Sunday, October 29, 2017

A View From the Farce Side: The Joy of Playing

The myriad and quality of children’s TV shows in England, ensured that growing up we spent a great many more hours in front of the tube than was undoubtedly good for us. So why didn’t we all become pasty-faced, weak-limbed, feeble-minded blobs with bad teeth? OK, I am pasty, and my teeth are a little suspect. The answer, however, is because park football—or as our American cousins would term it, soccer—saved us!

Park football would start very innocently, with you and maybe three or four of your mates, jackets or jumpers hastily removed and utilized for their proper purpose as goalposts. Once two teams had been established, the regulation 11 versus 11 was usually soon abandoned as teams grew in size to 15, 18, 20 a side! And with the absorption of every new wave of kids, the pitch was forced to grow, with coats and jumpers snatched up and tossed back another 10 yards to accommodate the fresh recruits.

Though nothing paralleled the buzz one got from scoring goals, I actually enjoyed playing the role of goalkeeper, too—throwing myself all over the place, skillfully blocking a pile-driver shot whilst simultaneously avoiding landing in any dog-poop lurking in the goalmouth. I remember vividly attempting to recreate the efforts of England goalkeeping legend Peter Shilton, marveling at his super-human acrobatics, but reminding myself that he probably didn’t have to worry about avoiding canine deposits on the way down.

I remember the football of my youth as the game in its purest, most joyous form. Whatever happened to that? 

Recently in the US there has been an enormous amount of hand-wringing over the failure of the Men’s National Team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Yes, that is gutting, and yes, I’m sure there are some issues within the National program that need addressing, as well as within the developmental infrastructure that supports it. But increasingly it seems to me that the one thing missing from the modern game more than anything else, that if reintroduced could help lessen the likelihood of depressing disappointment, is joy. Does anyone play for the love of the game anymore?

The football we have today, the professional game, has changed irrevocably and not generally, in my humble opinion, for the better. Spirit has been replaced by cynicism as players routinely engage in the most loathsome ‘gamesmanship’ to ‘earn an advantage’ for their team. To be clear, they’re cheating. 

Brand now trumps ability with the likes of Nike, Adidas, Puma, et al. spending millions of dollars trying to convince us that some very average players are, in fact, world-beaters. Grossly over-paid prima donnas, whose sleeves of tattoos simply serve to underline that they have way too much time and money on their hands, strut around the field occasionally contributing to the game, but mostly just falling down, clutching a random body part and screaming as if passing a kidney stone.

Don’t get me wrong. Though it may not sound like it, I do still love football, and I love that more people are beginning to love football here in America. It’s just that today’s football isn’t the football I fell in love with.

Football has been termed “The Beautiful Game”, but with every passing year I feel it loses a little of its beauty. Kids today being encouraged to play the game ought also to be reminded that that’s exactly what they’re doing; playing. Enjoy it, play it honestly, have fun, take joy from it. Only then can you love it. Only then, US Men’s National Team, can you truly be successful at it.

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Mark Turner is formerly of Oxford, England, but has lived in America for over 16 years, the majority of that time in Colorado. Mark enjoys playing soccer (football!), hiking and biking when the weathers good, and when the weathers rotten writing blog entries that he hopes will amuse and entertain. Mark can be followed on Twitter @melchett, or listened to on the Whistle Stop Week (@WSWShow), a news comedy podcast he hosts.

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