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Thoughts on Sports

For the first time in my life, on Sunday night I actually, deliberately, watched a football game. My kids’ friends were heavily invested in the outcome and so my kids wanted to watch what their friends were watching. Before I go on: to my English friends, I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. E a mi amici italiani: complimenti per la vittoria. 

Normally I would rather sandpaper my eyeballs than watch 22 millionaires chasing after a leather bag, but I was happily surprised by how, when viewed through a fencing mindset, it wasn’t entirely tedious. Yes, I did a crossword in the second half, and spent the extra time fiddling about on my phone, but there were moments of actual interest. I was especially taken at the beginning by all the passing back. Surely, the ball is supposed to go in the other direction? But these are, by definition, the best players in Europe right now, so they know what they’re doing. It eventually dawned on me that while you are in possession of the ball, the other team can’t score. And, you can only score while you are in possession of the ball. So possession of the ball is analogous to controlling both your opponent’s sword, and your own. It’s better to be in control of the ball near your goal than have it in the other team’s possession at the other end of the pitch. Suddenly a lot of baffling behaviour made sense. And it became clear that the players were trying to set up specific patterns, and were pulling back and re-thinking if that pattern was interrupted or choked off by the other team. Compared to fencing, most of football is very slow, so it’s quite easy to see the patterns if you look for them.

There were also some moments of stunning physical prowess. Both goals, for example, but also many saves by both goalkeepers. They were by far the most impressive players on the field, to my eyes- because most of the time they could only react, and it is much harder to succeed when you’re on the defensive, reactive, can’t do anything until my opponent does something, side of the engagement. 

I had a couple of thoughts on how the game might be improved though. For instance, in the case of a draw, the side with the most red and/or yellow cards should lose. That might incentivise cleaner play- or it might, if you’re desperate, incite massive fouling to get ahead. It would be interesting to see that experiment (but I don’t think FIFA read this blog).

I was annoyed by the half-hour extension- wouldn’t it be more fun if they just played until the next goal? Or just had a draw and shared the trophy?

I also thought that the game would be more interesting if every player had a taser… but only one taser per team was charged, and with only one shot. So you’d never know until it fired who was dangerous to get close to, and it would be a massive waste to tase the wrong player. There would certainly be assassination tactics to get rid of the best striker (or the goalie) on the other team. That is not by any means a practical suggestion, but it would be a bit like fencing longsword with both fencers having a dagger on their belt. It would change things in an interesting way.

My feelings toward football are coloured by the behaviour of the crowds. While I was growing up, football hooliganism was a huge problem, especially among England supporters, so I associate the game with the kind of thuggery, racism, and bullying that I also associate with the Brexit campaign. The flag-waving morons that voted Brexit (which was entirely driven by English voters) look a lot like the flag-waving England team supporters. I’m not saying they are the same- I know many football fans who are perfectly lovely. But I am deeply, deeply suspicious of anything that looks like nationalism, which all international sporting events do. And when those extraordinary young men, under the fiercest pressure, failed to get a ball past Sr. Donnarumma in the penalty shoot out, sure enough a bunch of racist pricks in the crowd yelled predictably racist abuse at them. 

My feelings are also coloured by the experience of being stuck in boarding school surrounded by sports-mad kids, who looked without favour on kids who didn’t share their religion. My personal experience of large groups supporting a sports team is that they are dangerous. That’s not fair to the majority of fans, but explains some of my bias and my instinctive aversion to the group mentality that takes over fans in a stadium.

I’m also struck by a fact that I knew already, but hadn’t given much thought to. The NHS posted a message featuring women during the game: “if England get beaten, so will we”. The incidence of domestic violence in Britain go up by 50% every time there is a major sporting defeat. I shudder to think of the horrors inflicted late last night, that would not have happened if England had won (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the same phenomenon occurs in Italy, so it really wouldn’t make any difference who wins). I’m not suggesting that banning football would solve the problem, or even help it at all. But I would be a lot more impressed by the footballing community if they deliberately worked to diminish this awful side-effect of their sport, and there yet again is a reason for my instinctive dislike of organised sports.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention three England players: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. They missed their penalty shots. Boo hoo. But they also donated their entire tournament fees to the NHS to help with the Covid crisis. These are kids: aged 23, 21, and 19, and behaving with more grace and maturity than most people twice their age. Rashford particularly, as he also forced the current UK government of heartless corrupt venal and despicable arseholes to reverse themselves twice, most famously forcing them to feed poor children with free school meals, as if such a thing should ever be necessary. 

Here’s the thing. Was it a good game? I don’t know. It seemed like there was a lot of high-level sportsing going on, between two very evenly matched teams. I’ve lost some of the best, most enjoyable, most instructive fencing matches I’ve ever been a part of, and some I couldn’t tell you who won because we weren’t counting. Wouldn’t it be good if the thing that mattered wasn’t the outcome, but the quality of play? If England fans today were thrilled and honoured that their team got to play at that level more than they were disappointed by not scoring the most points?

Speaking of level, probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen done on a pitch was this catch by Indian cricketer Harleen Deol. No, I don’t watch cricket either (I just can’t get excited about the positions of round objects relative to white lines and/or sticks), a friend sent it to me. This is truly stunning. She catches the ball, realises she’s going to stumble over the boundary, throws the ball up, stumbles, turns, and dives to catch it. In an international match against England (and no, I don’t know or care who won: as far as I’m concerned, she did).

Don’t worry, this is not becoming a sports blog. We’ll be back to talking about swords more directly soon!

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