Most people love sports, yet most of us never bothered to ask why. The wide variety of answers for why we love sports might never be apparent to us, unless we meet someone who doesn’t love it at all. We might not be able to learn why we love sports by watching the Netflix series Home Game, and it won’t curb our appetite for specific sports, but it will show the uncomplicated love some people have for their sport, and it might remind us why we love ours.
Home Game’s documentary about Florence, Italy’s sport of Calico Storico will not satisfy anyone who misses American football or rugby. The documentary about the Kyrgystan sport of Kok Boru will not satisfy anyone who misses basketball or polo, and a horseracing fanatic is probably not going to experience satisfaction watching riders pushing water buffalo through a flooded rice field, in Bali’s sport Makepung Lampit. What we will see are the staples of sport. We’ll see the passion, determination, and the temerity it takes to conquer an opponent. We also see an element of sports that we don’t talk about enough, the arduous, sometimes excruciating training it can take to become a champion of any sport. Our initial response might be to view some of the games depicted in these episodes as silly, particularly the Makepung Lampit sport that involves throwing a dead goat in a large, cement vase, but from that vantage point, all sports seem silly. In many first world countries, ten guys try to force a ball through a hoop in basketball. In the third world country of Kyrgyzstan, four guys try to force a dead goat into a large, cement vase. What’s the difference? Would the Kyrgyz or the Balinese people view the idea that first world sports involve crossing lines and putting other balls and pucks in other goals of various sizes as silly too? What would they think of the sport that involves an athlete putting a ball in a can from a great distance, in as few attempts as possible? The point is that we can view all sports as silly on a micro level, but on a macro level what are they but a vehicle for displaying athletic prowess.
We can be sure the documentarians of Home Game did not choose the relatively obscure sports they did to help those sports achieve more popularity, and I doubt the sports will gain a greater following. It’s more likely that they chose the most obscure sports they did to examine the psychology of sports through an alternative lens. When we hear/read interviews of our favorite top tier athletes, they often use boilerplate language that becomes so common we don’t remember much of what they said five minutes after the interview is complete. It might have something to do with the fact that almost all of these episodes deal with sports in different countries, but they appear to give fresh insight into the art of competition, and the desire to win. English is not the native tongue of most of the competitors in the interviews, but we realize that the desire, the will, and the temerity it takes to win and eventually become a champion are a universal language. Most of the episodes require subtitles, and while that might turn some viewers off, it’s equivalent to watching sports with the volume off.
In one episode, we meet a champion named Guyga. Guyga is the champion of West Kinashasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s version of WWF that they call Catch Fetiche. We see kids and teenagers triumphantly run alongside Guyga. We see him train, we hear him talk about his training, and we witness his drive to be the best. After meeting Guyga, the documentarians introduce us to other Catch Fetiche wrestlers, and they engage in similar rhetoric. It’s similar, but for reasons we can’t put our finger on, it’s different. There was something there, and we missed it, so we rewind back to the introduction of Guyga. We see the difference in his walk, this time, and we know we’ve seen that stride before. It’s Mike Tyson entering the ring in the late 80’s, it’s Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan in the 90’s. It’s a champion at his peak. It’s in his shoulders when he walks, and in his stride. When we see Guyga’s face again, we see, without knowing anything else about the sport of Catch Fetiche that Guyga is its champion. In a later shot, Guyga flexes before the camera, and his musculature is impressive, but his face is what we find captivating. He doesn’t appear as thrilled to be on camera as the rest of us are, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. His far off stare that suggests he’s seen battle many times before, and he wins far more often than he loses. The Congolese who run with him make a big fuss about him, and again, he doesn’t appear to need their adulation, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. He’s accustomed to it. He’s accustomed to glory. His stride, and his demeanor, reminds us of the quarterback of our state champion high school football team, the Heisman Trophy winner in college, and the MVP in the NFL. We recognize that for all the tangibles we attain from athletic pursuit, an intangible quality reveals itself in the walk and the face of a champion.
If Guyga decided to retire from the Congolese, voodoo version of the WWF, Catch Fetiche, and he moved to America, and worked in a cubicle next to ours, we’d know there was something different about him. “What’s up with you?” we’d say. “You’re the new guy, yet you walk around the office like a rooster in a henhouse.”
“I used to be a champion in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he’d say. “Have you ever heard of Catch Fetiche? No one around here has, I used to be the champion of it.”
