Wednesday, 1 December 2010

thinking about soccer

My friend and erstwhile colleague Ricky called me out today on twitter, making reference to my past needling of him on the merits of soccer and its position in the Australian landscape. Its a timely nudge. This week in Switzerland, FIFA are (as I understand it) voting on the venues for the 2018 and 2022 soccer world cups, with Australia having thrown its hat in the ring for the latter.

I'm conflicted on this.

On one hand, I'm a nationalist, and for pure parochial reasons it might be nice to see Australia "win". From an objective point of view, the events we've held in recent times - the Sydney Olympics, the 2003 rugby world cup, the Melbourne Commonwealth Games - have gone well, in terms of getting very good attendance and generating a good atmosphere amongst fans. I have no doubt the same would be true for a soccer world cup. Also, I know that there are soccer fans in Australia, and I don't begrudge them the opportunity to see the best soccer nations in the world competing here.

Of course, I should make it clear that I'd be unlikely to attend any games. I've dabbled in following soccer - I've seen the Serie A at the San Siro, I saw France play Bosnia in an international friendly, I've seen the French Ligue 1, I've seen the Socceroos play, and during the 2006 world cup I followed a lot of games on television, in bars, at friends' houses, and in public squares. There were enjoyable moments, although for me they sprang from the company rather than the game. In terms of the game itself, I tend to come away frustrated. The tendency of the players to play the umpire rather than the ball feels dishonest, especially when I compare it with the way I like to see my preferred code, Australian Football, played. And I get bored by the comparative lack of adventure and aggression in most games, even by sides like Brazil and Holland, reputed for their attacking football. I should stress that these criticisms are of the game at its so-called highest level. I've found that the further you move away from professional soccer, the more honestly and earnestly the players play, and the more entertaining the game becomes.

My biggest concern, though, is about the impact that the event might have on the Australian sporting landscape. My biggest criticism of soccer as a culture is that in a lot of countries where it takes root, it comes to monopolise the sporting landscape. In France, I lived in such a country, where year-round (with the exception of a short summer break during which sport seemed to be ignored altogether), soccer is the only sport with any real currency in the street. I feel like the battle over the word "football", which we are told by some people can only be used for soccer, is illustrative of this "there can be only one" inclination. By comparison, in Australia, we have this beautiful phenomenon of the changing seasons of sport, from the football season (by which I mean the big three football codes in this country - Australian Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union, with netball and growing and commendable addition, even if I have little taste for the game myself), to the "cricket season", during which we also get a healthy helping of golf and tennis. There's even that strange month of October when some parts of the country obsess about horseracing (whose appeal I find much more inexplicable than soccer). For much of Australia, the changing of the sporting season is a much more significant and distinct transition than any climatic cycle.

All told, we have a wonderful diversity of sports, that cycles through seasons and offer choice to the fan as to which code they can follow. If the impact of the world cup is to raise the profile of soccer closer to the other football codes, then I'm fine with that. But I know the power of soccer and its international links. Even if I don't understand what it is that they like in the game itself, I understand the appeal of having a huge array of leagues and nations playing the game around the world. And I fear that these links, fuelled by the Australian sporting fan's parochialism, might eventually lead to a reduction in the diversity of our sporting landscape, which would be a tremendous shame.

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