Saturday, 8 September 2007

Let the football do the talking

First published in The Grecian, 8 September 2007, Exeter City -v- Cambridge United

I’ve never been a great one for razzmatazz in football. The half-time penalty competitions, 'cross-bar challenges' and point-to-point races are fine. And of course there’s a place for proper ceremony at ‘occasion’ matches – cup finals, play-offs, Champions League games, internationals and the like.

But there’s something about our game that rightly resists too much distraction before and after the main event – or in the midst of it, for that matter.

What made me think about this was being in America earlier in the summer. The media keeps coming back to is the age-old question about whether ‘soccer’ will ever really take off in the USA.

Aside from the dominant questions of dollars and celebrities (the Beckham circus was in full swing while I was travelling), the real issue, I reckon, comes down to a question of spectacle versus story.

Football is about something rather different to the set-plays, stats and stadium antics that bolster the regular diet of American Football and Baseball fans week-in and week-out.

Not that I can’t see the appeal of this. In my brother-in-law’s honour we made a family pilgrimage to see the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Saint Louis Cardinals while we were on the East Coast.

This was Kevin’s university area baseball team versus my wife’s. But the split loyalties were made easier by the fact that the Pirates were going through a rough time in July, so no one expected them to triumph. And they didn’t!

I enjoyed the game. What made it additionally interesting for me, however, was to contrast its appearance with that of football here in Britain, and to try to figure out why they look and feel so very different.

For a start, statistics really are king in US sport. You spend a good deal of your time – perhaps the majority – studying the rapidly changing numbers on a huge scoreboard. And dotted around the stadium are people recording every digit as it flies past their eyes.

Somewhere in the midst of this is the game of baseball itself, which even more than cricket is a series of high-speed events that provide an adrenalin rush in between bouts of on-field reorganisation.

There are also regular competitions, adverts and announcements between plays – as well as rehearsed chants, beer and food sellers wending their way through the seating areas, and a ‘song and stretch’ at the top of the seventh (of nine) periods.

From a football fan’s viewpoint it’s a curious but strangely episodic event. Even the beginning and the end don’t seem such a big deal.

By contrast, football is about the forward motion of a continuous, unfolding story. There’s a kind of ‘narrative’ to a really good game –a shape and architecture to the whole thing, knitted together by moments of beauty, high tension and the almost physical release of a goal.

Of course, I’m deeply biased. For me, no game comes close to football for that elusive combination of skill, tactics, drama, athletic prowess and almost balletic artistry.

We've all seen dull matches, for sure. Probably rather too many – even at dear old Exeter. But when football comes together in all its glorious wholeness it becomes unsurpassably rewarding – not so much an instant thrill, more a work of poetry-in-motion.

Those of my American friends for whom football really is played with the feet recognise this too. But they tell me that in a 'society of the spectacle', as the USA is sometimes called, it's very hard to grasp.

What people are reared on is immediate entertainment. Football, on the other hand, is about the slower burn of passion. Long may it be so.

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