The Beautiful Game

The agony of de-feet.

With the World Cup in full swing, I feel compelled to include some commentary. I’m not a big sports fan, so I can remain objective discussing such an emotional subject.

On this day, America was defeated by Ghana. This is the second time in as many World Cups that Ghana sent America packing, which speaks volumes about the value of this truly international competition. Unlike the Olympics, where huge sums of money can make a national team superstars, in association football any group of wiry little bastards can destroy the richest and most powerful nation on Earth.

The next generation of Goliath slayers.

Association football isn’t very popular in America. We love it for our children, but if you’re post-pubescent and still playing soccer, you’re gay or weird or both. Parents giveth the soccer ball, then they taketh away. This seems mighty strange when one considers that the vast bulk of Earth adores the sport and holds it in the highest regard imaginable.

The reason for America’s tepid interest is simple: the nature of the gameplay precludes extensive commercial breaks during broadcast. There isn’t enough TV money in soccer to satiate the voracious appetites of the American media machine. Without broadcasts, there is no national interest. Without national interest, there is no television audience. It’s a positive feedback loop that keeps soccer in schoolyards and civic fields and out of stadiums and networks.

45 minutes without ad time? Forget it. What's next on the agenda?

For the rest of the world, it’s a passion. Their broadcasters will show all the games simply because it draws viewers. They have that old-fashioned belief that currying viewership builds long-term interest in the rest of the offerings. This quaint approach to business is anathema to American business practice, which dictates that anything that threatens the next quarter’s numbers is a stupid folly that must be avoided.

What a passionate market segment may look like.

Meanwhile, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa and Pacifica are exploding with football madness. Supporters go to horrifying extremes to demonstrate their loyalty to the local side. In Britain, this passion makes worldwide news as the hooligans perform public outrage after public outrage.  This is the kind of passion that marketing executives dream about, but America has yet to comprehend the possibilities. It’s her loss.

As for me? Even if America became soccer-mad I wouldn’t be very interested in the game itself. Maybe if soccer matches became ultra-bloody spectacles of crowd violence I’d watch on TV and even attend matches now and then. It’s the psycho-social aspects of the game that interest me, not the game itself. Why? Let me tell you  a story…


It was 2004. I was touring the south of England during the UEFA Euro Cup games and ended up alone in Bournemouth during the quarterfinal against Portugal. I debated leaving my hotel to join the locals; my previous match night in a tiny Wiltshire village pub was a bit stressful. Being the “bloody Yank” in a sea of painted English faces isn’t exactly comforting.

But I wanted to see the spectacle. I wanted to observe this cultural phenomena firsthand. English football hooligans make American football tough-guys look like a bunch of fat girlies. I wanted to understand this fury; I wanted to smell the beer and the sweat and hear the screams of joy and anger. I was not disappointed.

I went to the biggest, busiest pub full of the most painted, caped and be-draped England fans I could find. The place was a riot of beer and noise. The crowd overflowed to the outdoors, where numerous TV sets were hurriedly installed maximize the punter volume. It was to this garden I went and, to my surprise, was befriended immediately.

'E's a fookin' Yank, 'e is!

I met a lovely young college-age couple and their buddy, a hardcore supporter. We talked about England and America and how idiotic Bush is and all that stuff. The game against Portugal started well enough: Michael Owen scores in minute 3 and the place explodes with joy. I felt much more at ease, cheering on the English side without actually speaking too much and giving away my ethnicity. I wanted to blend in and observe, not come across as a johnny-come-lately interloper.

The game progressed through waves of beer and liquor. I was quite intoxicated when regulation time expired. In extra time, Portugal scored and the whole place erupted in hatred and frustration. What now, England? To universal relief, Frank Lampard scored the equalizing goal at minute 115. A miracle! But as extra time expired, the place became hushed.

I didn’t take any of these photos, but it this one demonstrates the mood of that moment perfectly:

Why so sad?

