12 October 2009

The Beautiful Game

When I first started this piece it was going to be about a local American Football team that I support (The Essex Spartans) but as I proceeded it became less and less about American Football and more and more about English Football or as I like to call it “Soccer”. In the end almost all of the original content has been removed and there is actually very little in here about the brilliant game known as “American Football” (I’ll do another piece later I promise). The reason for the change was that as I started to commit my thoughts to the page the more and more I became incensed by the game of soccer. The more I became reminded of the reasons I have come to dislike, no despise it.

Now I didn’t want it to go this way. But soccer stopped me in my tracks and made me do it. Don’t blame me, blame soccer.

My thinking for this piece goes all the way back to the last world cup and as many of you know I’ve never been a soccer fan, in fact I’d go as far to say that I have pretty much always disliked football and everything associated with it.

But the biggest tournament in the sport coincided with my birthday and many of my friends have an interest in the game so I thought I’d give it a chance. It was my 40th birthday and if the ‘40 years of hurt’ (a term only English soccer fans will be aware of) were to end I figured I should keep an eye on the proceedings.

I paid reasonable interest in the fortunes of the England team and those in their way. I observed the spectacle of the ‘beautiful game’ and tried to view the fans in a new light. I debated formations down the pub and went through all the pointless football chatter that used to drive me mental when forced to endure it from the ‘outside’.

However (and here comes the rant) I came to the conclusion that I may have been correct in my initial assessment of soccer, an assessment that led me to first ignore it, then dislike it and now push me close to the edge of hating the game completely.

You see, even though I have for most of my life never had any interest in soccer, I have had a keen interest in another sport. The sport known (at least outside of America) as “American Football”.

In fact I’d say that all things considered, I have been about as keen a fan of American Football as I could possibly have been (for and Englishman) and for many, many years at that.

Even though coverage of the sport in England is sketchy at best, over the last 20 odd years:

• I have watched just about every game shown on regular TV that I could.
• I have supported several local British teams.
• I have attended NFL pre season warm up games
• I have attended two NFL regular season games

… and my crowning glory of fandom?

In the inaugural year of the World League of American Football and after attending every home game of the London Monarchs, I personally (with the concerted help of my very good friend Tony Charlton) started the very first Mexican wave, at the World Bowl Final at Wembley Stadium, after which the Monarchs went on to win against Barcelona in front of a 75,000 strong crowd… EAT THAT.

And so I think I’m a bona fide fan and that I’m qualified to say that the thing that is most repugnant about soccer isn’t even anything to do with the game itself, it is the general attitude of soccer fans and especially their attitudes towards American Football.

Now until this rant I’ve been a typical ‘non’ soccer fan. In those situations where someone asks you something about a football related topic, you say something like ‘oh I don’t really follow football’ or ‘sorry I’m not really into football’ and that pretty much puts the subject to bed (and you can then enjoy the rest of the taxi ride in silence). But the anti American Football thing has really started to get to me… why is it like that, why do soccer fans dislike American Football so much.

Now I don’t know if it’s because they have trouble with the fact that the game has come to be known by a name that has the word “Football’” or if it’s because it has the word “American” in there too (this has always seemed to be a bit of a mistake in my eyes too). But to me it seems that soccer fans regard American Football with more vehemence and contempt than they exhibit towards any other sport.

And I’m not only talking about your committed, down the terraces every Saturday ‘football is my religion’ , ‘Three Lions on me shirt… every shirt I own’, kind of fan. I’m also talking about your well educated, good job, intellectually competent, football appreciation type fans.

Now there are exceptions as always, one of my best mates CAG (yes that is his name) is both a die hard Arsenal supporter (some of you will debate that this qualifies him as a soccer fan at all, I know but …) and he also has and always has had an interest in American Football too. In fact he’s the only English person I know in real life who's seen an NFL regular season game in America (New York Giants at home if I remember correctly). But generally ask any random soccer fan what they think of American Football and you’re going get some pretty derogatory remarks right back.

However if you ask them about Cricket, Rugby, Tennis, Hockey, Athletics, Snooker, Motor Racing, Squash, Australian rules football, Table Tennis, Archery, Curling or even other American sports or sports that which are deemed "American" such as Ice Hockey, Basketball and Baseball, regardless of whether the person you are talking to likes the sport in question or not, their response will show you that they have considerably more respect for that sport (whatever it is) than they do for American Football and I find this very, very odd.

When asked ‘what is it specifically that you don’t like about American Football’ you are probably going to get one of the following answers…

“Well they’re all a bunch of wimps, wearing helmets and pads and what have you” which is obviously just a load of ignorant bollocks.

Or the more reasonable

“It’s always stopping and starting, it doesn’t have any flow”.

Well let me tell you…
… you can take the ‘flow’ of your ‘beautiful game’ and stuff it where the sun don’t shine.

From a non indoctrinated view point, soccer seems to be an endless string of disappointments, missed opportunities and general lack of action. So that’s the blessed “flow” is it, a bunch of guys most of whom are jogging up and down a field or pretty much just standing around doing nothing while three other guys further up the pitch (who are actually involved with the ball), play piggy in the middle over and over again. “How much were these tickets again ?”

Sure once in a while someone pulls off something cool… once in a while, I guess. And because these ‘cool’ events are so few and far between and are in direct contrast to the general dullness of the piggy in the middle majority of the rest of the game, their significance is elevated beyond their actual level of interest. Anything that isn’t just another round of piggy in the middle becomes interesting.

