Things aren’t going well for United
A few days before the start of last year’s World Cup, the market research group Nielsen released a report on the consumption habits of football’s audience, the social media presence of star players and the value of team and individual sponsorships.
To the surprise of no-one, the sport remains the most popular across the globe, with more than 40 per cent of people considering themselves fans. A majority of the population in 19 countries expresses an interest in football, and although the United States and China are not among them, data suggest this could change as youth participation rises, Major League Soccer cultivates its following, the Hispanic population in the US grows and consumers continue buying and playing the FIFA video game.
Football is also the most popular sport among women, with 70 per cent saying they find the men’s World Cup “very appealing”. The women’s World Cup, which draws the attention of about three of every five women, is underway in France, with the US team having entered as defending champions for the third time.
Football is a simple game with simple rules and simple equipment. This, the theory goes, is what allows it to transcend cultures, borders and languages. From the slums outside Mexico City to the barren hills of Kazakhstan, football persists in spite of what those who play it may lack.
Pelé, the revered Brazilian player often cited as the sport’s greatest, popularised the term ‘the beautiful game.’ Its beauty, it is said, is derived from its simplicity.
But what aesthetic appeal football possesses is limited in that the use of one’s hands is not required. Granted, when players make throw-ins or hand-check for position their upper extremities do come into play. The same is of course true with goalkeepers.
Yet as a whole the driving element of the game forbids the use of one’s fingers, thumbs, knuckles, palms, wrists, forearms, biceps, triceps and shoulders and thereby the many combinations of movement possible with them. As a result, it restricts the skills each player can master to make the sport’s sole means of scoring – putting the ball in the goal – that much easier, leaving such an achievement deserving of only tempered praise.
With this in mind, it is discouraging how the sport most admired by the world’s seven and a half billion people renders useless the fine dexterous abilities that incorporate a fundamental part of the evolution of the human body.
It has been suggested that the catalyst of the human hand’s adaptation was the ape-like precursors to our species developing an upright gait, freeing their forelimbs to throw objects and wield clubs at adversaries, to protect themselves from predators, to hunt prey and to make and use tools for a variety of needs. Those who honed these tactics became more likely to reproduce, causing natural selection to gradually shape the hand so that the acts of grasping, throwing and clubbing became easier, thereby improving their odds of survival.
There are two fundamental handgrips at work here: the precision grip and the power grip. First identified in 1956 by British paleoanthropologist and physician JR Napier, the former is used when precise movement is the dominant requirement, like tossing a ping pong ball into a cup. The latter is used when the application of force is paramount, like hammering a nail.
Over time the human hand changed to execute these two distinct movements with relative ease. Whereas a chimpanzee’s thumb is short and weak, causing the hand to lose its grip when the arm moves forward, the opposable human thumb is longer and stronger, allowing a secure grasp during impact (for a power grip action) and release (for a precision grip action). Human wrist movements, accordingly, also became more refined, with extension and flexion occurring while throwing and radial and ulnar deviation during clubbing.
It makes sense, then, that grip strength was not only tremendously important from an evolutionary perspective but is still regarded as a reliable indicator of overall health and wellbeing. While a strong grip during some post-operative rehabilitation therapies may show proficient physical fitness, for instance, a weak grip may be predictive of premature mortality, increased disability and greater risk of health complications and lengthier stay following hospitalisation or surgery.
Studies also suggest that it continues to factor into females’ ratings of attractiveness in males – an ancestral cue as to the desirable work that their partner can accomplish for them with an effective grip.
So in spite of all the modern world’s luxuries that for many of us have removed the necessity of mastering laborious survival skills, the potential pitfalls of having deficient hand and forearm strength are not wholly absent.
As the human hand evolved, so did the brain. “The primate visual system is ideally suited for tasks within an arm’s length and in the inferior visual field, where most manual activity takes place,” professor Matz Larsson of Sweden’s Lund University wrote in a 2013 paper. The benefits of reaching movements with the arms and fingers, he argued, effected the development of depth perception and hand-eye coordination, which are essential for any modern person to live a self-reliant life.
For athletes in particular these attributes are vital, as the use of one’s hands to throw and hold, to pull and push, and to hit and catch objects in motion is the defining aspect of many sports. In baseball, pitchers use several variations of the precision grip to throw sliders, curveballs, splitters, fastballs and knuckleballs; fielders use it to throw and to catch. Batters use the power grip from both sides of the plate and, when bunting, move one hand up the bat to form a variation of that grip.
Tennis players use the precision grip to toss the ball during their serve; the power grip can also be applied in two or three different positions on the racquet to hit forehands, backhands, volleys, overheads and serves, with the grips for some shots dependent on whether they add their non-dominant hand to the handle or if they choose to put backspin, side spin or topspin on the ball. For these reasons alone either sport would be a more suitable representative of mankind’s athletic pursuits than the current affront to human progress.
If such a designation can be made at all, those narrow flexible protrusions at the ends of one’s arms and the soft pads from which they extend must play a central role, but not solely because of their functions in any one sport. In fact artistic depictions of the hand impart a cultural symbolism that resonates with a wide audience. Michelangelo’s Creazione di Adamo doesn’t show the leg of God reaching out to Adam’s, portraits of Napoleon and other men of status from the Enlightenment through the Gilded Age don’t depict the subject’s right ankle purposely hidden from view, and illustrations of European settlers meeting New World inhabitants don’t portray the goods exchanged as balancing on each trader’s thigh.
Likewise regarding social customs. Presidents don’t place one foot on the Bible and raise the other while reciting the oath of office, wedding rings aren’t put on toes during marriage ceremonies, business deals aren’t closed by touching heels and leaving an inked impression of one’s footprint on a piece of paper.
These observations may seem trite, but there is something fundamentally human about acts of this nature and their painted, drawn or carved representations that will endure for as long as they can be preserved, so much so that an awareness of their ubiquity in life is an undemanding yet admirable trait.
Ultimately, though, this is a matter of utility. With more than 130 sign languages in existence, the hand, like the mouth, conveys meaning in varied tones. Casual gestures, formal salutes and even gang signs do the same. It is, as one authority put it several generations ago, “the most perfect and complete mechanical organ that nature has yet produced.” Such a grand statement lends credence to the aphorism that a job completed through the sustained, callous-inducing use of one’s hands constitutes noble work.
The surgeon slices, carves, fuses and binds; the artist sketches, chisels, sculpts and moulds; the chef chops, mixes, grates and pours; the mechanic screws, clamps, rotates and wraps; the lumberjack hammers, lifts, saws and carries; the fisherman winds, ties, reels and steers; the tailor scissors, sews, folds and hems and the musician pinches, presses, bends and plucks.
But the football player? Despite having an uninhibited physical potential from shoulders to fingertips that ought to instill in any person a sense of liberation and opportunity, he merely kicks – as productive and fulfilling as extracting wisdom teeth without anesthesia, drawing Miss Universe with a dull Sharpie, filleting a fresh Alaskan salmon with a rusted butter knife, removing a flat tire with an ill-fitting wrench, trimming a mighty Elm tree with a faulty safety harness, casting a line with an unconvincing lure, stitching a parted seam with a fraying thread, or playing Für Elise on a slightly out of tune grand piano.
His profession an outlier, his sport belonging to a long-gone age, the football player nevertheless draws admiration the world over.