Also I still hate that they now tell us how many minutes of stoppage time there’ll be

Back when I was in high school in Florida in the 1990s, every weekend my dad and I would go down to the Rose and Crown English pub (funnily enough, owned by a Scot) in Largo and watch the Premier League match of the week.  This was back long before the days of Fox Sports World (which went on to become Fox Soccer Channel and is now Fox Sports One), when the Premier League’s North American broadcast rights were owned by Setanta, and the only way to see a league match was to go to a bar or restaurant that was a Setanta subscriber and pay a mandatory twenty-dollar cover charge for the privilege.

(It’s never occurred to me until I just wrote that paragraph, but that means it cost my dad forty to eighty bucks a week for the two of us to watch the football: twenty dollars for each of us, potentially doubled if we decided we wanted to see both the Saturday and Sunday matches on a given week.  And that’s before you factor in the costs of our English breakfasts and however many pints he had.)

We watched the matches with a crowd of other expats who were mostly male, mostly white and mostly British or Irish.  We had a fairly broad spread in terms of age, but I, in my middle teens, was the youngest by probably ten years.  And it was a fairly regular occurrence that the crowd would, whenever the referee blew for a free kick, raise their voices in discontent, as they seemed to feel that whatever perceived infraction the ref thought he had seen was not, in fact, a foul.

This wasn’t necessarily partisan; there were lots of instances where supporters of both sides seemed to think the ref was taking too hard a line.  It always confused me, because it generally seemed to me—and, significantly, to the commentator on the TV—that one team clearly had fouled the other.  This was my introduction, though I didn’t entirely realise it at the time, to the fact that football is an evolving sport, and that one of its most visible evolutions over the last, oh, twenty-five years has been a dramatic shift in the line that separates a tackle and a foul.

The amount of physical aggression allowed a defender attempting to tackle an opposing attacker has been drastically curtailed, while the expectations upon him to maintain control of his own body and to look out for the safety of his opponent have been inversely raised.  This happened initially in order for football to place an emphasis on technical ability and individual flair, and then continued in the name of player safety.  What would have been a good, solid, exemplary tackle in 1990 would be penalised with a free kick in 1995, and would get you a yellow card in 2000.  What would have been a good tackle in 1995 would get you a yellow card by 2010.  And that excellent tackle from 1990 will get you not only red carded nowadays, but then slapped with a multi-match ban.

I remember specifically my dad talking to one of his friends at a party during the 1998 World Cup.  The friend was expressing how impressed he had been by Marcel Desailly, who (like most of the France team from 1998) had been virtually unknown to British football fans prior to the tournament.  “You always expect him to foul [when he goes in for a tackle],” he said, “but he never does.  He has such long legs, he always comes up with the ball!”

That was the moment that it struck me: my dad, and his friends of his generation, felt that if you came away from a tackle with the ball, then you hadn’t fouled.  That was, for them, the only requirement.  Whereas it seemed obvious to me that that was wrong: a tackle is when you get the ball first.  It’s perfectly possible to foul a player before you get to the ball, by going through him to get to it, and when you do so, then it doesn’t matter to me if you come away with possession—you’ve still fouled.  But if you can contact the ball first, then (barring certain easily-quantifiable caveats, like tackling from behind, or coming in with your studs up, or attempting to take out your opponent’s legs with your trailing foot) your tackle is clean.

Essentially, I realised at that time, they had a definition of football that they had been taught when they learnt the sport, but the definition that was now being used by the governing bodies and the broadcasters—the definition I had been taught—had moved past that.

Well.  I’ve got to tell you that over the past year, I’ve had to face up to the fact that the presentday definition of what’s a tackle and what’s a foul has now definitely moved past me.  Now, as commentators have explicitly reminded me at least a dozen times during the first 56 matches of this World Cup, the standard for a foul isn’t about when or whether the defender made contact with the ball, but rather whether the force with which he came in didn’t show sufficient respect for the attacker’s safety.  There’s a fairly low threshold for physical aggression which, if exceeded, will concede a free kick to your opponents regardless of any other aspect of your tackle.

Football has moved its definition of a foul to a new place, and I simply can’t move along with them.  I cannot watch a defender slide in from the side at an attacker sprinting forward with the ball, see him display the incredible precision necessary—with ball, defender and attacker all moving at fifteen to twenty miles per hour in different directions—to slide the side of his foot over the top of the ball before his momentum slams him into the attacker’s legs, and have any reaction other than, What a bloody inch-perfect tackle.  Wow.

Nigeria received a yellow card—during their match against Argentina, I think, though it might have been Bosnia—that prompted the commentator to say, “Well, let’s put it this way: twenty years ago, that was a great tackle.” And I said out loud, “It should still be a bloody great tackle now.”  For two or three years now, but increasingly over the course of the last season, I’ve found myself snapping at the television, “Oh, come on—he got the fucking ball!”

This isn’t a demand that football go back to where it was fifteen years ago, or a declaration that I’m any less engaged with the spectacle of football than I was when I was a teenager—how can one possibly complain about the how the game is played today during a World Cup finals that has given us van Persie’s header against Spain, Cahill’s goal against the Netherlands, Ochoa’s game against Brazil, Howard’s game against Belgium, or pretty much any touch of the ball James Rodriguez has had?

It’s just an acknowledgement on my part of the fact that, in this aspect, the world has left me behind.

I

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A Traitor's Loyalty Cover

Follow Ian
RSS icon Twitter icon Facebook icon Google Plus icon GoodReads icon LibraryThing icon
Categories
Archives
Recent Tweets

Follow @ianracey
Rights
Interested in translation, audio, or movie (oh, yes, please!) rights to my works, please contact my agent via his website at www.zackcompany.com.