In the youth of Pre-Columbine, when being tormented by a bully was considered a normal boyhood rite of passage, the Richardson brothers exerted their power in the world by punching me in the stomach and face after we got off the school bus for several months. The brothers were spawned from the same mutant gene pool of Shaquille O’Neal and Godzilla and I was a scrawny kid so the only question was whether both of my eyes would be swollen shut or just one.
After several weeks of this my dad decided it was time to take action. He bought two pairs of gloves and taught me how to lead, jab, feint, and how to throw a punch from the hip. I’d fight back, and, as the old story goes, bullies always back down when you stand up to them.
One day after getting off the bus, one of the brothers did the usual knocking my school books out of my hand. I turned to go toe-to-toe, armed with the Sweet Science, and threw a couple of jabs. I took one of the worst beatings I’ve ever had. I still have a scar on my forehead from one of the punches.
The brothers must’ve gotten bored beating me up and they didn’t bother me for another three years. Then, on my first day of High School, one of them nailed me in the ear.
They were both star linebackers on the football team and I learned that the coach had a training schedule that he stuck to religiously. Mondays were the days he worked his team into the ground. Tuesdays weren’t as bad. Wednesdays even less. On Thursdays they watched game films. And Fridays they played.
The next Monday I hid behind a bush with my wood baseball bat. When the brothers came off the bus, dragging from a tough workout, I jumped the closest brother and hit him as hard and as many times as I could. I walked home with a broken bat and crying. A few days later I sat in the stands and watched them play.
Seven years later and over 1,000 miles away from that little town, I was in my second year of military service and decided to go to a little pizza place off base. I had ordered and was waiting when I hear someone call my name. I turned to see one of the Richardson brothers, also in the military, and of higher rank, sitting at a table and eating pizza with several friends.
“How’s it going?” he asked. He was fat and disheveled but still massive.
“Alright,” I said, not knowing which brother it was or his intentions.
“How’s your brother doing?” he asked, smiling.
“You know,” he said, smiling, “I always liked your little brother. He was such a funny, cute kid.”
Then a perplexed look came over his face and he asked, accusingly, “What happened to you?”
I now understand his consternation: there were rules. Men are supposed to fight toe-to-toe with the belief that the most righteous will win. By going guerrilla I broke those rules, rules made by people like the brothers who outweighed me by 80 muscular pounds. Deception, it seemed to me, was a more sensible approach.
Soccer is a game of deception and should always be so. In the early days of the modern era of the game, it was seen as a plebeian vice and the British Crown tried to shut it down. Its popularity reached critical mass during the reign of Queen Victoria who embraced what she could not destroy and repackaged the game as an aristocratic virtue.
In colleges and universities, the future leaders of society unbuttoned their shirt, tested their bodies, sharpened their wits, and honed their discipline while treading upon the courtyard grass. Then, in 1863, 12 English clubs met in a London tavern and agreed to abide by rules established in 1846 by the University of Cambridge. Soccer was divorced from rugby – carrying the ball was outlawed – and kicking your adversary was prohibited. There were no limits to the size of the team, the size of the field, or the length of the game. The off-side rule was established. It was bad sportsmanship to score a goal behind your opponent’s back.
In 1870, Scotland organized the players into defense, midfield, and strikers and in 1871 goalkeepers were allowed to touch the ball using any part of their body. In 1872 the referee was established but remained on the sideline. Prior to that players adjudicated fouls committed. In 1891 the referee stepped on to the field and blew his whistle, awarding the first penalty kick, 12 paces from the mouth of the goal.
Soccer soon became an export of the English empire as common as boots, flour, Manchester cloth and the doctrine of free trade. In 1889 the first international competition was organized by the English of Montevideo and Buenos Aires. In 1895 the British employees of the Gas Company and São Paulo Railway staged the first Brazilian soccer game.
It was unstoppable. Once a way for the lazy offspring of the upper-class to get some fresh oxygen in their lungs, soccer blossomed in the slums of South America and a style was born. Players in Argentina, drawing upon the Tango, chose to dance with the ball rather than kick it. In the tropicalized soccer of Brazil, the poor played it because all that was needed was a ball of rags and desire. Fertilized by the capoeira – the warrior dance of black slaves – and the dance of the festivals, the most beautiful form of the game was born.
