Sunday, 13 January 2013

Our beautiful game...?

I love sport.  It makes me happy.  Watching it, participating in it and reading about it.  Living in the West of Scotland, ofcourse its all about football.  Much is written about this beautiful game.  Much of it factual, much of it partisan and some of it heartfelt.  I'd like to add my recent observations.

I live in a rather large Scottish town, whose local football team has seen the usual highs and lows you would come to expect from over a hundred years plying their trade. They've almost made the top flight once or twice. They've also lanquished in the lower reaches of the league but, interestingly, they've always enjoyed a larger than average support - of which they are fiercely proud. As a life long emotional supporter but a fairweather actual supporter, I've dipped in and out of attending home games and have even been known to travel on occasion.   
I've been lucky enough to attend some football at the highest level - a Champions League final at Hampden, where I witnessed the beauty and majesty of Los Galacticos, and, what's widely cited as one of the greatest goals ever scored; a European match at Celtic Park - wined and dined and sitting in the posh seats; a Scotland v England match, where I saw actual David Beckham and a derby at St James' Park in Newcastle.   Whilst I can't deny they were experiences I will remember forever, there is something about watching my local team that beats this, hands down.
Sitting in the stand (as I do), just behind the dugout, hearing the manager directing the flow of play, watching the subs warming up (and trying to guess who's coming on, before it's announced) makes the game as exciting as almost anything.  For me, this is where football really comes to life.  What's happening on the pitch is inextricably linked to what's happening off the pitch.  The dugout behaviour, the mood of the fans - the 12th man, as they are rightly called and the cut and thrust of the two battling teams, all merge into a rollercoaster ride of emotion that I don't think you can experience as well in a huge stadium.  Ofcourse, the sheer noise of tens of thousands of fans chanting in unison, the level of football on display and the pomp and circumstance of a big match is impressive and can be breathtaking - but give me an up close and personal experience any day of the week.
My most recent visit to my home ground filled me with a bevy of emotion, some unexpected.  I took my seat amongst the diehard fans, mainly season ticket holders and was enjoying the banter, the spectacle and the usual noises and smells of matchday.  The nod I give to the 3 old gents who sit just in front of me, who now bring their grandsons; the 50/50 draw ticket;  reading the team sheet; glancing around, seeing the same faces and basking in the comfortable glow that familiarity and a common purpose gives.  This feeling of being part of something - a collective - is something that I really like.  It's replicated in many areas of our lives but, being a sports participant and enthusiast all my life,  this is one of my favourites.
I'd no sooner settled in for the 90 minutes when the visiting team scored.  After only 9 minutes.  The small but noisy away support erupted, as expected.  What I wasn't expecting was the loud cheering in my ear from 3 away supporters who were sitting  right beside me.  I was speechless.  Looking not in the slightest unusual, wrapped up with hats on, I hadn't even noticed their allegiance as I said hello to them on my arrival.   I know that people are entitled to support who they please and sit where they please but I thought there was some kind of protocol - an unwritten rule - that if you were amongst the opposing support and your team score, you sit on your hands.   Our familiar, happy, collective had been invaded and we were aghast.  I would consider myself balanced, grounded, realistic and fair but this just felt wrong.  The end result was a convincing win for my team.  I will confess I felt like leading a chant of the familiar "you're not singing any more" when we went 2 up...  15 years ago, I suspect it may have ended in violence.
To the drama on the pitch.   There was a player in the opposing team who for me, stood out from the off.  His demeanour and attitude looked menacing.  He was a decent enough player but I was drawn to his behaviour around the ball, as much as on it.  Following a relatively innocuous tackle and a word from the referee, this young player launched into a foul mouthed and aggressive attack on the official that left me shocked and blushing.  Given my proximity to the action, I could make out the important words in his tirade and clearly see the venom with which they were being delivered.  What happened next shocked me too.   Precisely nothing.   The referee ignored the player, turned on his heels and carried on with the match.  The manager, who was closer to the incident than I was and would have seen and heard it perfectly, also carried on as if nothing had happened.
Just as there is familiarity in my footballing experience, the things I have come to know and expect, was what I witnessed from the referee and the manager the same?  Were their reactions normal?  I am sure I am naive but it disappoints me to see that kind of behaviour tolerated.  I think the language was so offensive he should have been sent off.  No questions asked.  And if I was the manager I would subsequently have punished him in some way. Unless I am mistaken, there have been many incidences of severe consequences against people at football matches who have used offensive language.  Why should this be treated differently.   Is football practising zero tolerance for some types of offensive behaviour and language, but not others?  I believe footballers - all athletes for that matter - have a duty to behave impeccably, to set a good example and to always be mindful of  the very privileged postition they occupy, the influence they have and the responsibility that goes along with it.

As I said, I believe what happens on the pitch is inextricably linked to what happens off the pitch. There were a number of young boys sitting within earshot of this.  What are we teaching them?
I've competed in a sporting arena, I understand that being passionate and hungry for success and caring so much about it that it ignites a fire inside you is an admirable quality.  I know.  I've felt it.  But what I witnessed wasn't admirable in the least.  It's the kind of behaviour that is making our beautiful game rather ugly.
If the young man I'm talking about happens to read this blog, perhaps he will heed the very important advice I was given early in my sporting career.
"Learning how to lose is every bit as important as learning how to win".

For a time, this was a theme song at our happy home ground. It brings back many great memories:
And, just incase you've been on another planet since 2002, here's the goal Zidane scored at Hampden Park to secure a Champions League victory for Real Madrid: