DUBAI // I grew up watching football in Arabic, and in my mind and body, to this day, football is a game played in Arabic.
I remain convinced it is the only way to really watch and hear it. To my shame, I still do not have more than a basic grasp of the language.
What I have picked up has come largely from watching Saudi Arabian domestic football, but it never seemed to ultimately matter how much I understood.
The first goal I remember watching on TV, the moment when football really burst to life, was scored by Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad, in a rowdy Jeddah derby with Al Ahli. I would become an Ahli supporter, but Ittihad won that game, by that single goal.
It was a fine one, too, a rolling move that, in increasingly fuzzy hindsight, culminated much like Carlos Alberto’s beautifully grand and simple conclusion to the 1970 World Cup final.
The idea of a goal, so bare and simple, is so full of possibility and implication.
Its visual and physical manifestation might have been enough. But to have it sound-tracked by this voice stretching the “goal” out beyond all laws of monosyllabic words, stretching it beyond the limitations of television and right inside me, that was what really did it.
How could you not connect with something as unrestrained as that commentator’s celebration, a moment in which to lose yourself whole? That was not a partisan celebration of one side scoring, but an impartial celebration of the very act of scoring a goal. Every goal deserves that, every single goal.
In the sense that you need not necessarily understand what is happening to feel it, the game is like our interaction with music.
It holds special resonance here, of course, but if you have not seen it, listen to the commentary for the UAE’s goals in that seminal 3-2 win over Uzbekistan a couple of years ago.
You could walk into that bit of broadcasting blind to the charms of football, or the enormity of what it meant to the UAE, and still walk out the other side a believer in the simple, unquestionable joy of the game.
On Monday night, I decided to watch Iran against Nigeria with Arabic commentary.
Of all the games in this World Cup, this festival of goals, watching this one in a language so attuned to the nature of goals was rotten luck.
It was not a bad game and had its moments. But even the commentator sounded a little defeated by the underwhelming nature of it: sandwiched between a heavyweight clash and a lo-fi but genuinely intriguing one, it was easily the day's least-interesting game. At its best, Arabic commentary maintains a constant, slightly ominous, tempo.
It works perfectly in building simultaneously the anticipation of complete joy or the fear of total disaster.
It can be a little like watching football to the theme from Jaws, danger ever-present but constantly building and building every time play comes to within half a pitch of the opposition goal.
At any moment, the match, Arabic commentary suggests, can explode and what more do we want?
But even that sense was missing from the Iran-Nigeria game, though there was not a single moment’s silence through play.
That is the thing that people either love or hate about Arabic commentary: it just does not stop. Had I been watching that game in English, though, I might have switched off after half an hour.
That takes some energy. Bobby Talyarkhan was an old-time radio cricket commentator who disliked sharing the microphone with others.
He used to commentate alone, all day, for four- and five-day games.
In awe, they used to call him Iron Lungs, a sobriquet that sits even better with the UAE’s Faris Awadh or Ahmed Al Hosani. Cricket, after all, probably never gave occasion to Talyarkhan to exercise his lungs as football does.
Growing up listening to commentary in a language I did not understand, however, meant growing up free from football’s tyranny of tactics.
Modern football coverage has a largely healthy, but often pedantic, pursuit of tactics, formations and positional structure.
It is not that Arab commentators do not dwell on this. Indeed, there are commentators in the Arab world who share this global obsession.
But not being able to understand the language meant that football became the least-complicated sport to follow and play.
What could be easier to understand, in any language, than 11 guys trying to put a ball into a goal more times than the other 11?
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