In a social pyramid with blacks on the bottom, whites on the top, and a great chasm between, soccer became one of the very few democratic venues where people of color had a shot at social mobility. All of Brazil’s best players, from Romario and Zisinho, to Didi and Pelé, have come up from poverty, and some of them returned to it. They grew up with no other toy than a ball. In such poverty they learned to move around the rules, preparing them for a life of crime or soccer. They became experts in hip feints, step-overs, break-throughs, bluffs, blinds, pretending, surprising.
Now that the many major European teams are no longer clubs but are corporations, South American soccer is an export industry and the joy of hypnotic play is often at odds with all that the industry of Soccer-as-Spectacle views as inefficient. Technocrats are employed as managers to maximize the profitability of play, programming every play down to the smallest detail. And now they want to employ closed-circuit television to review and control the one element of humanity on the field that they cannot control: the referee.
“There’s too much money at stake,” clamors Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of the multi-national corporation known as Manchester United, “to let human error be a factor.”
This is an argument that benefits Ferguson’s team in several ways. Tall, strong, incredibly physical – as is the English style — his team can only be victimized by deception. Managers on the bottom side of the standings rarely argue for replay.
But it also confuses Ferguson’s tactics as a manager with a quest for perfection. Ferguson is often called a hypocrite because he loudly and routinely criticizes coaches, referees, the FA, FIFA, fans, and the media, only to turn around and do the very thing he just rampaged against. Ferguson could hardly care if a journalist thinks he’s a hypocrite. His job is to organize his team to win silverware and he does so by deflecting public criticism from his players by attacking everyone but his players. The locker room is a different story. The Scotsman, as any book written by a former Man U player will attest, is one of the fiercest men you’ll ever meet behind closed doors and he’s not about to give control of his players to the media. He is a master of deflection.
Others who want to police games with technology, as if it were objective, try to find an argument niche, wanting technology to be used to decide “fouls in the box.” But fouls by whom? Defenders? Attackers? And besides, the vast majority of fouls are committed outside the box, some of which are converted into goals. All this can do is delay the game. Next they’ll want to fill the void with the organ-bursting dance of The Sockettes, ear-shattering electronica, laser-lights, and Hip-Hop The Bunny who canons wadded-up t-shirts into the crowd, all with the underlying belief that if a fan’s sensory system is not completely saturated every second, only boredom can result. In other words, the festivities of an NBA time-out.
The loudest voices for technology are coming from England, a CCTV society and birthplace of the modern rules. Forty-five years after Maradona’s “Hand of God,” goal, one of the two goals scored which sent England out of the World Cup, the English press went pop-eyed, frothing when Chelsea was sent home by Barcelona and then convulsed in an orgy of moral preening over the Frenchman Henry’s handball.
In the first incident, Henry, who plays club ball for Barcelona, was pulled down in the box by a Chelsea defender, a foul that would have led to a penalty kick and the chance to leave the game with a win instead of a tie, an outcome that would have changed the complexion of the second game.
The second instance, Henry’s handball which led to his pass to a teammate who scored the goal that ultimately knocked Ireland out of the World Cup, Ireland’s mistakes, as the great Irish player, Roy Keane has pointed out, were so many that to point to one incident any one incident is self-serving nonsense.
Ireland would not have even been in that round of qualifiers had an extremely harsh call not gone against Georgia in Ireland’s 2-1 victory. And, as Keane pointed out, if Ireland’s defense had done their job and cleared the ball, Henry wouldn’t have been left alone a few yards from the goal with the ball. As far as the attacks on Henry’s character, that he should’ve told the referee he cheated, he’s an athlete. He is, physically, an exceptional human being who performs in extraordinary situations with the goal of helping his team win the game. He did what he’s paid to do.
The real cause of outrage, of course, is that the English hate the French and used the handball as an opportunity to ladle bile upon their neighbors. What we hear is the echo of colonial history and the struggle of the mighty to impose themselves upon others. But the more the powerful manipulate it, the more the beautiful comes out, the more the unforeseeable happens, and every once in a while the scrawny teaches the giant a lesson.