I didn’t understand it. The game is a draw and will go to a shoot-out. England still has a fighting chance! Why is everyone so despondent? I stupidly inquired with my hooligan host what the problem was.

“Cunt!” exclaimed the hooligan, “England ALWAYS loses these FOOKING shoot-out’s! FOOK! Oi ‘ate this shite! Oi fookin’ ‘ate it! FOOK! ENG-LUNDDD!”

And he toddled off, beer in hand, a man destroyed. The whole pub felt similarly. they knew that the English side, despite its numerous merits, are world-renown for screwing it up in the clutch. England, mighty England, is a goat team. And everyone knew it.

You could hear a pin drop in the pub. First up for England: Beckham. The man. The legend. He sets the ball, steps back, hand in the air, and proceeds to puff the ball miles wide of the goal. It was the kind of shot on goal I would make, and I suck donkey ass.

That was it. The place was in an uproar. As the shoot-out continued point-for-point, there was absolutely no hope. Portugal was one point up and that was all the room anyone needed to beat the goat-losers of England. Fate inexorably closed in on the hopes and dreams of the Sceptr’d Isle. Portugal wins, 6-5.

The pins-and-needles were swept away by torrents of dark, beaming anger. Screams of anguish filled the hall. Glasses smashed on the floor. Men were tearing at their hair and faces. As they say in hooligan lore, it was about to “go off”.

Not a place for drunk Americans.

The crowd spilled out into the street. Men were stripping off their shirts and flexing their muscles. Women walked quickly along, arms tight their men-folk. I must admit, I was feeling like them. I wanted to put my head down, grab someone’s arm and hope to Christ they could guide me out of that mess. The incipient violence was palpable.

Social scientists have studied crowd violence for decades. Freud supposed that crowd anonymity begets unwarranted exuberance and truncated personal reasoning skills. “Convergence Theory” holds that crowds self-organize: while it’s possible for a few individuals to whip up a crowd, the crowd must want to be whipped up.

What I witnessed that night paid homage to both theories. The core of extreme hooligans clearly infected others, but as the crowd swarmed into the street and started marching uphill, it was apparent that the horde had decided for itself to vent anger and do damage.

There was them. And there was me. And then, there was the police.

It's goin' off!

At the top of the hill was a wide police cordon. The coppers had lined up their vehicles at the crest of the hill and formed a cordon in front. As we marched up the hill toward them, they stood ready, tapping their batons in their palms, ready to crack some drunk-ass skulls without a moment’s hesitation.

At this point, I was ripe for escape. I looked to the left. I looked to the right. No alleys, no arcades. Only two directions existed: forward with the crowd or back against it. I was infected; I couldn’t turn back. It was like surfing into shore. The wave carries you and you don’t head back out to sea even if you want to.

The hooligans were screaming at the police, tearing at their bald heads and itching for a fight. The bigger, the bloodier, the better.

As the first wave of rioters met the police cordon, something amazing happened: the crowd backed down. It wasn’t just one person and it wasn’t discussed among the hooligans. It was just felt. Despite its vehemence, the crowd had decided for itself that this was not the occasion. Skinhead England supporters meekly ducked past the police, wringing their football shirts in their grubby, drunken hands. “Relief” could hardly describe my feelings.

We all winnowed our way through the police cordon. There was a bit of yelling and shoving, but in the grand scheme of things peace had been restored. I bustled past the cops with my head down, silent. God forbid they picked out a fucking American in this crowd. It would be like finding a Tibetan monk at a Texas hootenanny. Like, what the fuck are you doing here?

I walked back to my hotel, exhausted yet unharmed.

My back-handed appreciation for the Beautiful Game coalesced that night. I had never seen anything like it. Sure, angry crowds in Detroit and Los Angeles sometimes riot after a big win, but their chaotic vandalism can’t hold a candle to the focused, shimmering fire of the heightened association football fan.

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