The offside of football
When I met a young French friend and congratulated him on France winning the football World Cup, I expected a burst of joy but he only shrugged: “I don’t like football.”
I didn’t feel too put off by his response - I’m not a football fan, unlike my children, their children, my relatives, colleagues, neighbours, and even my wife.
The infection for football seems to have spread through Viet Nam for around a decade and is still spreading to catch up with the entrenched football culture of western countries. A generation of young adults and youngsters in Viet Nam have quickly adopted the rites of the new sport as religion. They pack stadiums with painted faces, brandish the national flag, chant provocative slogans and revel in strange watchwords, make a lot of noise and seem to openly defy public order. Outside the grounds at big matches there is an open black market for tickets. Fights are frequent during and after the games. During the last Southeast Asian Games enthusiastic young motorcyclists created traffic chaos as they staged post-match demonstrations at the Lao embassy in Hà Nội to rub in the country’s defeat by the Vietnamese national team.
When it comes to big games shown on television, many people complain about being kept awake by the shouts of fans watching the matches in the early-morning. Public servants go home early and pupils leave then homework unfinished to watch the games.
The two sides of football — for and against it — are as old as the two sides who fight on-field for victory. Matches have been compared to gladiatoria fights, or the clash of charioteers in ancient Roman times - activities which were intended to satisfy the thirst of the masses for violence and blood, a. kind of opium for the people.
The present passion for football, like any other passion, wipes out rational reasoning in favour of the logic of sentiment, especially when thousands of people gather in a stadium and generate, according to Gustave le Bon, the psychology of the masses dominated by the irrational. A silent Incident is enough to trigger catastrophes: in Lima, Peru, in May 1964 during a game against Argentina, a riot left 320 dead and 1000 wounded; in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in June 1968, a match between River Plate and Boca Juniors a stampede leaving 80 dead and 150 wounded; in Moscow, in October 1982 at a UEFA Cup clash, 340 dead, also in a stampede; in Brussels, in May 1985 at the Champions League Cup final, Italian fans were crushed during fighting by English fans, 39 died and 600 were wounded; in Sheffield, England, in April 1989, 95 died and 200 wounded when overcrowding caused crushing; in Yemen, in March 1982 two died and 20 were wounded, in two days of street violence by thousands of supporters.
For all the catastrophes caused by it, football now enjoys, on a world scale, a social prestige which defies its most vocal opponents. It has become a serious subject of scientific seminars where first-rate philosophers and sociologists are invited. People wonder whether a stadium is an ideal place to observe a people in their complexities and whether football is a reflection of modem society. The International and Strategic Relations Institute has published works on the geopolitics of football, attributing to it a value of strategic importance. According to Pascal Boniface, “It is certainly the most universal phenomenon today, much more than democracy or the market economy.” Another ethnologist declares; “Football is a trifle full of meaning,” but cautions against reducing football to being that opium of the people. “That would be underestimating the moving and contradictory dimensions that this type of collective manifestation can assume,” he wrote. You can argue many things in favour of the football; fair play, training in agility and forging of team spirit, racial equality in the same team, national feeling, and a sense of discipline. But being pro or anti-football remains a question of taste.
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