Years went by. I struggled along in darkness, somehow making it from day to day even while suffering under a terrible burden — the burden of ignorance compounded by apathy and insularity. And it was good.
I refer, of course, to my former cluelessness about the world’s most popular sport, the one that everyone except North Americans calls football, as explained in part one of this series. This blissful period came to an end in 1982 when I was studying in a smallish university town in the Netherlands.
By that time, I had developed a strict and successful policy of paying no attention to any sports whatsoever. So it came as a complete surprise to me one night in July when a small group of cars started driving in a circuit around town, honking their horns, yelling their heads off and, for some unfathomable reason, waving Italian flags.
I asked one of my Dutch classmates what the hell was going on, and he explained, “Oh, Italy just won the World Cup.” My answer was, “The what?”
The town did not have a large Italian population, but what they lacked in headcount they made up for in national pride. The motorcade of honking, yelling flag-wavers kept circling all evening and well into the night.
My apartment happened to be on their route, and I heard them come by about every 15 minutes, slowly dwindling in number and vocal power until about 2am, when one single car drove by one more time, with one guy still chanting, hoarsely, “Italia! Italia!”
Upon which I made a mental note: whatever this thing is, some people get really worked up about it. An impression that was reinforced some years later after I had moved to Paris, when France hosted — and won — the 1998 World Cup.
Having seen the reaction of a dozen Italians in Holland when Italy won, I was not overly surprised at the reaction of 60 million French people in France when France won. The traffic jams and hangovers continued well into the next week, and the shockwaves of celebratory noise in Paris knocked all the panels off the facade of the Eiffel Tower, leaving nothing but a bare steel frame.
Or maybe it was like that before — I’m not sure. Anyway, in the days preceding that momentous evening, I watched more soccer than I have ever endured before or since.
The World Cup was in France and France was winning. This meant that for six weeks every dinner invitation that my wife Nancy and I received turned out to be for takeout food in front of the TV so that no one would miss what one friend of ours invariably called “un match fondamentale.”
So I finally saw a few games, learned more about soccer and found out what I had been missing. And then decided to keep on missing it.
Even now that I have absorbed, without really trying, a basic understanding of the sport (including the offside rule!), soccer still holds no real interest for me. There are three reasons for this:
1) It’s a sport
Due to my above-mentioned indifference to athletic activity of any kind, I got off on the wrong foot with football. I do admire skill and accomplishment, but much prefer the mental to the physical kind.
And even in the physical category, I would much prefer that all that training to achieve extraordinary coordination, reflexes and precision be applied to a pair of ballet shoes, a piano keyboard or even a pole in a pink spotlight rather than some logo-covered plastic spheroid.
That said, I have to admit: in this sense, my dislike of soccer is not soccer’s fault.
2) It’s about 99 percent boring
This is soccer’s fault. A typical match goes like this: one team has the ball. They kick it back and forth among themselves a few times, moving a few meters toward the goal. They lose the ball. The other team kicks it back and forth among themselves a few times, moving a few meters toward the other goal. They lose the ball. The other team kicks it back and forth among themselves a few times and, in a startling turn of events, the ball goes out of bounds. The other team gets it. They kick it back and forth among themselves a few times…
This goes on for 90 minutes, and the final score can easily be zero to zero. Or, in a really close, gripping, nail-biting, hotly disputed cliffhanger of a game, zero to one. It mystifies me how the players, let alone the fans, can even stay awake.
3) Worst of all, it rewards cheating
Speaking of faults: if you sprint toward a guy in the street, leap in the air and kick him square in the chest with both feet as hard as you can in the hopes of putting him in intensive care, it’s called “felony assault.” If you do the exact same thing on the soccer pitch, it’s called “superb defensive tactics.”
This, by the way, is precisely what a Dutch player (I could look up his name but don’t want to dignify him by expending the energy to type it) did while playing against Spain in the final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The referee penalized him with a yellow card — essentially a warning to mind his manners — and he was later fined €3,000. In other words, a whole one-thousandth or so of his annual salary. Oooh, I bet that hurt!
His intention, no doubt with the encouragement of his coach, teammates and fans, was to injure one of Spain’s better players, Xabi Alonso, and get him out of the game. This is considered smart sportsmanship in soccer and happens to high-scoring strikers often enough to double their life insurance premiums.
Another way to take out an opponent is to pretend that he hurt you, which is easier and therefore even more common. An example of this occurred in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, France vs. Croatia, when Laurent Blanc, captain of the French team, had the ball near the goal. At one point he happened to raise one elbow and the world-class Croatian player behind him (whose name I could look up, but see above) immediately grabbed his face with both hands and fell to the pitch writhing in agony.
The referee gave Blanc a red card for injuring an opponent, which meant that he was immediately out of the game, couldn’t be replaced and couldn’t play in the next game — the final. Later, a review of the videos (from viewpoints other than the referee’s) showed that there was no physical contact between the two whatsoever — it was a totally feigned injury.
Blanc accepted the ref’s decision as the price one pays for playing soccer. And the Croatian is still in the hospital, pretending to be in a coma.
So far, soccer’s governing body, the International Federation of Association Football, a.k.a. FIFA, has refused to make it an honest game by allowing referees to use instant replay to make their calls, allegedly because it would waste too much time. As a result, almost every foul decision is contested as passionately as the Dreyfus case and the action, such as it is, grinds to a halt while the penalized team argues with the ref, apparently operating on the assumption that you can change the past by getting pissed off. This is not considered a waste of time.
So, as it is played today, soccer has much more margin for bald-faced deception and dishonesty than any other form of high-level competition. I find this ludicrous.
Bobby Fischer did not win the World Chess Championship in 1972 by yelling “Hey! Look over there!” and then knocking Boris Spassky’s bishop off the board when his head was turned.
Michael Phelps was not awarded 22 Olympic gold medals for butterfly-kicking the other swimmers.
Muhammad Ali did not become heavyweight champion of the world by pretending that Sonny Liston hit him in the face. Of course, he didn’t need to pretend. Maybe I should pick a different example…
John McEnroe did not become the top seed in men’s tennis by throwing a fit every time a decision went against him. Wait — I’d better try again.
Lance Armstrong did not become a seven-time winner of the Tour de France by… Oh, never mind. Let’s go back to Spain vs. the Netherlands in the 2010 final:
Interestingly, for his actions in that same game — I repeat, the very same game — the Spanish midfielder Andrés Iniesta was also fined €3,000. No, not for kneecapping the Dutch thug with a vuvuzela, however justifiable that might have been.
His offense: stripping off his jersey after scoring the winning goal and exposing a T-shirt on which he had written “Dani Jarque: siempre con nosotros,” — a tribute (“always with us”) to a friend and former pro footballer who had died less than a year earlier.
Turns out FIFA has a rule against displaying personal messages during games, so Iniesta got the same slap on the wrist — I mean ankle (it is, after all, football). In other words, this is FIFA’s reasoning:
Attempted murder? €3,000 fine.
Tribute to a dead friend? €3,000 fine.
It’s a good thing that the Dutch guy didn’t kill Alonso and then apologize by showing a message on a T-shirt in a later game — then he’d really be in trouble. Obviously, FIFA has its head up its association rulebook.
So on July 13, while most of the world is in front of the TV watching the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, you can all guess where I’ll be: in front of the TV watching the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Why? Because ever since 1998, Nancy has been a big football fan. There’s no more justice in life than in soccer.
© 2014 Paris UpdateFavorite
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