shankly“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Bill Shankly Manager Liverpool Football Club 1959-1974.

Humanity has its universal languages, understood and appreciated all around the world – music, art, science and sport are conversation starters everywhere.

In work and life, I never cease to be amazed that wherever you are, in whatever circumstances, you can almost always get a conversation going with one of these universal languages.

Of course not everyone spontaneously ignites with the scientific method. And some people don’t much ‘do’ the arts – I didn’t; until my forties. There are horses for different courses. But as a man, the safest conversation starter of them all is, invariably, sport.

The global gold standard is football or soccer Stateside. For the countries with historic connections to the UK, cricket is worth a run out. Golf chips in the only occasion Europe cheers for itself (the Ryder cup). Stereotypically, tennis is a bit more feminine. My other half still fulminates at the blatant sexism at her work, of them putting Wimbledon on against World Cup football on a small canteen TV – ‘for the ladies’.

And when it comes to nations, different countries have different traditions. I learnt a few years back that Iran and Bulgaria share a deep love of wrestling and weightlifting, along with the red, white and green of their flags: the reasons lost in the mists of antiquity.

In some countries sports are ostensibly simple, in others bound by books of rules and weighed down with lockers-full of equipment. Perhaps how you run your sports says something about how you run your country.

Remarkable then that American Football enforces an almost communist egalitarianism, with the best players drafted to the worst teams so every city gets to win – though studies have shown that is in fact a profit-maximising strategy; so perhaps it’s not so un-American after all …

But whatever the differences, every culture runs, throws things and kicks stuff – and most trade punches too.

Sport is primal, basic, essential and everywhere. And I reckon there’s a 50:50 chance you’ll find some ‘relevant complexity’ somewhere with pretty much anyone, male or female with sport. And if you throw in exercise too – you’re up in the 70-80% range.

So sport, it’s all good? Well not entirely. Let’s not forget decades of cold war competition by proxy, plus drugs, cheating, match-fixing and hooliganism. But when it’s done right, with the right values, few things bring people together better than comparing notes on the great sporting moments; and on teams and players we love, and love to hate.

Sport is one of humanity’s great relevant complexities – but best shared in the Corinthian spirit and for all it embodies in life on the field and off it. As Bill Shankley almost said.

Required Reading (and watching)

What Sport Tells Us About Life

Ed Smith – From unbeatable averages to ethics, cheating and football’s most famous headbut – all of life is here.

Fire in Babylon [DVD] [2010]

How the West Indies came to rule the world with pace, pride and unmatched cricketing prowess.

When We Were Kings [DVD] [1997]

The incredible tale of Ali vs Foreman in Zaire, lays bare both the mortality and immortality of the greatest sporting heroes.

For more, follow this blog, in the menu to the right and add your own recommendations via ‘comments’ below.

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