Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Beautiful Game

This morning (EST), Arsenal plays Norwich City in the Barclay’s Premier League. Gunners vs Canaries. So, of course, I’ll be watching.  I am a fan in the true sense of the word.  That is to say, a fanatic. I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch a year after I saw Arsenal play live at the Emirates in London, England for the first time. I understand his fever.  And I understand his pain. We cheer for the same team.  Both of us through accident of fate.

                As a Canadian, with no geographical, historical, or familial affiliation to London’s North End, my fanaticism began when I attempted to purchase tickets which coincided with a rare trip across the pond. Of the six London-area teams that float in and out of the Premier League, Arsenal happened to be the only franchise playing conveniently within my travel plans. I booked the tickets. Admittedly, I was hoping to see Chelsea.  I was an aficionado of Didier Drogba, who played for the team then. My current fandom would rather forget this misguided loyalty – unless, of course, he one day represents The Arsenal.

                I have played soccer since the age of eight.  It has always been my sport of choice. In my soccer career, I have plied every position on the field – including keeper.  In Grade Eleven, I was Most Valuable Player on my high school team. Upon graduation, I played competitively for several teams in the OCSL – as both an attacking midfielder and a striker. And over the last two decades of my slow decline, I have played mens’ recreational league, until my knees cried, “No more!” I have also coached girls’ and boys’ soccer for twenty years at the high school and summer competitive levels.

                I love soccer. I love “football.” I love Arsenal.

                Author John Doyle is another kindred spirit. His The World is a Ball captures the insanity and the socio-political impact of a sport which is embraced my more than half of humanity. It also hints at the dark underbelly of soccer economics – as do Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World, and Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics. But no author is/was as prescient as Canada’s Declan Hill in The Fix – a book which more or less foretold the eventual moral collapse of FIFA in glaring research and detail.

                So how does one remain a fanatic in a world where soccer has become as phony as the WWE? Wilful ignorance. A fanatic defies logic by definition, anyway.

                Pele called it “the beautiful game.” And I most definitely watch soccer for its beauty. Whether it be the balletic performance of Mesut Ozil, or the dynamism of Alexis Sanchez, or even the charismatic grit of Francis Coquelin (yes, all Arsenal players), I salivate over well-executed footwork, the prophetic run, the previously unseen pass.

                But as zealous as I can be about the uppermost echelons of soccer, the beauty of the sport is visible in the most far-flung backwaters of the global village, too. In games of pickup where economics can’t touch it.

                In fact, the night I watched Tomas Vermaelen score in extra time to seal Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Newcastle United – the night my Arsenal fanaticism took hold – is only the second greatest game I have ever witnessed.  The first took place more than a decade ago on an asphalt court in the barrio of Jose D. Estrada in Nanadaime, Nicaragua.  In was 38 degrees Celsius and sunny at mid day. Most of the players were barefoot or in flip-flops. The ball was a caricature – peeled and lopsided and underinflated. I was on a team composed mainly of Canadian high school students and little children from the barrio.  Our opponents were the quick and flashy teenagers from that same community.  We did not share a language, a culture, or a nationality.  Our life experiences were a seemingly insurmountable gulf.  But at one moment during that game, I stopped to wipe my brow and survey the scene unfurling around me -- the smiles and the impertinent scoffing, the heckling and the cheers.  The high fives and back-slapping. We were communicating the only way we knew how.  To this day, It remains one of the happiest moments of my life. Soccer: the universal language, the shared religion.  The beautiful game.
               Now, if only Arsenal can whip Norwich and retake the top of the table. Kick off in five.