Football ( or Soccer, if you prefer) is often called ‘The Beautiful Game’. I forget who first conjured the phrase – possibly it came to prominence around the same time somebody dreamt up that one about ‘the British Police Force is the best in the world’, or some such. Personally, I can find nothing in football that is beautiful. I can find very little in football that can be called a ‘game’.
All right, my antipathy for the sport is well-known. I can be found railing haplessly at the TV on any given Sunday, searching vainly through the channels for something – anything – which does not depict professional sport. But I do have real (and growing) cause for concern, and I will tell you why.
The backcloth, of course, is the World Cup, currently reaching a climax in torrential floods of nationalism all over Brazil. So many of the young people I reach during my work, erudite, intelligent young people on their way to university or to apprenticeships in the next few years, are obsessed with football that any attempt at conversation on other subjects is ruled out.
I don’t mind. I like to acquire enough background knowledge to converse on any subject, which is why I in the course of one session I responded readily to a mention of the tackle which floored Brazil’s Neymar and broke a vertebra in his spine. I had seen the tackle, in which a Columbian player running at full tilt had apparently rammed his knee intentionally into Neymar’s lower back. It was clearly a foul in the worst sense, but one the referee chose to ignore: why, I can only surmise.
But that was not the reason for the chill that ran up my spine in this discussion. When we agreed the tackle had been designed to eliminate Neymar, Brazil’s young rising star, from the competition, and I suggested that this had little to do with sport my young companion shook his head.
“Well of course, you do anything you can get away with. That’s the game, isn’t it?”
I soon established my young companion wholly condoned the practice of fouling to cause injury, ‘diving’ in the penalty area where any foul will result in a penalty kick at goal, and feigning injury to gain a time advantage, or get an opposing player sent from the pitch: all fair play in his estimation if you want to ‘win’.
This young man is on his way to university to study for a business degree. He is one of the next generation of industry captains who will be selling to us, producing goods for us, selling and buying shares in the market on our behalf. Personally, I will be very careful to watch his progress.
Today Neymar gave an emotional press conference in which he revealed that if the contact on his back had been a few centimeters higher he would have been paralyzed for life. An attack such as the one he suffered, delivered with such cynicism, would be punishable by a jail sentence if it happened outside a football ground. Yet the ‘sport’ of football seems not only to tolerate this kind of gamesmanship, it positively promotes it. The skills involved in the sneak tackles – the exaggerated swan-dives and the agonized protestations of innocence are clearly not haphazardly attained: they must be taught.
And as they are taught, so they teach. The next generation will believe that anything is alright, as long as they can get away with it – anything goes. If too many are in front of them in the queue it is alright to trip up, back elbow, bludgeon and maim, either literally or figuratively, those who separate them from their goal.
So where do we draw the line – at the devious, the underhand? And who will be there to draw that line, to kerb the outrageous, defend the victims of this kind of injustice? If ever an indictment of our TV-focussed, parentally deficient society existed, it was on that football pitch last week. The ‘beautiful game’- a picture in our attic, perhaps?