On Football (Soccer)

I have tried to love it, I really have. But I have failed. As an American living in Europe, I almost feel it’s incumbent upon me to take an interest in the game that obsesses Europe and so much of the world, all of the world, in fact, apart from the United States of America. Here I am: I eat the food, speak a language or two, observe the national holidays. Surely I can manage a little passion for football, too. But I have well and truly failed to care. I even watched the World Cup with my son, who is a football enthusiast. But while I enjoyed watching the game with him, I did not enjoy the game itself. On the contrary. It reminded me of why it is I can’t get worked up about it. I used to think it was a ‘cultural thing.’ Like cricket; I just don’t get it. Any sport in which the players wear sweaters and break for lunch will, alas, remain forever alien to me. But there’s more to it than that with football. It really is a beautiful game–Zinedine Zidane’s header and Italian goalie Gianluigi Buffon’s save were gorgeous–but there’s an ugly side to it that really turns me off.It almost seems as if all of the vices (nationalism, racism, hooliganism, violence) that Europe has so successfully repressed, suppressed or sublimated for much of the past 60 years suddenly burst to the surface in football. What a shame, a disgrace that the World Cup final should be marred by insults (whether racist, mother-related or whatever) and headbutts. That’s obvious, I know, but as far as I know things like that don’t happen in other sports on the same scale. Sure, every sport has its neanderthals—just as every country, society and social class does. But thuggishness seems so prevalent in football, among players, coaches, fans. For all I know many sports may be riven by the same kinds of attitudes. Why does it spill out onto the pitch so often in football? Take ice hockey, for instance. That’s an incredibly violent game, with fights regularly breaking out among players. But they’re usually fighting instinctively, as a result of crashing into one another so often not because one player allegedly insults another player’s mother. That doesn’t justify it, of course. But somehow it’s less of a blight on the game. You come to watch an ice hockey match, but get a round or two of boxing as well.

So, I have resigned myself to not loving football. The sport won’t miss me. But I can still appreciate football’s great aphorists. Baseball has Yogi Berra, who said, among other things:

It ain’t over til it’s over.

But football has Johan Cruijff:

Every disadvantage has its advantage.

and Brian Clough:

I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.

and Bill Shankly:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

It’s tough to compete with that.