Saturday, August 18, 2012

That snarling, feral beast is back

Without wishing to exaggerate - well, OK, allow me some licence – living in Paris in August feels a little like Robert Neville in I Am Legend, waking up to a post-apocalyptic New York and wondering where everyone has gone.

When you are so used to a day-long soundtrack of car horns, sirens and those urban siblings, hustle and bustle, the silence is a little disconcerting.

Then again, there are benefits: I can make leisurely progress crossing a street without someone driving through a red light and then through me. Even the city’s waiters have dialled down their usual passive-aggressive indifference and are now just mildly frosty. Not that you care as you lazily sit in the shade of a cafe's canopy, happily watching the tourists drift by.

Sadly these novelties do wear off and you find yourself seeking normality to anchor the spirits. It is here that I would otherwise cherish the urgency with which football returns mid-August. But this season...

Just a week ago the world was celebrating the greatest sporting jamboree in living memory. 16 days of ego-less, personality-laden excellence. Sport - or at least sport for us masses - took a welcome holiday from greed, petulance, personal abuse and, for the most part, shagging teamates' girlfriends.

What a pleasure it was to see delighted achievement not cheapened by fatuous badge kissing; Victoria Pendleton lost out to Anna Meares and still shook hands afterwards - without anyone ending up in a courtroom; and after Bradley Wiggins "enjoyed a few", no one got bottled in a McDonalds at one in the morning.

Diving was rewarded with cheers and flag-waving, rather than boos and hisses, and the overall camaraderie between teams was warm and genuine, of a kind you wouldn't even find within the same football club.

London 2012 felt like a two-week fling with someone fresh, intelligent, and richly different to your regular partner, a holiday romance that opened up the shutters on the increasingly loveless marriage that we have with football and its money.

I'm not the first to point out these contrasts and I won't be the last. It's not that football has suddenly lost its respect. Perhaps it never had it, or perhaps it was as simple as having the Olympics take place under our very British noses for us to notice what good looks like.

Football has never been perfect, and has never lacked the attention of snobs who regard it as a neanderthal art. But I can appreciate how familiarity can breed contempt. It was significant, for example, that no one, apart from Mexico - and large-brimmed hats off to them for taking Olympic gold - actually cared there was even a football discipline at the London games.

Many people (including, patently, the Team GB football players themselves) felt that the Olympics would have been a great time to take a break from the game. It's with us constantly. The last competitive game of the club season in Europe was the Champions League final on May 19, but no sooner had the streamers and celery* been swept away from Munich's streets, than June 8 had rolled around and Poland and Greece were kicking off Euro 2012. And with that concluding on July 1, there were already players reporting for pre-season training at their respective clubs.
*Best that you Google the words "Chelsea"+"fans" +"celery" for an explanation...

Maybe, then, we should ease up on our harsh opinons about professional footballers being snarling, excessively rewarded, feral and spoiled. It can't be easy to earn the average house price every fourteen days with only a couple of weeks off each summer, during which you and the good lady WAG get papped relentlessly in the hotel pool.

If London 2012 raised the bar, what of those of us who do still love football? Are we the sporting equivalent of the gangster's moll, so attached that we ignore the appalling behaviour?

Football is, for some, a soulmate, but if our brief summer dalliance has opened a window to a life less ordinary, we must acknowledge that our hearts belong to a sport with a tarnished reputation, even if its attraction remains undimmed.

If we're not going to budge - and I don't see any real reason to do so - the best the world can hope for is that football learned something from London 2012. Perhaps those who seek more money as their only reward, and who regard cheating and diving as legitimate means to achieve it, will take note of the sportsmanship, the good nature and the ethics of excellence that, even for the modern, professional Olympian, contributed to the enjoyment of the games, rather than was simply a product of it.

It is good to have football back, don't get me wrong. It gives us something to talk about, to socialise over, to get angry and write blog posts on. I'm sure, as I settle into my pint of Dublin's finest tomorrow afternoon to watch Wigan-v-Chelsea, I will feel the warmth returning to my long-term relationship. But I know it won't quite feel right. Farewell my summer love...

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