June 18, 2010
Soccer -- the Dubious Thrill of Nil-NilBy G. Murphy Donovan
Americans call it soccer. Europe and the developing world call it football. Semantics is just the start of the confusion. The foot is only one of two appendages that might be used to strike the ball in soccer -- hands can only be used for clearing nasal passages, package adjustments, and obscene gestures. The head plays a pivotal and often decisive role in "futbol." This is not the same as using your head, as in playing intelligently; this is using your head like a bat, to strike the ball. And the "header" is just one of the uses of the frontal lobes.
Head-butting an opponent is not legal in soccer, yet it is often decisive nonetheless. The last World Cup was decided by a head-butt, not a header -- again, keeping in mind that neither involves use of the hands. Unlike hockey, punching an opponent is considered bad form in soccer -- unless you're in the stands, where fist fights are ubiquitous. Nonetheless, a head-butt on the soccer pitch can be like a grand slam in baseball.
The 2006 Cup match between France and Italy in Germany was illustrative. Regulation play ended in a tie (1-1). Suddenly, the scoreless tedium of an "extra time" was relieved when Zinedine Zidane (sic) of France leveled Marco Materazzi (sic) of Italy with a head-butt to the solar plexus. (European soccer moms are addicted to alliteration.) The world's most-watched sport was then reduced to striker practice after Zee Zee was tossed from the game -- and French café society. Italy exacted sweet revenge by winning the match in the shoot-out.
The French may be infamous for their bad manners, but their aversion to actual combat is legendary. Reducing the World Cup finale to a "shoot out" in 2006 may have been one irony too many for the sensitive French.
Many national teams play football, but few play well. Soccer is also the definitive imperial support. Just seven countries, four in Europe and three former Latin colonies, dominate the sport, although as many as two hundred national teams qualify every four years. In eighty years, the same seven teams have monopolized the Cup, a group that includes England, the game's inventor.
Almost everywhere English footballers appear, they contribute to a riot or two in the stands. English fans have rescued the word hooligan from the dustbin of 19th-century history. "Houlie" is Gaelic for a kind of wild Irish party where alcohol is certain and bloodshed likely. The Irish never care much about the merits of an argument as long as it ends in a fight. The modern hooligan is a Brit fan who uses soccer as an excuse for a fight. Who would have thought that the English would ever make the Irish look good?
Much ink has been spilt on the subject of soccer violence in the cheap seats. Yet sports mayhem is not restricted to the British. Italian rival spectators must often be separated by razor wire and automatic weapons. And soccer fans are hiring personal bodyguards in South Africa this year.
The link between the ballet-like game of soccer and fan violence is puzzling. Rationalizations abound. Boredom is the most obvious explanation for spectator hostility. Twenty-two men with oversized thighs, underdeveloped torsos, and thick skulls chase a volleyball up and down a pitch for ninety minutes, and the score is often zip-zip. In contrast, a basketball game will often see over a hundred goals -- and a game of hoops never concludes with a tie.
In soccer, nil-nil is good because nobody loses. In such cases, futbol is a lot like no-contact dodgeball. Then there's the tie game, where no one loses either, yet the fellas seem to savor the joy of scoring -- without actually winning. In tournament play, tied teams are awarded a point apiece anyway. Go figure.
Soccer appears to be the perfect politically correct diversion for the European Union (EU) and the non-aligned. And American leftists have taken the game to a new level with "scoreless soccer," a game where winners and losers are banished lest some kid come to see real competition as a good thing. Sadly, parents and politicians might be clueless or non-aligned, but football fanatics are not.
Indeed, nil and tied scores might explain why fans often feel compelled to take matters into their own hands. Any large gathering of seething partisans will often reach a critical mass when their expectations go unrealized on the playing field. A soccer eruption is often ignited by the sight of heavy breathing, the scent of testosterone, the taste of alcohol, and the angst of ancient tribal animosity.
The homoerotic voltage generated by twenty two men running, sweating, and posturing -- but not scoring -- is second only to a bullfight, where several gents dressed for The Nutcracker torture and kill livestock to amuse voyeurs. Soccer players often reinforce stereotypes after the rare victory by removing jerseys and collapsing in a wet pile of man-hugs and writhing bodies.
Female players often stage similar rites, but no one seems to notice. For lady footballers, that lack of upper body development might be more of a handicap. In contrast, it's hard to imagine Tiger Woods peeling off anything on the 18th green or Peyton Manning dropping his knickerbockers at the Super Bowl.
And surely there's a price to be paid when there's more action in the stands than on the field. The chariot riots of ancient Constantinople provide a cautionary tale. Then, as now, opposing teams were identified by special colors. The emperor Justinian was rash enough to let his bias be known by throwing some "green" riders in jail.
Imprudence was just one of Justinian's flaws; he married a harpy, raised taxes, passed unpopular laws, and pandered to the hated Persians across the Bosporus. Any similarity to any living politician is strictly coincidental.
On 13 January 532 AD, green fans rioted in the Hippodrome, and the melee quickly consumed the city. Most of the town, including the great cathedral, was torched. When the greens again convened, to crown Justinian's rival, Byzantine legions under Belisarius stormed the Hippodrome and slaughtered thirty thousand sports fans. Today, Justinian is known as "the great" not just because he was a poor loser, but also because he was an early inspiration for sporting mayhem and incendiary urban renewal.
Those who celebrate international sports seldom recall that the original Greek Olympic Games tested military skills. And most modern sports are direct descendants of later Roman blood sports. The vestiges of guts and gore still thrive in the EU and among the non-aligned. Bullfights, dogfights, cockfights, public executions, stoning, flogging, snake-charming, and fox-hunting are still popular among the masses and the elites in various locales. As with many public amusements, the prospect of decisive, if not terminal, violence is the spice that fires all sport. And so it is with futbol; the average fan gets no satisfaction or ambiguous thrill from a soccer score that reads nil-nil.