More than Just a Game

I don’t care what your feelings are on soccer. It does not matter if this is your favorite sport, like it is for me, or if you find it “more boring than watching paint dry.” This posting has nothing to do with the aesthetic elements of the sport. I don’t care if you think that soccer players are the toughest players in the world (which I can argue, but on a different day), or if you consider them “sissies and drama queens”. Soccer is so much bigger than just a mere sport. It is so much more than just a mere game. And yes, I understand that I can make this claim for all sports. But with soccer, this claim becomes magnified, it becomes unique, and if you read on you will find out why. Whether you love soccer or hate it, even if you dislike sports in general, take the time to appreciate and respect how much the sport impacts the world…how it has roots in nationalistic, cultural, and political conflicts, yet manages to unify a diverse world, bring fans together, and establish new friendships.

In order to truly appreciate the importance of soccer to so much of the world, it is first necessary to understand why it is so popular in the first place. Unlike American football, which is almost exclusively only played within our borders, hockey, which is only played in North America and in the coldest pockets of Europe, baseball, which is mostly played here, in the Americas, and in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, or basketball, which requires a hoop, cement and a ball that actually bounces properly, soccer requires so little equipment to play. Just get a ball, or a soda can, or a rolled-up sock, and make a goal…a sneaker, a t-shirt, a book bag will do. Starving children in Africa, Asia play it to escape from their daily poverty and hopeless situations. Suburban rich American kids, driven by their “soccer moms” play it, for fun, to socialize, and to stay active. Working-class kids from the streets of South America and Europe play it, to gain street-wide cred and respect, with dreams of one day going pro. Individuals from every nationality, religious faith, ethnicity, and political belief play it. Soccer is literally the most universal event in the world. People literally of all stripes follow the sport, from Queen Elizabeth to Osama Bin Laden, from Rupert Murdoch to Michael Moore, from Shakira to Spike Lee, from Tom Brady to Lebron James. The official international soccer body, the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) currently has more members on it than does the United Nations. The 2006 World Cup, alone, was watched by over a BILLION people…an amazing feat, considering that over 50% of humans in this world did not even own a television set at the time.

Here is something pretty awesome about soccer…it can literally be applied to study historical cultural and political conflicts. Soccer supremacy transcends past history, military power, or economic influence because countries that lack these can at least apply soccer a major cornerstone of national pride. The United States is arguably the most powerful nation in the world, yet it is unable to beat a developing country like Ghana, from where it perhaps one day stole citizens and enslaved them. France, winners of the World Cup in 1998, lost to a third world country, Senegal, which it occupied only as recently as 50 years ago. At every international competition, Brazil is so proud to show off its soccer skills, its partying, and its beautiful women to the rest of the world. This trend extends to the clubs, as well. Barcelona is known as a club of Catalans, a proud people who have their own language and culture, and prefer to practice their traditions, if not outright secede from Spain, which they are a part of. Their fierce rivals, Real Madrid, have been historically supported by Spanish governments, including Francisco Franco, the fascist-leaning dictator who was a fan of the team and who banned the Catalans from speaking their own language or practicing their own culture. Consider the rivalry between the two Roman clubs, Lazio and Roma. Lazio is a club with many fascist supporters, including Benito Mussolini once, and now his daughter, Alessandra; Roma fans are historically liberal, and some are even pro-Socialist. The two Scottish clubs, Celtic and Rangers, are fierce opponents, where Celtic supporters are Catholic and Rangers supporters are Protestant, a soccer-like illustration of the tension between the two religions in Scotland. Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem’s fans are rightist, pro-Settler supporters, may of them racist, who unfortunately and illegally go so far as to demand all of their players to be Jewish; their primary rivals, Maccabbee Tel Aviv contains fans who are more progressive, liberal, and tolerant of Arabs and other minorities. AC Milan is supported by supporters of Benito Berlusconi who also happens to own the team; their rivals, Inter Milan are composed of an uncomfortable motley of the party’s opponents, including Communists and Fascists, among others. Tottenham Hotspur and Ajax, who have large Jewish fan bases, have been historically taunted by opponents as a “Jewish club”, complete with anti-Semitic slurs….so in a show of solidarity, and to fight back, these two clubs started calling themselves “Jews” or the “Yid Army”…waving Israeli flags, wearing Star of David necklaces, and even getting Jewish’ tattoos (some of y’all will call this “cultural appropriation”, this will never be me. I’ll call it awesomeness”). What other sport in the world can be utilized as a study of the cultural, ethnic, and political differences between cultures and even regions? I’m not even kidding, you could probably make a whole college class on this; I’d volunteer to be the professor.

