Sunday, August 30, 2009

What attracts a Soccer Fan?

Yesterday I attended two soccer games. The first one cost me a total of $11 (two Gatorades and $4 match fees), the latter about $90. The first was very much a community event, the latter was distant and relatively alienating. The latter was better quality, but not by that much in many ways, and it certainly wasn't a philharmonic orchestra.

For a while now I've been wondering about the nature of following football. What got me? What is keeping me? What sort of things "get" people in general? Especially new people, like myself. I've mentioned it before in this blog, but for the context of this article I need to point out that I am very much a "new fan," and as a blogger can only pretend to be a new fan's voice. Over the past three years I've felt the differences between old fans who've known the sport for decades and for whom the A-League is a bold new adventure, and people like myself for whom the A-League is just part of the terrain I'm discovering. For this reason I rarely try to analyse games or players, but am more interested in writing about the experience.

Now I am a fan of Association Football, and I did not become a fan through the A-League but discovered the A-League a few games into Season 2 (It was a 5:0 thrashing of New Zealand Knights, which might have helped my initial enthusiasm). The things that I can identify that came together to make me a fan of the game, were my son's team, the 2006 World Cup and the movie Goal! The point here is that it was the game itself that seduced me, and not any particular team or league.

Ok, what's my point? Well there's a few reasons I am into football. One of them is the beauty, grace and skill of extraordinary athletes playing a complex tactical battle. For this of course, none of the games I watched yesterday really fulfilled. It's hardly dissing the A-League to point out the obvious fact that there is much better quality soccer on free-to-air TV. I watched Arsenal play Celtic the other morning, so please don't even argue with me - there is no comparison. Purely on the criteria of virtuosity, the A-League is relatively expensive and relatively poor at the same time.

There's more though right? Of course! Accessibility and community connection come together as another reason I'm a fan of this sport. It didn't take me long to realise that, even at the venerable age of 38, I could play. I still play in a futsal team on Tuesday nights and it is pure joy, especially when we win, as well as social, and mentally and physically engaging. Pretty quickly I added up just how accessible soccer is, with junior leagues down to the age of 6, women of all ages, disabled competitions, homeless competitions and indeed, for tragics like myself, divisions up to over-55s.

But the A-League fails here too right? I've got mates in good senior teams, both women and mens, mostly playing for West End. The truth is I haven't gotten to them for a while, but I have done and will be trying to catch the finals. These games are free, you can shake the player's hands afterwards and get more than a 'next please' from your comment about the goal, manouvre or foul. You're likely to even be asked if you'd like a drink.

But they're not as good are they? Of course not, but really, is the A-League $50/person/game better? To use the analogy of music, we'll pay $100 to watch the very best, we'll pay $15 to watch a pub band, but will we pay $60 for something in between? I'd argue no. If it's not going to be larger-than-life, we'd prefer the everyday talent of our friends. The A-League, as the most expensive football experience available to Australians, is stuck in the middle whilst charging top dollar, even to watch it on TV.

There's a third reason people, including me, are attracted to football, and has to do with very ancient, probably genetic, urges toward tribalism and place. It's the reason Australians in particular will follow any sport where their team is winning, and why a valiant few will follow their team even if it's losing. Make no mistake I am a Brisbane loyalist and although other sports don't really turn me on, the Brisbane Roar has my interest for the long term, thick or thin. These sorts of fans are the ones you meet on the blogosphere, the ones who wear their team shirts to unrelated social events and join fan organisations. The territory comes with belonging and identity and for single young males in particular (but not exclusively) it probably aids sanity in a bewildering world. As a religion soccer is far more rational than Christianity or Budhism precisely because it is explicitly human contrivance and does not pretend to be breathed from the mouth of God.

But here's the thing. People who just love soccer for its beauty will get up at 4.30am for Champions League games and look forward to the World Cup. Why would they bother with the A-League, especially as it is so much more expensive? People who love to play and watch in their communities are actually likely not to go to A-League games because they have their own games and their own league to follow (anecdotally, I find this is literally true - very few grassroots players follow the A-League except distantly).

And lovers of tribe?

I love the Brisbane Roar, I know their names and try to follow events, but the media is very poor, and mostly reads like highly filtered propaganda. Yesterday made things very clear to me.

I watch every single game of the Annerley Under 14s, Division 3 team, and follow very closely the fortunes of the Brisbane South Under 14s Division 3 competition. I know every player on the team. Some of them I've known since they were toddlers at child care. I've coached and managed quite a few of them and before that used to watch many of them play handball and basketball after Primary School every day. I know their strengths and weaknesses, their parents and even some of their personal issues and problems.

