FINDING A FIXER to sell my Canadian passport when The Barnstormer account went dry was the easy part. Finding a love for European football was the hard part. I came down pretty hard on footballfutbolsoccer the other day and probably offended a lot of dyed-in-the-wool footy fans. It was nothing personal. I still maintain the sport is boring. As I said, most of the time a player is on the field they are walking. Occasionally they jog. Once in a while there’s a full sprint. This is irrefutable. There’s one ball and 22 players on the field: not everyone can have it at once. Lionel Messi is good. He is excellent. Maybe even the best. But most of the time he is walking. Mario Balotelli, whose sheer athleticism sent Germany home unexpectedly early but was not enough to stop Spain’s wait-and-bait offence, spends a minority of his time at full steam. Jerry Rice, when he played football, was good. He was excellent. Maybe even the best. Whenever he was on the field and the ball was in play, he was running as fast as he could. But football and football are not the same sport. It’s silly to compare, and silly to expect that football will ever be as exciting to watch as football, since, for me, both football and football are boring to watch in their entirety. It’s not my fault: I just wasn’t raised on football or football and I’ve always been shit at jumping on bandwagons. My mother is Irish. You’d think St. Patrick’s Day would be an easy one for me to take part in and enjoy. I hate St. Patrick’s Day.
It’s easy to call football, or football for that matter, exciting when all you watch are highlights. It’s easy to watch football and football when you watch with enthusiasts or when an entire bar or terrace is on the edge of their seats. There’s an osmosis to the excitement for sure. Even Augustine, who understood the moral bankruptcy of Roman bloodsports, could not help but be caught up in the frenzy of a crowd soaking in an afternoon of prisoners being torn apart by lions and gladiators. But watching football emotionally uninvested in either team is like getting your eyes washed out with soap. Unless of course, a team is explosive, takes chances, desires to score goals, and consists of not a single grown adult male who believes it ethical to feign injury at any point in the game. This was not, for a great majority of the time, the case with the Euro 2012.
It had its moments.
The Irish sang well. The Russians wore out their welcome well. Ukraine imprisoned opposition leaders very well. But most of the time the action on the field was disappointing. A much anticipated England versus France match was like watching an episode of Coronation Street dubbed in French. As for Spain and their goddamn matador offence, critics will tell you it’s pretty. It’s not. It’s a slow bleed. But it works. If you understand what it takes to kill a bull in a bullfight, you understand Spain’s approach to football. Frankly, I’d rather watch a bull die than see Spain play football. I’ve seen bulls die at the hands of Spaniards. It’s not pretty [i]. It was in Seville in the mid-1990s. The quality of the bullfighting was terrible, made all the more evident by fans waving their seat cushions and tickets. At the end of one particular round, as a bull hobbled around the ring, weakened and gushing blood and staring at a matador who had repeatedly failed to properly deliver the final and fatal sword into its back, an elderly man inside the ring walked up to the bull, removed a dagger from a sheath at his waist, and drove it into the skull of the bull. The bull collapsed. Death by dagger wound to the brain. This is what Spanish football will do to football as a whole. Teams will emulate their keep-away style and the entire sport will become the neutral zone trap era New Jersey Devils. Remember when your older sibling or cousin would palm your forehead and tell you to hit them – you’d swing – and hit nothing – and grow all the more frustrated? This is another way to describe Spanish football. An elder palm to the forehead. A dagger wound to the brain. A Stanley Cup for a clutch and grab neutral zone trapping New Jersey Devil.
I suck at this.
At football journalism.
Because I don’t love football. Because I see no grace in wait-and-bait football.
I know nothing about the great game.
I hear you.
But at least I tried.
I’m happy for the Spaniards. In these times of an ailing Euro, big bank bailouts, Merkelian austerity, and an uncertain future, a national victory like this is good. Except in Spain it’s really only one third of the country that embraces any ‘Spanish’ victory since Catalans and Bascos only clap with one hand in times of Spanish glory. The trophy for Spain is bittersweet, as the economic crisis in Spain hardly stops for football. The top division of their football league alone is almost $4.5b in debt. Yes, you read that correctly, their football clubs are almost $4,500,000,000 in debt and may well be forced to sell their best players to foreign leagues just to pay down this debt. Football spending in Spain is modeled on spending in the Eurozone: spend now, consider paying later. Try to imagine an NHL or NFL with no salary cap and business model that permits a billion dollar unpaid tax tab and you’re only beginning to wrap your head around the madness of the business of football. How these teams have not become insolvent has much to do with politics. A nation focused on football five nights a week has less time to plan the overthrow of their government and institutions.
The real drama of footballfutbolsoccerfussball, for me, happens off the field. In the stands, in the pubs, in neighbourhoods where giant screens are fashioned out of bedsheets and projectors. Each match is a victimless mini-war whose victors pile into cars to drive through neighbourhoods announcing the end of battle. I don’t have anything that would make me climb into a car honking a horn and waving a flag out my window and maybe that’s why I don’t appreciate football the way football fans do. Maybe it’s jealousy. Yes, let’s call it that. You see, I want to pile into a car and wave a flag and honk the horn and stop traffic and scream and play some annoying party anthem at peak decibel with the windows rolled down. The problem is that this is a football fan’s response to victory and I just wasn’t raised on football. I was raised on hockey and tennis and no one celebrating a huge hockey victory is ever sober enough to get behind the wheel and the stuffiness of tennis just doesn’t permit erratic behaviour off the court, unless of course, you’re a Djokovic fan.
I really really really did try.
But the truth is – the sport just doesn’t excite me.
To me, anyone can kick a ball. In hockey, it takes years to become a good skater. In tennis, it takes years to put topspin on a serve. Even longer to put topspin on a second serve. In hockey, it takes years to develop a slapshot. It can take a lifetime to get that slapshot off the ice. So to me, ice hockey is a superior sport than soccer in every conceivable aspect, and tennis is a superior sport than hockey, in large part due to a mental component that would take a whole other essay for me to get into [ii].
But to the world, it’s the other way around, and football is the greatest thing since the wheel. It’s basically a three dimensional celebration of the wheel coupled with an exploitation of a history brought about by conflict. As I said, the real drama of the game is off the field because it’s off the field and in the stands where real grievances are aired. Grievance about history. About immigration. About racial tolerance in the face of history and immigration. Greece’s quarterfinal match against Germany had as much to do with football as it did about the Euro. Germany’s victory over Greece not only said to Germans that they had a better football team, it said that German politicians are right to expect Greece to reel in their over-spending and swallow the austerity measures in their economy meted out by German economists. Czech vs. Russia, for Czechs at least, was as much about a long held resentment towards Russian tanks rolling into Prague in 1968. Their loss to Russia did not say that Russia had a better football team; it said that it was okay to keep openly hating Russia and Russians. When Barcelona beats Madrid, it’s not about football. It’s about a giant Catalan middle finger to the Spanish metropole. Soccer, yes, football, fussball, futbol, however you want to call it, is tribal. Brazilians will sing arm and arm in 2014 at the World Cup. It won’t matter if they’re from San Paolo or Rio. But these geographical differences will matter very very much if San Paolo’s football team is playing against Rio’s football team. I think one of them is called Corintheans. The other is called something else.
A shitty football journalist?
I could have looked that up.
Because I just don’t care enough.
I’m a bad man.
Because I don’t like football [iii].
I said it.
But I love history. And I love politics. And I also love revenge. And blood narratives. And I love them all enough to tune in to the World Cup and the next Euro tournament in France… at least I think it’s in France.
[i] I have also seen Portuguese bullfighting, a far more graceful, equestrianized version of Spanish bullfighting except for one notable difference. Okay two – the first being that the matador is on a horse, the second being that rather than killing the bull at the end, once the feathered hooks have pierced the bull’s skin, a band of Portuguese rodeo clowns subdue the bull by leaping on to its head (while one man pulls on its tail) until a fleet of sows enter the ring to escort the bull back to its stall.
[ii] The late David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis are recommended reading.
[iii] Naturally this begs the question: Well why did you accept the assignment. Answer, because I was given carte blanche, well actually credit carte blanche, and as I wrote on day 1, when a sports magazine offers you drinking money and an airplane ticket to Europe, you don’t ask questions.