You see, one of the benefits of all the so called stopping and starting in American Football is that when the players are actually playing (that’ll be the starting bit for all you soccer fans out there) then something brilliant or something terrible, or something stunning, or amazing, or surprising or even something just plain good, bad or interesting is going to happen… right now… in the next 10 seconds… without fail.

And then, when it starts, every single player on the field is going to be doing something, something vital, ALL of the players (not just a couple or three), on both sides of the ball, all of them at the same time. No standing around and virtually no jogging up and down. Every single one of the 22 guys on the field will be playing full tilt at the same time and if any single one of them screws up, there might very well be a game breaking score… so they all try very, very hard to do whatever it is that they are supposed to do to the very best of their ability.

And here’s another thing. In American Football there are unlimited substitutes, so every single player is an expert in one tiny facet of the game, whatever it is that needs doing right now. There are no jack of all trades here, experts only.

Now that is what I call action, in fact it’s so much action that you’re going to need the breaks in between (that’s the stopping bits) to recover and think about the impact of all you’ve seen… and so do the players and coaches themselves.

And then there is the violence. American Football is an extremely physical sport and violent confrontation is obviously a part of the game. Broken legs, broken backs, broken necks even… I’ve seen ‘em all. But the point here is that all of those violent sounding injuries were on the field, as a consequence of how 100% full on, full tilt the game is played… the violence was not in the stands, it wasn’t in the high street, it wasn’t in my local bar… it was on the field.

Now I used to work in Croydon and when there’s an England soccer game on, I wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as possible, as there was a very real chance of a riot should England lose and there was only a reasonable chance of a riot should England win! Well sod that.

Why on earth soccer fans do the things they do is beyond me. Example; there’s a bar down the road from where I worked, it’s a sports bar. They have fitted a really big screen TV so all the lovely soccer fans can go there and watch the match and have a good time… so what do the fans do when England loses… they trash the bar. Yeah that’s right that nice bar, you know the one, the one that put up that huge screen so that they could watch the match. They trash the place, talk about shitting where you eat.

And of course fan violence at the game itself would seem to be a common occurrence. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen a football riot on the news… have you ever seen an American Football riot… nope I didn’t think so, cos it just never happens. The game is exciting enough to build up and then safely disperse any amount of adrenalin you might care to generate that’s why the stopping and starting is a strength of the game not a weakness… unlike soccer, which fires people up over and over again, only to then disappoint them… leaving a massive adrenalin backlog flooding through their systems… as they leave the game… as they leave the stadium… as they head for the pub… BAD SITUATION ALERT.

I didn’t want to bring this next bit up… but I’m going to. Another reason I dislike soccer is the cheating. I honestly cannot believe how many times I’ve seen “world class” soccer players cheating or at least trying to… they should be ashamed of how low they seem to stoop.

When a rough tackle takes place and both players jump up and raise their arms to try and claim that the other had fouled them they remind me of little boys being told off by a teacher… ‘No he did it Miss, it wasn’t me Miss, honest’ absolutely pathetic. Or when two players are grappling for the ball along the side lines and the ball goes off … up go both arms. Pretty much every time. ‘It was him Miss not me’

And when someone does go down from a tackle, out come the theatrics, (and soccer fans have the audacity to call American Footballers wimps). I’ve seen soccer players rolling on the floor in agony over at worst a grazed knee… wimps eh or could it be another acting demonstration in an attempt to cheat again… could be. See Italy vs Australia WC 2006 for a great example of this type of cheating.

And can the referee use a video replay to check and see who is cheating… no, of course not because that would break up the ‘flow’ (see piggy in the middle sessions) of the game, so it continues and therefore he who cheats best… wins.

There is a foul in American Football called “Un-sportsman Like Conduct”, it doesn’t get used too much to be honest and it doesn’t need to. Now I’m informed that there is a similar rule for soccer, but even though it should, it never seems to get used, if such a rule were enforced correctly then the field would be emptied pretty swiftly me thinks.

Just to emphasise this point ask yourself this question : How many times have you seen a soccer player take a dive or over act when fouled or claim a corner when none was justified or claim a throw in when it was not theirs to take… how many… it’s lots isn’t it and every one of them was an attempt to cheat, an attempt to break the rules of the game.

In the hundreds of American Football games that I’ve seen, I can’t recall a single time when a player attempted to cheat… not one… zero, mistakes yes, errors of judgment yes… but flat out cheating… no.

You see I don’t think we can even apply the word sport to soccer any more, because sport requires sportsmanship, and soccer doesn’t seem to have that any more, there is a focus on winning and this is probably driven by money which is pretty sad. Sports (other sports) although competitive and obviously financially linked tend to be more about the game, the pursuit of human excellence in that game (whatever it may be) but not in soccer, it’s about winning regardless of the rules or the breaking of them. In fact these kinds of infractions are so common that they have almost become ingrained as part of the game itself. How tragic is that. The game has lost its soul, it is nothing but a desperate attempt to gain a victory regardless of methods used to do so. Why not go the whole hog, why not cut the breaks on the opposing team bus before they get to the game, then you can win by default without even having to play piggy in the middle once… BONUS !

So lets have a quick recap of soccer then:

• A game that generally exhibits as much action as a game of piggy in the middle.
• A game where random violence occurs at the game and anywhere fans congregate.
• A game where the referees can make massive mistakes without ever being corrected.
• A game where even the best players in the world are compelled to cheat because everyone does.
• A game who’s fans are so indoctrinated with their sport that they refuse to admit that it has lost its beauty, its direction, its sportsmen and is now simply a money making machine designed to claw their money out of their pockets.

I’d say that it would seem that soccer or the beautiful game (if you really must insist), unlike other sports, has many faces and far from being beautiful most of those faces are very, very ugly indeed.