You would think that such fervent nationalism, created by soccer, would lead to division, rioting, and chaos. Yes, in some instances this is indeed, unfortunately, true. Yes, there are some racist chants and songs (the US vs Mexico match last week actually had issues with homosexual chants), there are riots and hooliganism, and there remain enmity, intolerance, and disrespect, prevalent in some countries more than in others. Much of Europe, but especially Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe, continue having issues with racism, monkey chants, and anti-Semitic imagery. Yet, more often than not, soccer has been utilized as the ultimate tool to unify the peoples of the world. In many instances, soccer has managed to unify opposing parties, where the politicians and diplomats failed to do so. Anyone who follows league or international soccer matches even mildly can appreciate the mutual respect between players from varied countries, races, religions, or political affiliations. Whatever one’s differences are, watching a soccer match can bridge distinct groups together. If Iran, coached by an Iranian American no less, plays against the United States in the World Cup, if Palestinian Arabs score goals for the Israeli National Team during key World Cup qualification races, if North Korea comes out of isolation to play in the World Cup, if Turkish prime minister Tayyep Erdrogan enjoys a match in Armenia, if Ireland plays against England, if Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds all play on the same team to contribute to their prolonged and unexpected run to finish in fourth place in the Summer Olympics, then we have an avenue we need to leverage in unifying people through the love of the “beautiful game”. Soccer even has the ability to temporary stop wars! During Christmas Eve in World War II, the French, the Brits, and the Germans laid down their arms and played a match of soccer. As a result, this experience created such a stirring effect on the enemy’s humanity, that it took generals from both sides weeks to instill a fighting spirit back into their troops to motivate them to continue fighting and killing each other. More recently, in 2006, the Ivory Coast declared a truce in their Civil War between Northern Muslims and Southern Christians to unite together behind their country’s fortunes at the World Cup. Perhaps this is why so many soccer stars, like Didier Drogba of Chelsea and the Ivory Coast, Kaka of Real Madrid and Brazil, David Beckham of the LA Galaxy and England, and numerous others are ambassadors to international goodwill organizations.

Perhaps the unfortunate Hillsborough disaster experienced by the fans of my favorite club, Liverpool F.C. best examplifies how soccer is more than just a game, how just like the Muskateers, a tragedy for all affects one, and a tragedy for one affects all. In a game between Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest, many more fans showed up than could fit inside the stadium, and they all attempted to cram in for an important game. Unluckily, there was a crush in the stands, killing 94 fans. The response to this tragedy by the club’s management, fans, and players, is truly inspirational, and I have yet to see something similar with any sport. Liverpool FC not only built a memorial on their own field, but created a crest, to be worn on their jerseys…not just for one season, but as a permanent part of their jerseys. They created a song about always remembering the victims, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which they sing at matches, much like Red Sox fans sing “Sweet Caroline”. Many of Liverpool’s players personally attended as many funerals for the victims as they could. Resident celebrities such as Paul McCartney organized whole concerts to benefit the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. The club refuses to play any matches on April 15th, the day of the catastrophe.

The power of soccer can literally rally a city to stand united against slander, as again, happened in Liverpool. While other clubs stepped up to show their support, one of the largest British papers, the Sun, despicably took advantage of the tragedy to sell papers by smearing Liverpool’s fans by claiming that. “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving “kiss of life”. Following The Sun’s report, the newspaper was boycotted by most residents in Liverpool, with large numbers of readers not only cancelling their subscriptions, but refusing to buy from shops that stocked it. A TV segment by the BBC showed comedian Alexei Sayle with a newsagent attempting to give away copies of The Sun for free in Liverpool; every single customer declined. Today, even 23 years after the incident, the overwhelming majority of Liverpoolians continue to reject buying The Sun. It is the only major newspaper not to have articles published on Liverpool’s official website. As of 2004, the average daily circulation of The Sun in Liverpool was just 12,000 copies a day.

