It’s nice the world has a game …

It is a pity that the game happens to be soccer.

On the other hand, and perhaps this is also true of cricket and baseball, because it is a comparatively boring sport it gives rise to some good reflective books. Hyperactivity in sport translates well to video but not to the page. Most literary attempts at describing boxing would pretty much confirm this.  

Adam Gopnik is an American who spent time in London and Paris in the 1990’s partly to protect his children from that symbol of American juvenile brain rot – Barney. A noble but futile aim as the Disney Corp soon planted its rodent paws on French soil.  Gopnik wrote about the 1998 World Cup in his book of essays on France, Paris to the moon. Gopnik was not an American football chauvinist. He was prepared to meet the Europeans half way and play park soccer.

As I began watching the (1998 World) cup games, though, I had a hard time making a case for soccer as a spectacle. I found myself torn between a desire to love the game the world loves, and an American suspicion that they wouldn’t love it if they had a choice. The trouble wasn’t the low scores … The trouble was what the scores represent.  The game has achieved a kind of tactical stasis. Things start off briskly and then fritter away into desultory shin kicking … In soccer the defense has too big an edge to keep the contest interesting, like basketball before the coming of the twenty four second clock or the western front before the invention of the tank.

…. Since a defensive system keeps players from getting a decent chance to score, the idea is to get an indecent one: to draw a foul so that the referee awards a penalty, which is essentially a free goal. This creates an enormous disproportion between the foul and the reward.   ….. customary method of getting a penalty is to walk into the area with the ball, get breathed on hard, and then immediately collapse, like a man shot by a sniper, arms and legs splayed out, while you twist in agony and beg for morphine, and your teammates smite their foreheads at the tragic waste of a young life. The referee buys into this more often than you might think.

… Soccer writers seemed as starved of entertainment as art critics; anything vaguely enjoyable gets promoted to the level of genius. In the old days, at the Kitchen, it was the rule that three recognisable notes sung in succession by Laurie Anderson heralded a new generous lyricism. Ronaldo’s magic was like a performance artist’s lyricism: it existed but was apparent only against a background of numbing boredom.

That second paragraph seems to sum up the tactics of the Italian soccer team beautifully. And the referees do seem to buy into it a lot, with an undeniable bias to the more highly ranked teams.

Another American, Franklin Foer, collected a series of journalistic pieces on soccer together in a book entitled How soccer explains the world. Foer was so impressed by Thomas Friedman’s The world is flat that he decided to use soccer as a an explanation of Friedman’s thesis. It doesn’t quite work in that way but there is some good journalism. In the article on Italy he describes the influence of the Agnellis and Juventus and Berlusconi and AC Milan over the selection of referees for Serie A matches. There was a popular TV program devoted to highlighting the crap decisions made by referees in favour of the top teams, and many of the referees apparently received favours and jobs from well connected soccer figures. In the worlds of politics and business this would be termed conflict of interest.

Foer’s tour de soccer includes a piece on the still rampant sectarianism represented by the Old Firm in Glasgow. He holds Rangers fans “up to their knees in Fenian blood” more stupidly culpable for this than the Celtic fans. Celtic was initially started to provide a civic focus for the despised Irish minority and Rangers grew into the Protestant opposition. More recently, Celtic were quicker to drop the religion requirement than Rangers, although we are left with the impression both clubs are happy to profit from barely sublimated religious hatred. On the plus side it does provide an outlet for Northern Irish violence as religiously based soccer competition does not take place there.

Religious hatred was ramped up a notch to full fledged ethnic war in the Yugoslav soccer league of the late 80’s and early 90’s where fights between hard core fans of Red Star Belgrade and Croatian clubs previewed the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s. Soccer fans formed the basis of a number of the more violent militia units responsible for some of the worst ethnic cleansing. The widow / accomplice of one of the most notorious of the 1990’s war criminals, Arkan, is currently looking to tour Australia. Hopefully her greatest hits don’t include “Kill the …(ethnic minority)”, although given Balkan politics you wouldn’t bet against it. Arkan levered his way up from criminality through organising soccer gangs and militias, through to managing a soccer club which effectively terrorised its way to a Yugoslav championship. Eventually he was assassinated at his soccer club for reasons which remain murky.

Foer seems a little in awe of the hard core Chelsea fans who claim to have invented soccer hooliganism, just for a bit of fun, like. He visits the Ukraine where Nigerians are imported to play soccer and confront old style racism and freezing weather, and Iran where women sought to challenge Islamist oppression by sneaking in to soccer matches disguised as men. The discussion of Brazil focuses on Pele who became a Minister for Sport and managed to tarnish his own reputation in the quest for a dollar, and that of Brazilian soccer as a whole by instituting some fairly dumb “free market” rules in an old style club based competition, which promptly sent many of the clubs bankrupt. Brazilian soccer teams seem to be little more than power bases or cash cows for criminals or wanna be politicians on this reading.

Foer paints a picture of soccer reflecting the particular character of the countries he visits and of soccer clubs providing a focus for either gangsterism or corporate patronage. Soccer clubs are also used as the focus of political campaigns and to foster communal hatreds. He describes a depressingly violent male fan base that even his upbeat portrait of the ‘inclusive’ Barca does little to meliorate.

And to get really down and dirty with soccer as a reflection of the worst impulses of male supporters we turn to A season with Verona by Tim Parks which is both a great book about soccer and a great book about Italy. Parks literally follows Hellas Verona all around Italy in a season where they are trying to ward off relegation from Serie A. A typical away visit involves the Verona supporters being escorted by police from the railway station to the stadium where they are seated cordoned off in bays surrounded by barbed wire. After entertaining themselves and the local supporters by inventively abusing them and any black players on the team during the game the Hellas Verona supporters are escorted back to the railway station and run straight out of town. Fun times. Do it all in reverse for home games. Italian soccer does not do a good job of accommodating black players, women, families or younger fans on the evidence of this book.       

Lynne Truss has written a great fish out of water book, Get her off the pitch, about a woman ripped from the comfortable routines of life in the Arts pages and thrust suddenly onto the back page offering her uninformed opinions about soccer to a waiting world. The experiment went sufficiently well that she remained on the sports beat for nearly five years. She had to leave the job because of a family medical emergency but she was almost done anyway. Ms Truss felt she had outstayed her welcome as the light relief on the sports pages when she was able to offer an informed and serious opinion about soccer which was treated as such by the ‘real’ sports reporters, the ones with balls.  Only men, she feels, are sufficiently emotionally shallow to continue caring about something as trivial as sport for an extended period of time.

Her description of Paul Gascoigne, also beloved of Adam Gopnik, may not make his gravestone: “the downside to having a foot like a brain is that you get a brain like a foot, to go with it.”

Ms Truss suspects she was employed to drag a few unsuspecting bourgeois form the lifestyle pages into the arms of the media / football behemoth of the modern era. British soccer started to get its act together after the stadium debacles of the 1980s and stadiums have been modernised with relatively comfortable seating replacing the old terraces so loved by the hooligans of yore (and other clubs). Foer’s hooligans have largely been gentrified and CCTV’ed away from the soccer grounds and now sit in bars trading old time war stories.  And in part she was converted, to her surprise, to being a follower of the game.

For those of us fortunate to have alternative games to support, we can only be thankful that the best athletes do not automatically gravitate to soccer and consign us to watching bad acting, dodgy offsides and loaded refereeing drag our sports viewing down to that level.

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