Alas, poor Luka, alas.

This week in North Philly North, Grant Farred writes about the unlikely connection between Jackie Robinson and Croatian footballer Luka Modrić.

Only sport can properly bring home to us the true meaning of the event. If, that is, we understand the event as a specific happening that completely changes everything. At the very least, the event as such radically alters how we see the world. Over the course of three books on sport and philosophy, of which The Burden of Over-representation, is the most recent, this is the argument I have tried to make.

In its most basic form, the event might be understood as a dramatic last minute touchdown, a penalty opportunity denied, a spectacular catch that saves a game, or, maybe it preserves a World Series win. All these are memorable occasions, ones that change our outlook on the world. Think about the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series in 2016 after more than a century of futility, or the Philadelphia Eagles upsetting the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. For a Cubbies fan, or an Eagles fan, this alters how the world works; no more “wait until next year.”

Burden of Over-rep_smIn The Burden of Over-representation, however, I concentrate on something else. Often, this book recognizes, the event turns on a singular individual, whether or not that individual accepts these terms or not. The fate of a team, for example. Or, as I argue in The Burden of Over-representation, the future of race relations in post-War America depended – or, so it seemed – on baseball’s “great experiment:” the “Negro” player Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball in April, 1947.

Not only in that moment, April 15th, 1947, but for many seasons after, every move Jackie Robinson made, on or off the field, during the season or before it (or, after it, for that matter), assumed a disproportionate importance. Jackie Robinson represented not only himself, but his entire race. What a burden Robinson bore, and how he bore it. With fierceness, with anger, with bitterness, all of which was grounded in a singular determination to win.

I was reminded of how much this notion of the burden is with us this summer, this summer of the World Cup. I was reminded of it because I watched the round of 16 games as well as the quarter-finals in Croatia. The round of 16 games in Zadar, on the Dalmatian coast, and the quarter-finals in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

In truth, the enormity of the burden born by the exceptional individual could not have been brought home more forcefully than in Zadar. For those who don’t follow football (soccer), and who don’t know the finer points about the Croatian national team, Zadar is the home of the Croatian captain, Luka Modrić. It would have been enough to know that Modrić grew up poor as a child on the outskirts of Zadar. It would have been a heartwarming tale of local boy makes good, because Modrić is now not only among the most highly regarded players in the name but he is also the captain of his national team. Football has made him a very wealthy man. It would have enough, but also much more disturbing, to have known that Modrić survived the violence of the war that wracked havoc with life in the Balkans in the 1990s. In that war, in which the old Yugoslavia fell apart, splintering into so many competing nationalisms, ethnic Serb fighting ethnic Bosnian, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbians and Bosnian Muslims at each other’s throats. Modrić’s grandfather was killed in, and by, that violence.

Now 32 years old, in what is surely his final World Cup, Modrić bears the burden Croatian over-representation. He has been a massively successful player for his club, Real Madrid, winning a number of trophies – 3 times a Champions League winner, just for starters. In their turn, the Croatians expect him to now bring a much greater glory to “Hvartska.”

Much is expected of his team-mates as well, but, when all is said and done, it is Modrić who will have to shoulder the bulk of the burden.

In the round of 16 game, with the game knotted at a goal apiece, Modrić had a chance to seal the game with a penalty late in the match against Denmark. Uncharacteristically, he seemed a little unsure of himself. He missed, his face a study in disappointment. He had let the team down. His miss might cost Croatia the chance to advance to the quarter-finals. The match went to extra-time, which yielded nothing, and then to a penalty shootout.

Up stepped Modrić, and he converted his penalty this time. Croatia went on to win.

Next up, Russia, in the quarter-finals. Again, the score was tied (1-1) at the end of regulation, and in the extra period the two sides each added a goal. 2-2. Once more the game would be decided by penalties.

Again, Modrić stroked his penalty home.

Croatia won. On Wednesday, it will play England in the semi-finals.

What struck me while watching in Zadar was how revered Modrić is, how he is being made to stand for his nation. This local boy, who is physically small but huge in stature, who has endured so much and achieved even more, he incarnates all Croatia’s (footballing) hopes, he is a bulwark against its fears. His, Modrić’s, failure, will not be his. At least not his alone. No, the entire nation will stand or fall with Luka.

He is not allowed the luxury of a mistake. The nation can’t afford it and so he must perform to perfection.

Croatia, on the football field, for what remains of Croatia’s games this World Cup, is Luka Modrić.

Surrounded by Croatians in Zadar, in Zagreb, watching the crowds in Pula on TV, I suddenly, when I least expected it, got a glimpse, one for which I was not at all prepared, into what life must have been like for Jackie Robinson.

“Football is not a matter of life or death,” the famous Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly remarked, “it is much more important than that.”

Luka Modrić, in Croatia if nowhere else, knows what such expectation – the life or death of a nation, life or death as both metaphor and far more than a metaphor – feels like.

Playing Major League baseball in a moment when blacks were being, were still being, lynched and subjected to Jim Crow laws (as much, if differently, in the North as well as in the South), I suspect that Jackie Robinson, much more than Modrić or Shankly, knew just how much was riding on his every performance. Robinson knew how much depended upon his every hit, his every stolen base, his every routine throw to first base; his every interview with a reporter, his every off-hand comment. No rest for the wicked, or, the just; or, the over-burdened.

Across sports codes, football to baseball, across an ocean that separates the continents of North America and Europe, across the decades that separate Robinson from Modrić, across that contentious divided that is race (and religion, ethnicity, and geo-politics), for just a single moment, my writing seemed to me possessed of a truth.

Not only is sport exceptional in its ability to bring home to us the significance of the event, but it is only through sport that I, at any rate, could glimpse upon Modrić . Or, maybe I should say I could sense, surrounded by expectant, hopeful, fearful, Croatians, the utter viscerality of this truth. Ironically, it was impressed upon me by people who have probably never heard of Jackie Robinson. In victory, so far, Modrić has borne that burden with a smile that is at once joyous and anxious. No wonder, how I wonder. In defeat, especially if he is the one to “fail,” just once (more), I can only imagine the look that followed his penalty miss against Denmark will once again overwhelm his face. In defeat, that is when the onerousness of the burden, perhaps the unjustness of it all, will, I suspect, make itself felt.

For Luka Modrić’s sake, I muttered to myself after Croatia disposed of Russia, I hope he knows who Jackie Robinson is.

Such knowledge, such acquired familiarity, might, if not dispense with the burden, but, in the moment of truth, which is, one way or the other, coming, it might help to lighten the burden. It might even help him to understand why so much is being asked of him. In order to lighten

the burden of over-representation I would want to make a historic, phantasmatic introduction: “Luka Modrić, meet Jackie Robinson.”

In a matter of hours, Wednesday will be upon us.

In that moment, which could well be decisive, I do not want to wax Shakespearean. I do not want to see a Croatian reenactment of the gravediggers scene in Hamlet.

I do not want to utter those fateful words, “Alas, poor Luka, alas.”

 

 

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