“I knew it,” we’d say. “I knew there was something different about you.”
In the roller derby episode from Austin, Texas, we see some subtle contrasts between Guyga and the Mad Maxican. After witnessing the glory of an individual champion who has it dripping from every pore, we listen to the roller derby team members speak, and we play a game called spot the champion. We might know more about roller derby than we do Catch Fetiche, but we still know very little. After witnessing Guyga, we think we can spot the look of a champion from a mile away. We think we see it on the face of a key player, who calls herself Ninja Please. The meeker Mad Maxican doesn’t quite have the confident/arrogant demeanor about her that Ninja Please did. Yet, when they take the floor, the Mad Maxican thoroughly outperforms Ninja Please. Why were so wrong about the Mad Maxican? Does it have something to do with the elevated expectations we have when someone says all the right things, as the Ninja Please character did? Does it have something to do with the idea that women, in general, are more humble, and harder to read in this sense, or does it have something to do with the difference between a team player and one who achieves individual glory? Is there an unsung player on the Mad Maxican’s team, who makes her success possible? Is this unsung hero equivalent to an all-star guard on the line of an NFL team, without whom the stars on the team couldn’t achieve half the success they do? We don’t know, because the documentarians don’t delve into those particulars. Perhaps, the Mad Maxican has a quiet confidence about her that doesn’t shine through in interviews. Whatever the case is, we see the contrast of individual successes can have on a person like Guyga and the team success the Mad Maxican enjoys.
In an episode that covers The Highland Games, in Scotland, the documentarians introduce us to a former champion training an individual who wants to become a future champion. We see the faded glory in that former champion’s face. The athletic achievements of his past instill in him an apparent lifelong confidence, but there’s something missing in his face. We see how much he misses the glory of being a champion. We see the “Youth is wasted on the young” Churchill quote personified in the man that suggests the former champion wishes he appreciated his moment in the sun more.
The episode that Netflix used to promote the series and the one that appears to be garnering most of the critical attention is the first episode in the series depicting a sport called Calico Storico (historical football in English). Calico Storico is the equivalent of rugby meets martial arts. There are linemen who fight on the front line, as in American football, and two ball carriers. The ball carriers attempt to drop a ball in a field-length net. Four teams fight to be champions of Florence, Italy. There’s no money involved, just the pride of the players. The prize for victory is a cow. They don’t slaughter the cow to triumphantly eat it. They simply just walk down the street with it, in a victory parade. Some criticize this episode as a bunch of meatheads plowing into each other, but that criticism misses the mark. Those critics don’t see the passion, the will, or the sheer determination these men put into achieving victory. They prefer to see the sport through a political lens. If the documentarians chose to focus on a woman attempting to enter into Calico Storico, these critics would enjoy the episode more, but there is very little politics in any of the documentaries of Home Game. The documentaries choose to place their focus on the simplicity of athletic competition and athletic achievement. As opposed to modern American football players, the athletes in Calico Storico love their ultra-violent sport so much that they want their children to play in it. One athlete chooses to live in a specific part of the country, so his kid would have a chance to play for the team he did. They suffer minor to severe injuries for their sport, but the prospect of such injuries doesn’t diminish their love of the game.
The beauty of Home Game beauty is that it reminds us of the unadulterated love of sports. Their love of sports calls to mind the prima donnas of most sports who take their status as a top-tier athlete for granted. If some of their athletes depicted in these documentaries play their beloved sport for money, the documentarians do not mention it in the episodes. The conditions of the countries of most of these documentaries suggest that if the athletes make any money, it’s a relatively paltry sum and not the reason they play the game. The documentarians focus each episode on the beauty of sport without much distraction. Almost all of the sports depicted are unique to our experience, but they detail in the faces of fans and athletes alike, that the language of sports is universal.
Dissected properly, just about every episode of Home Game teaches us a different element of sports that we might not have considered before. They provide us an outsider-looking-in perspective of what it means for the athletes to compete, what it takes to win, and what it means, to them, to become a champion. We see the captivated fans in the stands celebrating goals of a game hundreds to thousands years old. As we watch their game, we see the thrill of their favorite team scoring a goal, the disappointment of seeing their team scored on, the thrills they experience after victory and the agony of defeat. We see ourselves, from their perspective, we remember vicariously enjoying and celebrating the athletic accomplishments of others, and we realize how much we miss it. We appreciate their love of sport from a distance, and it touches us in a very familiar place at the same time.