Feigning on the pitch, far off Broadway

Italy's Francesco Totti getting sent off during World Cup 2002

It’s things like this that bring home just how hard it is for me to get into that “world’s sport” football, or as we call it back home (and in Japan), soccer: England captain David Beckham has admitted that he got a penalty on purpose so that he would miss his next game, a World Cup qualifier with Azerbaijan. Beckham, who knew he was going to miss the game anyway on account of a rib injury (and little matter, as Azerbaijan hardly posed a threat to England, though I did find myself hoping for an upset just to throw a spanner in the works), rather than having the threat of a one-game suspension in a tougher World Cup qualifiying contest hanging over his head, basically got the suspension “out of the way” with his deliberate penalty (he already was sitting on one yellow card and two yellows result in a one-game suspension).

I suppose we should at least commend Sir Beckham for coming forward with his admission, and to be fair he does seem to be taking a bit of heat for it, notably from England football hero Geoff Hurst, who went so far as to imply that Beckham should be stripped of his captaincy. But what got me was a poll on BBC’s web site that showed that out of 80,598 respondents (at time of writing), a full 61% of them thought that Beckham’s sin was admitting to the intentional foul. Indeed, only 18% of respondents actually think that getting deliberately booked was wrong (21% said Beckham did nothing wrong at all).

Granted, as the BBC elegantly but cryptically disclaims, “Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion,” and no one would try to claim the poll was scientific, but what I’m wondering is if the poll indicates that England fans desperately want their team to win any way they can, or if this kind of foul play is treated as an accepted part of the game, sort of an open secret that Beckham foolishly blew further open.

You see, if there’s one thing about the sport that bugs me to no end, and that really makes it difficult for me to fully enjoy, it’s all the diving, you know the feigning of penalties and the laughable sight of grown athletes pretending to writhe in pain after suffering the equivalent of a grade-school wedgie. (Okay, so the fact that sponsors’ logos are ten times bigger than team logos on uniforms, and the loosy-goosy way of time keeping, also bug the hell out of me, but that I can accept as part of the sport’s makeup, just like how the varying ballpark dimensions in American baseball seem part of the character of the game).

Now I can hardly be accused of subscribing to the “real men don’t eat quiche” school of thought (hell, I’m practically a vegetarian and you know what they say about vegetarians), but seeing superstar athletes crying wolf or pounding the ground in agony after getting their pinkie toe stepped on — followed by the obligatory stretcher trip to the sidelines and the inevitable sprint back to the playing pitch two seconds later — my latent American machismo can’t help but kick into overdrive and I start to wonder if those are real men out there or drama queens gone missing from a Shakespeare production.

(In fairness, American football, the sport that shares a name with Association football but little else — no doubt to the rueful consternation of most fans of the latter — is not immune to diving, with punters being the usual culprit, trying to draw “roughing” penalties. I hope the irony of players called punters — incidentally only one of two positions in American football that actually put foot to ball — being inveterate divers is not lost on my British readers. Anyway, I’ve always hated punters, divers all of them, and wusses who can’t tackle either.)

It’s not like I don’t want to enjoy football/soccer. Growing up in seemingly the only part of the world that doesn’t take it seriously I always felt I was missing something. And while as a teen we had the North American Soccer League, and I guess I can claim some smidgen of football/soccer “cred” for having seen the great Pele play live when I was 11 (for the New York Cosmos, at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii), it seemed pretty clear that that wasn’t what all the fuss was about. But now that I get my fair share of access to world football, the game is on the whole more frustrating than thrilling, and indeed I can’t take it seriously. Not in the same way that I can’t take the WWF seriously, mind you, just that I will never be able to get past the feigning and flopping or accept it as “part of the game.”

Thinking on the 2002 World Cup, which was played (or co-played) in Japan, and which I watched nightly, the moment I still remember above all others, the moment that gave me the biggest thrill, was seeing Italian captain Francesco Totti — poster boy for whiny prima donna football players everywhere — sent off for diving against South Korea (later it was determined that there was contact in the play in question though I still contend Totti flopped). Rather a waste of fan support I know, but such is my disappointment with the sport that I end up decrying or praising referree calls rather than getting upset about the blown goal opportunities or cheering the spectacular goal. Try as I might, rather than viewing these shenanigans — oh, let’s just call a spade a spade, this cheating — as a distraction like I do similar antics in say, NBA basketball, I see them not as part of the game, but as the game.

2 Replies to “Feigning on the pitch, far off Broadway”

  1. Allow me a rare comment Kurt.

    I read somewhere that Beckham believes admitting premeditation in his foul on Thatcher proves that he is not the idiot he is portrayed as by certain elements of the media. And while having the cool head to make this decision in the heat of the moment would back up his claim on a superficial level, he obviously didn’t have the sense to think this through and will surely end up regretting it.

    But here’s the thing. Beckham may be a self-admitted cheat and a whinging showboater, like his fashionista friend Mr. Totti (what a waste of space), but most English players aren’t. The same applies for Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Scandanavian players etc. World football as one concept doesn’t exist. The game is different—and played based on different footballing worldviews, interpretation of rules, tacit assumptions—depending on where it is played. If you want to put it in more radical terms, a struggle is currently underway to define the very concept of football.

    The hard-but-fair, “football as a man’s game” school is still in very much in the ascendancy over the school of gamesmanship/cheating in many parts of the world. Remember tournaments like the World Cup and Champions League are merely showcases, and not necessarily indicative of the game itself. I invite you to play or watch a local level football match in Belfast, for example, if you want conclusive proof that football players don’t eat quiche. At the professional level, I can only suggest watching the English Premiership (best of the world’s big top leagues to watch) instead of the Champions League, internationals or the Italian League.

    I think you’re being visionary, though. With the help of the media, TV deals, sponsorship, competitions like the Champions League, and the free international flow of players/coaches, the trend of globalization of football as a sport played by moaning primadonna fashion-models with half-time hairdressers and legs insured for the GDP of African nations will surely continue. But that is not a comment on the sport itself and its intrinsic failure to be a good, honest, and masculine in the American sense. I reckon it speaks rather of the nature of our society.

  2. Kurt, i entirely agree with your disapproval of diving in football games in the hope of cheating the opposition. I, too, am never happier than when someone gets sent off for such kind of foul play. I recall thinking that Klinsmann was the first real thespian in English football.

    With regards the recent incident with Beckham, it needs to be noted that deliberately getting carded for strategic reasons is nothing new – it’s been going on for years. For me, the thing to note was that he didn’t have the itelligence to keep quiet about it. We all know that Beckham speaks like and most probably has the wherewithal of a 12 year old. I should think he thought he was able, by going public, to show people that he has a little more about him than people suspect, but in effect all he has done is potentially score a spectacular own goal.

    Being an Englishman, of course, i couldn’t give two hoots and suspect this will all blow over when we get beaten 3-0 in Cardiff against 10 men with Bread of Heaven ringing in our ears.

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