Thursday, September 10, 2009

Football separates men from the boys

The following was first published in The National on 10 September 2009.

The football season begins today. If that sentence has you checking your calendar, let me rephrase: The football, not soccer, season begins today. This statement will no doubt anger fans of the “beautiful game”. Big deal.

The worst soccer fans can muster are Millwall supporters, whose slogan “everyone hates us, and we don’t care” is also shared with snivelling adolescents. They pale in comparison to fans of the Oakland Raiders to whom Hunter S Thompson referred to as “beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and wackos ever assembled” – and this from a man who once counted among his bosom buddies members of the Hells Angels.

Or perhaps they can once again rouse Will Batchelor to defend soccer. His sports column in The National this week said football was one part professional wrestling and two parts all-you-can-eat buffet, less sport than drama involving men in tight pants. He is not alone in harbouring such delusions.

Most soccer fans regard their North American cousins with disdain. To these woefully uninformed residents of the ward for the terminally ignorant, football is a sport for soft, flabby men who need time to catch their breath between downs, frequent commercial interruptions for loo breaks and medieval levels of body armour to avoid injury.

I dare them to tell that to a 130kg defensive end, a mountain of muscle with the speed and agility of Usain Bolt. Your average quarterback needs that padding just to survive the first down, and that defensive end needs it to keep himself from breaking his neck when he hits his target with all the kinetic energy of a runaway freight train.

Granted, rugby players do not wear padding, but hop on youtube and watch a rugby tackle, then go watch a quarterback get hit on his blindside. There is no comparison. If anything, removing the pads would make football less dangerous. When boxing introduced the padded glove, permanent head injuries became more common. Before gloves were introduced, punching someone in the jaw was just as likely to break your hand as his jaw. This made one think twice about where they were aiming. Now the average pugilist can hammer away at his opponent’s skull and suffer no ill effect.

But sometimes body armour is just called for. We do not deride the Yorkshire or Lancashire cavalry for wearing all that armour during the War of the Roses. The game of football is played by sumo wrestlers who can sprint, it is prudent to take precautions.

Soccer is indeed beautiful. The countless hours professional players devote towards honing their skills is revealed in the marvels of footwork and ball control on the pitch. Their endurance is unmatched in most team sports. But soccer is to football as fencing is to war. Some people prefer the former, others the latter.

Much of the hostility between soccer and football is over a shared name. This is the result of having a common ancestor, a game that is still played in the United Kingdom as the Royal Shrovetide Football match – a sport so brutal that the rules include: no killing.

Maybe Millwall should challenge the Raiders to a match and settle the debate once and for all, instead of just whinging.

Real football is not everyone’s cup of tea. Those people who prefer the refined emotions of say a ballet as opposed to the tango will probably stick to soccer or cricket. But real sports fans, who understand that it is about a contest between men, will want to tune in from tonight. And if there are any real men left watching soccer, they are welcome to join us.