The Euro 2012 Cup is on. And at the risk of being deemed an idiot, I add, in Europe.
In the heart of Brooklyn, the Caribbean Cup is off and running. Across the rest of the footballing world, there’s a sprinkling of World Cup qualifiers.
At the same time, in every nook and cranny of our regular existence, the beautiful game thrives, kept alive by sad, aging dreams and youthful hearts.
Football, soccer if you will, is one sport that has over a billion fans, hardy, unwavering, safely settled in its seductive insides. My guess is that such is the power of the beautiful game, there are “summer” evening sweats taking place across the length and breadth of the planet, even in some wintry climes. I kid you not.
Sad as that may seem to those of us smitten by the bug, some countries, though, have managed to remain outside the reach of football’s powerful magic, beyond the pale.
For all its potential and its pull, even in America, football—or to avoid confusion, soccer—is a sport that resides way down the die-hard fans’ food chain. Tucked away unobtrusively above beach volleyball and synchronized swimming but under golf, it is to be found near the bottom of every list of major league sporting events; its coverage nestles out of sight in the back pages of every major newspaper, camouflaged in between the computer hardware and used car ads.
Sure, ESPN has some coverage rights (Director, run the applause tape) but that has more to do with finance than with any real desire to bring the sport to the masses. If you dispute my claim, google Alexi Lalas, ESPN‘s in-studio “expert.” Done? Well, I rest my case.
I mean, how seriously can you take a television channel whose in-studio NBA expert is a combination of Dennis Rodman and Gilbert Arenas? Or, to bring it closer home, how seriously do you take the local stations when they have Raphick Jumadeen as their colour commentator on cricket?
In mainstream America, football—I mean soccer—is stretched out in its coffin, awaiting burial; for a long time, ever since the 1994 World Cup was staged in that country, it was on its death bed, receiving a little life support.
There are senseless excuses, of course, such as the length of the game or the lack of clarity in the rules. You need not take my word for it; run your own test. Is there a more confusing pro-sport than football, not soccer, American football?
Start with the fact that every team comprises both an attacking team and a defending team both of which are part of the same team. Consider too that the football is hardly ever kicked; for the better part of the game, it is busy being thrown, being caught, being passed from hand to hand (in dangerously constricted personal space) and being carried across an enormous field through a mass of dangerously threatening bodies which have malice aforethought while being clutched in nothing other than well, human hands.
Confused? Welcome to the club.
Then there is the matter of the length of the game. A regular football (ahem, “soccer”) game lasts over two halves of 45 minutes each with a 15 minute break in between to update Facebook statuses and check messages and, of course, for the players to receive the necessary words of wisdom from the manager/coach.
By way of comparison, an NBA game goes on for four quarters of 12 minutes each. That means that a game, if there is no overtime, lasts just over 48 minutes, right? Wrong!
In theory, a game could last just two days short of forever and contain more breaks than a marathon parliamentary session. There are 20-second time-outs, full time-outs, referee time-outs, injury time-outs, water-cooler and Gatorade time-outs; there are clock reviews, foul reviews, regular-points reviews, three-points reviews, buzzer-beater reviews and sometimes even review reviews.
Then there are the ads: the beer ads, the cold beer ads, the coldest beer ads. The new car ads and the used car ads. The cable ads, the party ads, the best drink ads. The old NBA highlights ads, the new NBA feel-good ads—the beat goes on and on.
Forty-eight minutes becomes two hours heading to 2 or 3 a.m. and sleep calling you in all kinda foreign language. And extended OT just keeps on going on. But real football, where feet actually play the ball and the use of the hands is mostly unsanctioned, is still called “soccer.”
Real football, which runs continuously without beer ads and colder beer ads, is deemed “too long.” Still confused? Yes, I know the feeling.
For now, though, no thanks to America, real football is still alive—and kicking!
The numbers watching the Euro Cup are proof positive. But something needs to be done quickly to ensure that no permanent scars are left on the face of the beautiful game.
Truth is that there are some racist bigots posing as fans who are determined to leave their negative mark on it. You will find those almost anywhere so football—ahem, soccer—can’t expect to remain unaffected by such folly.
Maybe some big-time managers also fall into the same race trap; that’s a real possibility. But the calls for tougher policing during games and for giving indisciplined fans red cards are a good idea; that too might help.
Maybe team owners and clubs and leagues and countries can all step up and do more to erase the little ugly blotch that threatens to deface the beautiful game.
In the short term, while we wait to see the recommended changes implemented, there is comfort for those whose hearts are troubled over the growing threat of racism in sport in general and in football, soccer, in general.
Consider this: when Robin van Persie runs on to a 20-metre aerial right side pass and from the left corner of the penalty box places a technically perfect volley into the far right corner of the net, do you notice that he is white? Does it matter?
Or when Nani runs square across the penalty area and from the left-hand corner of the area curls a magnificent right-footed shot past the desperate dive of an opposing keeper, do you see the blackness of his skin? Does it matter? I think not.
Nothing silences racism better than consummate skill and artistry, scoring a fabulous goal and forcing the assembled spectators to forget who you are, who they are because they voluntarily become merely a part of that moment.
You see it over and over on TV. Thousands, maybe even millions, of fans if you include those watching at home, screaming in sweet unison, hands in the air, seats temporarily abandoned, the thrill of skill, the sweet savour of success making country of origin and skin colour and blood lines completely irrelevant!
The voices, the flags, the deafening roar of untrammelled approval, the boundless joy of victory, hopes and hearts lifted in unison, minds and spirits transported above Cloud Nine. The sheer ecstasy of a belief justified, a dream fulfilled, an aspiration achieved, the magic of a transcendental moment shared.
One sublime touch, one deft play that transforms our passion and converts a million voices, a million hearts, a million sentiments, a million strangers suddenly into one united whole.
The Euro Cup is on! And we are in our glee.
The writer of this piece is tired of the beer ads, the cold beer ads and the colder beer ads and is glad double goal scorer, Andrei Shevchenko, was able to turn back the hands of time.