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The Sports Page

Photograph by Moazzam Brohi

Six and a Half Billion People Are Absolutely Right

The N.F.L. is corrupt, baseball’s a distant dream, and March Madness is only one month long. Here’s why any true sports fan watches soccer.

So this is winter, and what have you done? The answer in most cases is simply survive. Snow and cold weather continue to batter us, politicians on both sides of the aisle do little but spew over the deadlocked budget, the jasmine-scented revolutions across North Africa are now being smothered by gunships in Libya, and for the majority of Americans the economic recovery still feels a lot like a depression.

Clearly we need distractions. Neither the Academy Awards’ long list of best-picture nominees nor their 3D gimmickry can disguise Hollywood’s current mediocrity or its increasingly irrelevant product. The state of American sports is no better. The N.F.L. owners are doing their best to slaughter the biggest cash cow in American sports by threatening a lockout, and the N.B.A. players consistently defile their image by shadowboxing in public with their own egos. Baseball for 2011 is still in its infancy, the players in their fresh tans somehow annoying, like a reminder of someone else’s leisure as we shovel out our driveways for the third time in a week. But all is not lost for a true sports fan; soccer, the world game, beckons.

World football, once relegated in America to a pathetic indoor league or lousy German games televised at midnight on Sundays, is booming in the U.S. A quick scan of the program guide shows ESPN, MSG, the YES Network, the Fox Soccer Channel, and the multi-lingual GOL TV carrying matches from all over Europe plus the crazed South American leagues (where a player recently went berserk and kicked a live owl to death—the home fans correctly threatened to do the same to the player, who needed a police escort to get off the field). And if that’s not enough, licit as well as extralegal feeds are always streaming on the internet—nothing like clicking onto a friendly between Lithuania and Spain being broadcast in German via some piratical satellite station on the Baltic coastline. If the Dutch invented the concept of totaal voetbal, a stylish passing system involving every player in the attack, Americans can now emulate that creativity, simultaneously wielding the remote and Google sub-searches to discover and eventually completely immerse themselves in the clubs, culture, rivalries and history of football.

Where else but football would you find clubs with nicknames like the Rat Stabbers, the Lepers, and the Scoundrels?

Where else would you find Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan, awarded the Golden Ball as the best player in last year’s World Cup, offered €7.5 million a year to play in Chechnya for a club called Terek Grozny? Heavily supported by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, the club also sweetened the deal with performance bonuses, two cars, a house, and private security. The offer came in Spain, where Forlan plays for Atletico Madrid, in the form of a French-speaking intermediary whose links to Terek are unclear at best. Not that Kadyrov needs Forlan; the Chechen overlord recently scored two goals in a charity exhibition match against retired Brazilian players, with the game played in the same stadium where Kadyrov’s father was blown up by a terrorist. During halftime, Kadyrov burst out of the locker room, did a robust version of the Chechen national dance, then screamed “God is great” to the frenzied crowd—now when’s the last time you saw something like that at an N.F.L. game? Whether Forlan is intrigued or horrified by such antics remains to be seen, and his agent is waiting to respond until he hears from an official representative of the club. However it works out, Forlan will need balls of more than gold to go play in the embattled Caucasus.

Where else but football would you find clubs with nicknames like the Rat Stabbers, the Lepers, and the Scoundrels? All these and more can be found in Argentina, which also boasts the Millionaires and the Tripe Sellers. The Rat Stabbers were originally founded by students in La Plata. The team got its name for one of two reasons; either (a) because off the field the medical students were gruesomely hacking away at rats in the university lab or (b) because the team practiced on a rodent-infested pitch. (It seems Argentines favor the first.) The Rat Stabbers lived up to their nickname in the late ‘60s when their ferocious brand of anti-futball—rough fouls, verbal goading, and ugly tactics—made them both the best and the worst of South American soccer. The club had such a criminal reputation that when A.C. Milan traveled to La Plata in 1969, the Italian coach ordered his squad, “Kick everything that moves; if it is the ball, even better.”

The Lepers and the Scoundrels earned their monikers in the 1920s, when one club in Rosario, Newell’s Old Boys, offered to play a charity match for a local leper clinic but crosstown rivals Rosario Central disdainfully refused. Of such incidents are great things born, and it’s a shame American franchises, saddled with such vanilla nicknames as the Thunder, the Crew, or one of a thousand collegiate Wildcats, couldn’t come up with similarly picaresque images—the leprous logo alone would be priceless (and noseless).