Not as good as the Roar? It depends what you mean. The kids never play a cynical game. They go out to score goals. Some of them are genuinely skilled and are not afraid to take crazy risks which occasionally come off. The left winger can chase a through ball past any defender, do a one-two if necessary, and score or direct a pinpoint cross. Is it actually less entertaining than watching Zullo? Frankly, no. The right back is a natural and brilliant defender but also has the unique ability to throw-in a very long way, so that a throw-in near the touch line is as good as a corner kick. Brilliant to watch. About a month ago I watched one of the attacking midfielders, a kid I've known since he was born, deflect a corner kick, leg high in the air, off the outside of his foot, into the top right hand corner of the net. If that goal was in the Champions League it would have been replayed to death and posted on U-Tube. Jacob's own signature move (he usually plays up front this season), which he pulled off twice yesterday, is kicking the ball back over his own head along with a defender, and then recollecting it past the defender. His one goal yesterday was an individual effort, beating two defenders and the goalie.

Sure they stuff up a lot. So do A-League teams. But they get some brilliant passing going too, and not because it has been drilled into them by a coach who has mega-qualifications and experience, but because it's fun to do so.

So far I have the A-League as having the problem of bad value by which I refer to quality for dollar. There's much better games for free and only slightly worse games that are live and pretty much free. (Incidentally, I can't wait for the W-League, which is not much poorer, much cheaper and is on free-to-air TV - I had m0ments last season of wanting to abandon the men and just follow the girls.)

There's a constructive criticism I need to add. If the A-League could connect with the rest of the enormous soccer community in Australia, as it is fully connected in England and Spain, I think it would inspire many more people, especially participants, who are many and remain the great-untapped. What I mean is that my son's team can aspire to get into the first division next year or the year after, and one day to play at the highest level of seniors in Brisbane, but not to ever be promoted into the A-League. This might even sound absurd, but it is precisely this joyful absurdity, a source of millions of childhood dreams, that exists in the traditional football countries. A-League teams are constructed exclusively from the top by dealings between rich men. There is no question at all in my mind that there are senior men's teams in Australia who would out-compete some A-League teams some of the time, but they have no way to aspire to compete in that competition. A system of relegation and promotion, fully connected to the entire football league system throughout the country, is essential in the not-too long term, for this sense of connectedness. You can not develop connectivity culturally before it is the case institutionally.

Honestly, of the two games yesterday, of the two teams I went to follow, of the two leagues of which they were a part, there is absolutely no question about which one I enjoyed more, which one I felt more a part of, which one I am more loyal to.

Incidentally, Annerley Under 14s Division 3 won their game 8:2 (goals, people!). It was the last of the home and away fixtures and next week is their semi-finals. Good luck to them, and with slightly less enthusiasm and commitment, good luck to the Brisbane Roar.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Melbourne vs Brisbane

Well it was the bottom of the table clash we've been waiting for all season. I walked from the shop, past the Irish Pub on the corner which only had AFL on, and past the two pubs in the mall which also only had AFL on, to the Pig & Whistle on the mall which had AFL on two screens and the A-League on the smallest third screen.

Alone in a corner I sipped my beer and for 20 minutes wondered why the hell I was a Roar fan. If it hadn't have become "Brisbane Roar", defecting to Gold Coast United would have been a no-brainer. I love Brisbane, but when it comes to sport I don't really give a shit about 'Queensland'. A sporting team should, in my view, represent an actual ants nest, a real community of humans, with a stadium in the middle. And while I was sitting there, watching my team play truly woefully, albeit attempting to play this 'attacking football' everyone seems to harp about, I thought, 'Well, this is my lot. Thick or thin, this is my team. I guess they'll have glory some time in my life, and other times they'll probably be at the bottom, but they play for my town, which I live in, work in and love'.

Then Danny scored a cracker. Seconds later I apologised to the table next to me for my spontaneous reaction. They were good humoured about it - actually the smile from the girl was worth it. I was so excited I wandered outside the drinking area for a cigarette when Henrique was brought down and Dijk popped the penalty. 2:0 up, but I'm not really convinced by Dijk's celebrations. Two goals in two games on paper, but both because he gets to take the penalties, which he didn't earn, and he still keeps missing his chances from play. And God he's ugly. Anyway he plays for my team.

I stll thought Melbourne were playing better and not once thought they weren't still in the game. Just after Hernandez scored (The Roar's defence up to that point so had that coming) a cop came over. He was a senior constable but I can't remember his name. I noticed he didn't look at the AFL screen. "Are you a Roar supporter?" "Aye." He asked me who'd scored the goals and I told him. He's from Wales and is a Leeds supporter. "It's the only team," he said. Now if that was true it would be a pretty small and uninteresting league, but I learned long ago to never argue with a policeman. Anyway, he wandered past a few times after that and got updates from me. Nice guy.

I've found before that when you go out alone to watch a football game you kind of spontaneously meet people who are also interested. It's a contrast to going out alone to listen to music or trying to get laid, when I inevitably just get lonelier as the night goes on. The other bloke I got chatting to, who came in later, was wearing Celtic gear, a Scot. We reminisced joyfully about the Roar vs Celtic game, and he told me a wonderful story about a home Celtic game vs Liverpool where both groups (is 50,000 still a 'group'?) sang 'You'll never walk alone'. I'm bloody jealous. Frankly I reckon the Roar should consider itself tagged with the Celtic germ and take the song up as our own. There is no greater soccer anthem in the world.

