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Jul 11, 2014

Countering Keane's hissy fit: why soccer is great

So Bernard Keane thinks soccer is a 'silly sport', tainted by corruption. Writer Hari Raj reckons he's wrong, and sets out why the World Cup is worth watching (at 2am).

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There’s a World Cup going on. You may have heard. It has been a rare feast — goal records shattered, stirring performances from unlikely sources, pantomime villainy, big names and bigger philosophies crashing and burning. And, like some insipid Newtonian ideal, there has been a backlash.

It’s a curious thing, this need to disparage soccer. The best explanation I’ve heard for why the various codes are called football is that they’re played on foot, instead of on horse; but instead of bonhomie, this shared DNA seems to cultivate the most spectacular sibling-oriented hissy fits since Cain rocked Abel’s world. Crikey recently hosted a fine example of the form via Bernard Keane. We shall sift through Keane’s vitriol for portents.

One of his main targets, the diving, or “simulation” in the queasy official parlance, is between annoying and amusing. There’s no defence here; it’s a part of the game, but a part of the game everyone would like to see greatly reduced. Which is why it’s been so refreshing in this World Cup (which finishes on Monday) to see referees waving for play to continue, and for the games to flow like champagne someone else is paying for — even if this has contributed to some remarkable demonstrations of on-field thuggery. There will be complaints no matter which way the pendulum swings. Let us move on.

Soccer is fundamentally and addictively silly in the way that all sports are. The only deadly serious thing about it is FIFA, its posturing at the grassroots level eternally at odds with its unwieldy perch atop piles of money. Have you heard of the inverted pyramid? It started life as a diagram of income distribution in soccer.

Indeed, there is precious little ignorance of the cauldron of ineptitude and illegality that is soccer’s international governing body; this “love-soccer-hate-FIFA” sentiment has been best articulated by the increasingly mighty John Oliver. FIFA is so bad that even Brazil, relentlessly (and mostly accurately) marketed as football’s spiritual home, saw the rise of a social movement grow around the slogan contra a copa — against the cup. It this hadn’t already happened, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be about as likely as Australia protesting against alcohol.

“I watch because soccer is the great leveller. The best player in the world is built like a hobbit.”

It’s tempting, with FIFA, to explore the same Abbott-forced conundrum now faced by many Australians on either side of the political spectrum — the ensuing battle to prove that a country is not its government, that a sport is not its governing body. There is truth in this, but it’s complicated. If the situation in Brazil has taught us nothing else, it’s that corruption and appreciation go hand-in-hand. Still, I have been there, night after night, unable to tear myself away from the television. I cannot bring myself to boycott the World Cup. But why?

I watch because I have seen money bloat the club game to ludicrous proportions. Sums that would clothe, feed and educate the population of small nations are spent on players of various wattage, or on those with merely the potential to shine. But international soccer, ah, that is a different creature. Sure, there is a correlation between economic and footballing might, but somehow the field is more level — it’s why you see Cristiano Ronaldo struggling to inspire a team of mere mortals, or England unable to translate the popularity and quality of its league to the international stage.

I watch because soccer is the great leveller. The best player in the world is built like a hobbit. The person who has scored more international goals than anyone else — and that player’s predecessor — are both women. For all the skulduggery and shenanigans that transpire off the pitch, on it, skill and smarts always triumph over strength.

I watch because I was young, once, and a long way from being talented, but every now and again I would try something spectacular and it would work, and I would walk on clouds for the rest of the day. That’s the beauty of the sport — anything you see can be replicated, even if it’s just for a moment, which makes it all the sweeter to watch those who perform feats of genius as if they were turning on a tap.

Still, this decision is a daily struggle. There are so many other things that are of so much more importance. For now, I cannot look away. I tell myself that the greed and exploitation exist because of the game’s quality, not the other way around. I’ll tell you how bad FIFA is, because that’s a start to making things better. And if you enjoy something, tell me; if Aussie rules is your game, or lacrosse, or curling, surely proselytising its merits is a better use of energy than huffing and puffing at other sports.

It’s something the AFL has never quite understood, that the various codes can co-exist without cannibalising each other. Bernard Keane and Ann Coulter may be clinched in passionate agreement, but I’d much rather hear what he loves about rugby than what he hates about any other sport. I’ll give pretty much anything a try. Maybe even cricket.

* Can’t decide who’s right, Bernard Keane or Hari Raj? Tune into the World Cup final at 5am on Monday, AEST, and make up your mind. 

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