Although Lepers versus Scoundrels may seem as intense as a rivalry gets, football in Italy more than equals the South American vitriol. The Italian Serie A—rife for decades with crooked refs, match fixing, doping charges, violent hooligan organizations called ultras, and some of the dreariest playing venues known to man—is a poisoned chalice all its own. Any time a squad from the north (wealthy, industrialized, arrogant) plays a side from the south (poor, agrarian, vengeful), it’s akin to a civil war, an attitude best summed up in the ‘80s when Napoli visited Verona and hometown supporters displayed a banner declaring, “Help us dream, Vesuvius!” Not that the Italian football fans are any gentler towards their own clubs; in 2004, after a series of neurotic late season collapses by Inter Milan, Milanese ultras carried a sign that read, “We no longer know how to insult you.” Just three years later, fan violence combined with decrepit stadiums and outmoded security measures forced the league to play matches in front of empty stands, an unforgettably eerie experience when viewed on TV.

Red Sox fans may refer to the Yankees as an evil empire, but in European football provocations like that are perilously close to the truth.

The league has cleaned itself up somewhat since that low point but still, Italian football is often more enjoyable for the backstage rumors and operatic coaching carousels than for the game itself. In 2003, Valencia coach Rafael Benitez called Inter “the death of football” after his team was throttled in the Champions League by Inter’s purely defensive tactics. In 2010, Benitez became coach of Inter, failing badly to replace Portuguese coaching maestro Jose Mourinho, who once said of his popularity back in Portugal, “God, then me.” Benitez only lasted six months at Inter, a period described by a television commentator as “the horror,” and wherever the Milanese rate Benitez, it will not be on the Almighty’s hemline. Unlike before they still know how to insult the man, and the same can be said for Italian football, where scorn, spleen, and conspiracy theories are more than half the fun.

Rivalry, within the various leagues as well as internationally, is a hallmark of the world game and ceaselessly astounding for its depth and variety. In Italy, A.C. Milan and its fans loathe Inter Milan, A.S. Roma despise their Roman neighbors Lazio, and everybody hates Juventus, Italy’s dirtiest organization and a club so disrespectful it ran a lap of honor after winning “the darkest hour in the history” of the Champions League, the 1985 final when riots inside the stadium left 39 people dead and hundreds injured moments before kickoff. In England, Manchester United competes with Liverpool for bragging rights, while Chelsea, the nouveau riche of the English Premiership, disgusts all with its massive payroll and mechanized success. Red Sox fans may refer to the Yankees as an evil empire, but in European football provocations like that are perilously close to the truth. Real Madrid, once General Franco’s chosen vanguard, is in constant conflict with the liberal F.C. Barcelona, which historically has stood for Catalan independence, although sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s more irksome: Real’s fascist past or Barca’s hipper-than-thou demeanor. During the Soviet era, Dinamo Moscow was backed by the full faith and credit of the K.G.B. while Spartak (the Russian equivalent of “Spartacus”) did its best to stick out a defiant chin, eventually aggravating Lavrenti Beria, the rapacious chief of the K.G.B., so much that he had Spartak’s coach and all three of his brothers sent to the Gulag.

In the Netherlands, the urbane and artistic Ajax Amsterdam has self-consciously adopted a quasi-Jewish identity, while its archrival, Feyenoord F.C., from the working-class port of Rotterdam, has notoriously taken the opposite road. When Ajax supporters chant “Jews, Jews, we are super Jews,” the hardcore Feyenoord supporters respond with “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Such crowd spectacles are amusing in their own dark way, but any black comedy ends when it came to the fanatics backing Red Star Belgrade and the Croatian club Zagreb in the early ‘90s; both hooligan gangs were recruited as ready-made paramilitaries by nationalistic warmongers in the leadup to the Balkan genocides.

In short, the world game isn’t just a game, it’s an ongoing and at times agonizing measure of identity and culture. Anyone bored to sobs by America’s desiccated current sports offerings would do well to turn on, tune in, and not drop out for even a moment. We can only paraphrase the president of the Chilean football federation who, desperate to host the World Cup in 1962 for his rapidly disintegrating country, pleaded, “You must give us football, for we have nothing else.”

biopic

Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon