I AM ABOUT to do two things. First, I will permanently alienate myself from the world of footballfutbolsoccer journalism by calling out this sport as the most boring sport played on a rectangular field. I will call out its players for being the weakest of all pro sports athletes. I will call out the fans for being the sport’s biggest douchebags.
Secondly, via step one, I will most likely guarantee that the editors of The Barnstormer never again dispatch me to cover a sport loved by so many. If they send me to the Olympics in London, I will light myself on fire. It is likely they will send me to London to cover the Olympics.
In my snubbing of the world’s most famous and enjoyed sport, I will break every journalistic rule about objectivity and integrity. It will not be the first time I have done this.
I will make no friends. I will tell the truth.
None of this is to say that the Euro has not been filled with action. It has. But the action has been off the field and it plays out like a spy novel. It’s a tale of locker room espionage, a[nother] meltdown in France, an all female Ukrainian bodyguard squad, and a slew of fines handed out to a number of football federations for vitriolic – oh fuck it, let’s just call it what it is – douchebag fans and their racist and nationalistic flags and horrific chanting at black players including a tale of two Ashleys in England where the racism spilled over to racist tweets directed at Ashley Cole and Ashley Young, both black, who missed penalty kicks in the tournament’s only truly competitive game to date.
I entered Europe with a commitment to finding love for its continental athletic pastime and historical scab-picker. Before coming, I sought a favourite European club squad which I felt most closely resembled the Toronto Maple Leafs in fable and grit. I held steady ground in the dead center of Europe and committed myself to a diet of brattwurst and pilsner. To mentally prepare myself for this tournament I stood in Berlin’s historical 1936 Olympic stadium where Jesse Owens made a mockery of Hitler to watch two teams I had never heard of or cared about and I tried to care about them both. It was short lived. Staring at the track where Jesse Owens snubbed history’s worst tyrant moved me more. Finally, and worst of all, I accepted an assignment to cover one of the most prestigious and elite footballfutbolfussballsoccer competitions in the world
It made me miss hockey, a sport of men. A lot.
Now before I get to the fact that footballfutbolsoccer is not played by men, but children, there is first a case to be made that this is a sport most enjoyed by major douchebags. Now I realize the extent of this statement but if you are not a douchebag and you like football, then you have nothing to worry about. You’re not a douchebag, go enjoy your sport. This statement has nothing to do with you. But if you’ve ever been in a pissing match, or worse, because someone was wearing a scarf of jersey of a team you didn’t like, my thesis depends on you, and your being a douchebag.
In hockey, the world’s most hard hitting, violent sport where fighting is actually condoned, a fan can wear the jersey of the opposing team in the home arena of its greatest rival, and stand alone in a crowd of thousands and cheer alone. Nothing will happen to him. Yes, there are exceptions in other sports, like a horrible tragedy at a Dodgers game, but when it happens in other sports, we call those people criminals. Not fans. We don’t have a special name for them, like ultras, except maybe an ultra-douchebag. Sure, it’s probably not the best idea to wear a Yankees hat at a Red Sox game or vice versa, but there’s no nightly deployment of riot squads at baseball games. In fussball you can get hurt cheering for another team. Hurt seriously. People die. It happens. They call each other. They meet in fields. They kick the living shit out of each other.
Riot police are not deployed daily for matches of any other sport, except maybe a cricket match in Kashmir. I’m not sure what the annual expenditures are on football-related security but a basic equation might go something like this:
Number of pro soccer games played in a day around the world outside North America
X Minimum 100 police
X At least 4 hours
X Some kind of agreed-upon international average hourly wage
My guess is this number gets embarrassingly large. A lot of wasted money. You got a problem with the military industrial complex, the diamond trade, the slave trade, global warming, the banking crisis – I ask you – how much money would your country save if people stopped being douchebags at football matches? I see a hospital. Or some schools being built. In every city where there’s a professional footballfutbolsoccer team.
All of that being said, I do like that there’s a sport that brings neighbourhoods together. And I’m sure my security bill estimation is offset by a much larger spillover economy that the world’s most popular sport creates. I guess my problem lies with the fact that the world’s most popular sport is played by whiny kids.
To illustrate, consider that ice hockey is a weaponized version of footballfutbolsoccer. The rules are the same at their core but the sidelines are more defined and there is a permanent offside line rather than a floating one in fussball. Players are equipped with sharp blades and long sticks which are frequently used in an effort to injure opponents. The age, size, and weight of ice hockey players is relatively the same as footballfutbolsoccer players. The difference being, that in a sport like hockey, or basketball, or baseball, or American football, or rugby, or field hockey, or tennis, or ping pong, it’s considered a disgrace to your team, your sport, and most of all, yourself, to feign injury. In professional sports, grown men and women play hurt. They let their bruises, broken teeth, and stitches do the talking. They don’t complain. If a limb stings, they play on. If it does not function properly, medical staff is alerted.
Here’s a way to tell if a footballfutbolsoccer player is not hurt: if he stays on the field, he was never hurt. His skin may have stung, but that happens getting on a crowded bus sometimes. We walk on.
In hockey, when a goalie gets scored on, he doesn’t yell at the defenceman. To do so is childish. We would call this player a whiner and he would lose respect of his teammates, the fans, and soon enough, himself. In footballfutbolsoccer, this is just what goalies do. They make mistakes and they blame others.
Action-wise, footballfutbolsoccer is a disappointment. I know. I know. I knoooooooooow. You’re shaking your head and getting your angry comment ready, but the fact of the matter is the majority of games consist of less than three goals in 90 minutes. Yes there is action, sometimes it is beautiful mesmerizing action worthy of a slow motion jaw dropping hands through the hair hi-definition replay; most of the game is not like this. There is a lot of walking. And sitting on your ass rubbing your shins. Could you imagine if a basketball game had zero to one dunk per game? And no threes? Would we stand around and say, but the Heat’s ball control is so artful, so graceful? No, we would not.
Let’s look at what happens in less time on fields of the same size.
In an American football game there are hits, sacks, tackles, scores of various size and point value and feats of athletic ability which are quite possibly unparalleled in any other sport. Don’t think so? I can learn a bicycle kick in half a day. Catching a diving one-handed pass in double coverage and landing in the biceps of a pissed-off 280 pound linebacker bearing down on me at full speed while covered in heavy equipment without dropping the ball is a feat few on this planet are capable of.
The same can be expected of rugby players, except they don’t wear the protective equipment. If rugby players went down every time someone brushed against their back with a shoulder, we’d only be halfway done the first match ever played.
Aussie Rules Football: see rugby, add Aussie accent.
Hurling/Camogli: Here men and women, typically of Irish descent, sprint down the field swinging sticks, teeing off on a rock-hard ball. Bones get broken. But the girls play on, as opposed to footballfutbolsoccer, where a mild skin abrasion have men fall as though felled by an assassin’s bullet until the magic water comes out.
There is no magic water in sports. Spraying an injury with water is not medicine. It’s witchcraft. There should be no witchcraft in sports. Unless you’re playing Quidditch. If a kid wizard riding a broom doesn’t fake an injury, the same should be expected of a grown man making millions of dollars.
Field hockey: see Hurling. They’re different, but both are played with sticks and a hard ball but the potential for welts, bruises, broken bones, shattered fingers, and stellar goals is the same.
Lacrosse: There is no denying the viciousness of Lacrosse. I won’t even write about it. I will get whiplash.
Ultimate Frisbee: By far the choice activity of stoners and suburban parents looking to shed Christmas fat, this sport offers more running, cuts, exciting catches and scores than footballfutbolsoccer. And that’s at the recreational level. Sure, someone might fall with a semi-twisted ankle, but this might be the only exercise the person gets all week.
That this year’s Euro may go down as the most boring tournament to date is precisely because the sport is experiencing a neutral-zone-trap strategy era like the one that nearly ruined professional hockey. It’s a form of wait and bait that places small passes and ball control ahead of, say, scoring a goddamn goal. It’s the Spain way, via Barcelona, and it’s killing an already action-light sport.
Here’s how a hockey, field hockey, rugby, football, or any athlete would deal with Spain:
They would start players who never see the field. They would start their ugliest, most pissed off, most aggressive players and their job for fifteen minutes would be to scare the living shit out of anything that speaks Spanish or sips Cava at family gatherings. The first time any Spanish player touched the ball they would feel either a cleat in their mid-thigh, a fist in the sternum, or an elbow in the lips. When it was decided that enough psychological damage had been inflicted then the talent would come on. It’s just how sports work. It’s called knocking your opponent off their game. If footballfutbolsoccer has proved one thing it’s that mimicry leads to failure. Playing like Spain will not make you beat Spain. Just ask France. But knocking a team off their game can lead to victory. It’s also known as coaching.
In the backdrop of this off-field drama where beer and blood spill on the streets of Ukraine and Poland, is Europe itself. While matches flicker idly by on television sets and pub flatscreens around terraces across Europe, the continent’s utopinomic vision of itself slowly dissolves. As Greece exits the tournament, so do its prospects for staying in an economic dreamzone where countries which produced nothing expected everything and socialism blindly expected to brace itself on a capitalism that wanted nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile UEFA attempts to regulate Europe’s oldest pastime with fines to clubs for d-bag fans.
UEFA will not stop racism. They won’t even quell it. Racism is older than football and far more popular. Or maybe I’m wrong, and somewhere deep in football lies the possibility of a world where one’s skin colour will not determine their social worth. But then again, this is a sport which gave birth to the term “monkey chant.” To my knowledge it’s not a thing in any other sport. Sure there are incidents of racism in sport; football isn’t the only sport where a black man has had a banana thrown at him or where racist tweets have been directed at black players even in their moments of triumph. But hundreds of fans directing “monkey chants” at black players in unison, inflaming historical tensions by waving neo-Nazi banners or long discarded empirical flags… this is a footballfutbolsoccer thing.
Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out that cheering for a team is essentially just cheering for laundry as affinities for players dissolve once they have been traded or moved to other teams. Justin Halpern, in a great essay for Grantland, eloquently articulated the stone cold hard fact that, in his words, your favourite team doesn’t give a damn about you. But we are hospitalized over these teams. We brawl in bars. We beat our wives. We shun neighbours. We open national wounds.
But it’s just a game.
And frankly, it’s not even that good a game.
Maybe that’s what footballfutolsoccer is really about and I have it all wrong. Maybe it’s not about everyone liking a shitty sport, but about experiencing a manifestation history at war with itself — and ourselves. Maybe this explains the shitty behaviour. But then again, maybe it also explains how it’s so easy to make friends with strangers once every four years.