The Big Question: Patrick Barclay argues that football, which has conquered the world, is the most "morally interesting" sport

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine July/August 2012

Football—aka soccer—began to benefit from organisation in 1863, when a man named Ebenezer Morley collated rules in his home overlooking the stretch of the Thames on which the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge was already an annual fixture. The game took the best part of a century to conquer the world, and then along came satellite television, which has extended football’s rule to almost every corner while increasing its intensity. The World Cup is said to engage more people than the Olympic Games or any other event. If you walk into a village in Africa, you will see a child in a Barcelona or Real Madrid shirt.

Football is universal in every way. Unlike basketball or weightlifting, it can be played to a high standard by people of every shape and size. It appeals to both sexes (notably in the United States) and does not rely, like golf or tennis or equestrianism or most other sports, on pricey equipment or particular terrain. A scrap of wasteland and a ball fashioned from rags will do; with these basics, any child can aspire to the artistry of Lionel Messi. This is not romantic twaddle but the actual origin of some great players of the past, including the supreme figure of Pelé.

If boxing, say, can rival football for simplicity, football has the obvious superiority of not being essentially violent. Its beauty is summed up by a small man evading, even mastering, those who would try to impose their cynical power on him. If you watch sequences of Diego Maradona in action (search for “Diego Maradona Ultimate Best of—Part 1” and be patient), you see the ultimate victory of skill over force.

Though meritocratic, football can be very cruel because scoring is low and margins narrow. Google “Champions League final 1999” and share the explosive joy of 50,000 people as their team—which has played poorly and is losing deservedly after 90 minutes (Manchester United)—scores twice in the short time allowed for stoppages to overcome a team that has played well (Bayern Munich). One of United’s players, Gary Neville, found the mot juste: “supernatural”. Note the Bayern players. Several are prone, lifeless, as if downed by arrows of fate. One of the most experienced, Stefan Effenberg, was reluctant even to talk about it five years later.

Being the fairest and unfairest of all games helps to make football the most morally interesting. It does not make it the most admirable, and the passions it has unleashed have led to, among other tragedies, the crushing to death of 39 supporters before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus in 1985. That the greatest game, like most great civilisations, has blood on its hands may diminish its pride, but not its scale and scope. It is the game that has everything.

What do you think is the best sport? Have your say by voting in our online poll.
Read Tanya Aldred on athletics, Samantha Weinberg on equestrianism, Dan Rosenheck on baseball and Sambit Bal on cricket

Patrick Barclay is the football columnist on the London Evening Standard and author of a biography of Sir Alex Ferguson, "Football—Bloody Hell!"

Photograph Michael James O'Brien