’t do. The whole world talks about the World Cup, while here in Malta the only thing that interests us is the progress, or lack, of Italy and England. The rest is rubbish.

What’s interesting from a Maltese perspective is that we do things so differently. Well we are a rock of an island and we are small enough to be dispensed with by most cartographers. When I was young and the Internet, Google maps and such were still unheard of sci-fi stuff, I always prayed when looking at maps or atlases that Malta would feature. Alas, it hardly did or did so with a tiny dot. But even if it was a dot I was ecstatic. I shouted with glee: we actually exist. Atlases have been taken over by Google and other inventions but we are still a tiny dot and our football prowess has not advanced and that is why we just love other countries’ football so religiously. And we still have our dottiness in the way we look at things.

Go over to Italy and the way they look at football. When their country plays football all Italy stops, or practically the whole of Italy. When the Italian team plays, all Italians unite as one: they shout at the ref for robbing them of victory if they lose and they all bemoan their iella or bad fortune. No Italian rejoices when Italy loses even if they knew the footballers chosen were old, over the top, close to useless and surely were meant to lose. They might pelt them with tomatoes, but they all cry that the best team in the world was robbed of victory. And no one honks his horn in celebratory madness. They all take a double doze of camomile, get into bed early and hope to doze off till the next World Cup. If Italy wins, they all rejoice and they all go out to celebrate their victory in real style with horns, firecrackers and flags. Whatever the outcome, all Italy unites in frenzied victory or in camomile-infused sleepish sheepish failure.

What do we do here on the rock of Malta? Our natives rave loony whatever happens. We rock so much that we are completely unlike the natives of England and Italy who are the two most followed sides in Malta. If Italy wins, half of Malta’s is out in the streets celebrating, honking and making merry till the next World Cup. If Honduras beats Italy, all Malta will seem to have been taken over by a Honduran majority. Flags of Honduras, blurred photos of dark skinned footballers and chants of “Honduras rock” will reverberate all over the island.

So see why we are different on this rock? All England wails when they lose; all Italy wails when whacked by Honduras. We divide ourselves in joy and non-joy according to what others go through. Look at our feasts. Imagine there is a village with two churches and two patron saints: one dedicated to St Peter, the other to St George. Hopefully, I am not straying close to slandering anyone or any town. I know not of any village or town or city in Malta where these two saints are revered in the same place. If there is I beg whosoever’s pardon beforehand and I will accept my punishment at the pillory with Christian fortitude.

If the said village had Peter and George as their patron saints I would accept that the rivalry in that village was acceptable. Maybe not too religious and definitely with not much finesse, but our revelry and our real character are hardly the epitome of finesse and style.

We like our fun outrageous; we like our victories swamped in glory and pomp. We are hardly the gentle losers the Brits wanted us to be; we wallow in pain and sorrow when we lose and we wallow in gloating glee when we beat anyone. Especially in football. We are great louts and although on the whole we are not at all violent we do rub the proverbial salt deep into the losers’ wounds. And this is also true of our feasts. We are happy that our murtali (fireworks) are the loudest, happy that we have the best band this side of Dixie and we definitely feel our street decorations are tops. We also love our good saint who sits or stands in awe of all this adulation of him and in his revered memory. But the real fun is in the thinking that our St Peter is better looking than St George, that the St Peter murtali are more deafening, that the St Peter band outplays the St George’s one by a few dozen decibels. Oh yes it is the gloating side of it that gives us our best feeling of fun.

Now I might agree that this makes some celestial sense. It could easily be that in heaven Saints Peter and George are rivals. Maybe St Peter, being top man and holding the keys, has the keys to heaven’s stables too. But what hits me hard is the fact that some rivalries are made up of two Our Ladies, both representations of the self-same mother of God. The festa fanatics also fight about whose features are better depicted and whose church is best.

Which brings me back to The Cup. After a load of games and after a load of sufferings and cat calls and misses and bliss, The Cup is won by one team, one country, one group of men. Because they win The Cup these men are hailed for the next four years as kings of the world.

For a month there is discussion in every nook and cranny of the planet; sufis in India and Trappist monks are known to have changed their lifestyle for that month. Sufis eat all they see and Trappists open their trap and talk endlessly about goals scored and open goals missed. Talk is all about the refs who should be shot and shots that were so close that it is still discussed whether they did in fact go in and the ref, the 4th and 5th official and most of the world were soundly asleep and missed the goal. Players are abused, players are glorified and stadia are flocked to like cathedrals in medieval times.

There lies, the modern football pilgrims say, a stadium and in this stadium our team will play. When they deliver, the players are deified and glorified and paid homage. But once the gods don’t deliver the coveted cup, the worshippers go berserk and vilify those same gods. Yes, if religion is the opium of the people, football is their pot that drives normal sensible men, women and children wild and potty. So as with everything we do here in Malta we go wild in style; whether it is politics, feasts, viewing the Eurovision song contest or football, we do it with incredible style and gusto. We sure rock.

This article first appeared in the Malta Independent on Sunday June 13 2010

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