While I was chatting to the cop again Henrique scored his. Now that was quality - neither a somewhat lucky but brilliant bash like Danny's nor a routine penalty like Dijk's. A REAL goal. A goal to celebrate. Celebrating it with a yellow card (taking the shirt off) was a bit stupid, but he does have a nice bod - much prettier than Djik.

The mystery, which has almost become mundane, is that in the second half Brisbane actually looked better, but it was Melbourne scoring the goals. If someone has the time please drop me a line and explain to me what it's all about. You know... soccer, life, whatever. Life is rich with metaphors for explaining soccer.

3:3. Jesus the A-League on this Saturday yielded 11 goals from two games. I don't even want to talk about the Gold Coast. Frank Farina has put it on public record that he will bare his arse in public if the Gold Coast go through undefeated as Clive Palmer predicted. This is one of the most interesting things Frank has ever said and I almost hope it comes off so Frank is obliged to be so daring. Sorry I keep digressing. 3:3. A deserved draw, in a game of two halves where the teams took turns scoring against the run of play.

PS. I like the yellow nets.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A Rose by any Other Name Smells Just as Sweet (We Call it Soccer Prt 2)

This subject, I will admit at the outset, since first writing about it in September last year, has continued to absorb me. I see material everywhere, constantly, and have taken to making sure I have a notebook so I can at least partially document the extent of the absurdity. This material has overwhelmed me in fact, to the extent that it has held me back writing about it at all.

So there will be more. But here's instalment Two.

My point is not trivial. The insistence on the word 'Football' in the Australian media is holding the game back from the public mind. Now me merely stating that view will not convince anyone, so I ask that you read my points (including my first article) and THINK about this. I honestly and seriously believe that the Australian soccer community has so far lost the plot on this front.

First, in case anyone thinks I'm making this business up, consider the following sentences, from two bloggers I respect greatly for their love of the great game:

From Eamonn, of Nearpost: "It might be acceptable to Australians in State Of Origin or AFL but in my view football, men and women's doesn't need it."

And from Ambrose's Bloggerfella: "The only leagues I can think of which may offer precedent for the A-League's four subs are the other Australian "football" leagues, the AFL and NRL, which both employ four-man interchange benches with unlimited changes allowed in AFL and 10 in NRL. Their formats are entirely different and irrelevant to football's."

Now both of these intelligent people know the word 'soccer', they know what it means, it's 100% in their vocabulary and, importantly, they have no other meaning for the word. Also, their audience also understands the word, unambiguously. From a purely editorial point of view, the word 'soccer' is appropriate in these sentences, for the very simple criteria of clarity of meaning.

Why don't they use the word? This is just two cases from the past week. I see this editorial absurdity constantly. Now from an insider's view they may even get a bit of congratulations for holding the flag or something. But from any other point of view (in Australia and many other countries) it just looks like they are, um, holding the flag. That is they look like they're promoting an ideology or religion rather than a great game. They reinforce, every time they do this, the image of a slightly esoteric pursuit for foreigners and fanatics. It glares, and there's no way that these writers aren't self-conscious when they're doing this.

In the second case the author goes further, and actually tries to imply that other football codes (there is no synonym for the word football-as-generic) shouldn't be called that. That's also common, from Les Murray for example: "so-called football codes". Now that's aggressive, even rude, toward codes that have generations of passionate and loyal followers, and even evokes the question, toward us, "Who's afraid?" I'll pursue that more in the future, but suffice to say here that it's not helping anyone.

Ok, here's another quote, from a bumper sticker I see around: "Support St Aidans' Soccer."

Now I have no idea about St Aidans, but this sticker is, by being around the place, also promoting the game I love to play and watch, so I think it's cool that people have it on the back of their cars. Can anyone tell me what word they should use? Let's just state the fucking obvious: "Support St Aidans' Football" would simply NOT be promoting our game AT ALL. "Support St Aidans' Football (Soccer)" would be editorially clumsy, I add because we actually see this absurdity, even in the mainstream press.

I've barely started. I know I'm up against pretty much the entire soccer community ('football community' would only make sense if I was referring to all the codes) here, but I know I'm right and I simply have to keep hammering this one.

For my money, every time the media, on radio, TV or in print is speaking of our game, which does have a greater actuality than a decade ago and has found its rightful place in our sports press (however reluctantly), the public should be seeing the word, the brand, SOCCER. Soccer, soccer, soccer. That's what the public mind, however oblivious or married to other games they may be, would be being bombarded with. Bombarding it with yet more of the brand 'Football, football, football' does nothing. Read it again. From a promotion viewpoint, it does nothing.

Incidentally, on the three occasions I've been to the United States I've thought to ask everyday people whether they follow Gridiron. They have had no idea what I was talking about. They know it only as 'football'. Funny how language works. And funny how authority doesn't get to tell the public what words mean, except in Orwell's dystopia. People decide what words mean, and linguists tell us why, whilst lexographers record the meanings in dictionaries. Next time you want to know what 'soccer' and 'football' mean in a particular language or dialect (and Australian is a dialect) try a dictionary. The FFA are not an authority, and neither are the fanatics, and neither am I.