When Bolton Footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the field during a game, with an unknown heart condition, the game was cancelled, when his heart could not be revived on the field. The cancellation was agreed by both teams, when the stakes of the game could not have been higher, with Bolton just a mere point above relegation and that their opponent, Tottenham Hotspur, is in a close fight for qualifying for next season’s Champions League. Bolton’s manager went into the ambulance and into his hospital with his injuired player. Bolton’s next game was postponed indefinetely, with the permission of their next scheduled opponent, Aston Villa. Reaction around the soccer community was remarkable. One player for Juventus, Andres Pirlo dedicated the goal that he scored for Muamba. Another, Gary Cahill, revealed a shirt that said “Pray for Muamba” after scoring a goal; although taking off shirts is an automatic yellow card, the referee did not issue one. Real Madrid’s whole team wore jerseys, half of which said “Get Well Soon, Muamba”, and the other half saying “Animo [get well] Abidal” (Abidal plays for FC Barcelona, the bitter rival of real Madrid, and he is getting a liver transplant).

Think about what I just wrote in the last 3 paragraphs for a minute. Tell me, in what sport has something similar ever happened before? Where are the tributes to the KHL (Russian hockey) team that died in a plane crash in 2011, by the NHL? Where are the emblems memorializing the Marshall football team, that died in a plane crash; does Marshall play games on the day of the tragedy? A few seasons ago, two Celtics players were dealing with enlarged heart conditions…did any of the players or fans from the other teams wish them well? When Buffalo Bills player Kevin Everett paralyzed his spine, or when Steve Moore broke three collarbones from Todd Bertuzzi’s vicious punch, did either of the coaches go to the emergency room with their injured players? Did the referees cancel the game? The games were not only not postponed in these incidents, but even in the 1972 Olympic Games, after terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches… the games went on. The soccer community would agree with 1972 American Olympic runner Kenny Moore, “You give a party, and someone is killed (or injured!) at the party, you don’t continue the party.” How can you help but not feel inspired by the responses of the soccer community to help overcome and recover from tragedies, regardless of who they affect?

Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport [especially soccer, which he played in prison, was a huge fan of, and was instrumental in South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup] can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.” When talking about soccer, bigots cannot say that somebody is more intelligent, or aggressive, or is greedy, during a soccer match because the evidence is right there on the field, to be judged on how technical your dribbling ability is, how crisp your passes are, how clean are your slide tackles appear, how accurate and strong is your shot is. Soccer patches up our differences by admiring and respecting an individual for his or her soccer skills. Indeed, some of the major organizations against racism are led by soccer players. A decade before kneeling, or BLM shirts, Barcelona and French National Team striker has teamed up with Nike to start “Stand Up, Speak Up” an organization against racism. At the semifinals of Euro 2008, each team captain spoke out against racism. England has worn bands against racism during some of its matches, Holland, Portugal and Russia have recently given up their team colors for a match and instead wore black and white jerseys to highlight their resistance to bigotry. What other sport does so much to fight bigotry? What sport has always historically taken public stands against hatred, universally supported by the majority of not only clubs and countries, but players?

In high school, I met the majority of my friends through playing soccer. Every afternoon during lunch breaks, after school, or on weekends, we would gather at the high school’s field and shoot the ball around or play pickup games. We all played together… Israeli Jews and Iranian and Pakistani Muslims, Japanese and Chinese immigrants, Africans, Americans, and African Americans, Catholics and Protestants, Americans dating back generations and foreigners here on temporary visas. What started out as just a game grew into instant friendships. We did so much more than just watch soccer matches together. We would played Texas Hold’em at each others’ houses, went out to watch movies and sporting events together, played paintball, helped each other with homework, and went out to eat. Without soccer, I would have never made these permanent, incredible friendships with so many amazing and diverse people.

Our motley group defined the meaning of soccer…it is not just the adrenaline of faking out your opponent or the thrill of scoring a goal… it is so much more….a fraternity of fans. It is not just a game. It is a form of respect, which opens doors to mutual friendships. A lesson in diversity and against xenophobia. A crash course on diplomacy. Contributing to your community and to your society. An example of how to treat all humans with compassion and respect, how to be a decent human being. Even someone who dislikes the sport itself, or even all sports in general should be able to appreciate and respect that…or perhaps even try following or playing the game…you never know, you may just start enjoying it!

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