THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Watching the European Championships this summer managed to rekindle acutely my festering love/hate problem with association football, or, to give it its English diminutive, soccer*.
I've lived in England for 44 years and I've admired football in many ways: indeed, when I was sports editor at the television news agency UPITN I spent an inordinate amount of time covering the sport and editing match highlights into 1:15 news clips. But this was never really enough to convert me into a fan, and certainly not an England supporter.
The European final at Wembley Stadium in July 2021 reminded me exactly of why that was. I was even inclined to support England: this team was admirable in many ways, especially off the field where manager Gareth Southgate and his players had stood tall in support of racial justice in a nation whose leaders had declared it free of racism just weeks before. Those same leaders castigated England's players for taking a knee before matches, then, as the team advanced to the final, threw on football jerseys and magically became supporters. Plus, I’d back England because they were playing Italy, whose pervasive cynical cheating and Opera Buffo acting have for decades seemed to be the worst part of the game itself, and certainly not something (as football fans always insist) outweighed by the occasional moments of poetry in their play. This cynical mayhem on the pitch reached its apotheosis when Italy's Giorgio Chiellini pulled England's Bukayo Saka down with a horse-collar tackle with minimal penalty.
Meanwhile, outside the stadium, waves of drunken England supporters were assaulting the gates and anyone who stood in their way, especially if they happened to be 'less' than white. I always remind people that when I arrived in England to stay, in 1977, no one, and I mean no one, called soccer 'the Beautiful Game'. It was an ugly game ruled by 'hard men' whose hardness involved mostly kicking from behind or tugging at shirts, and you might be taking your life in your hands if you went to watch them. Thank Nick Hornby and Fever Pitch for creating a football fantasy island for British Boomers.
But the biggest memory engendered by the Euro Final was of my first-ever professional football match, which I attended at Wembley while travelling as a tourist, on 3 January 1973. It was billed as 'The Six versus The Three' a match celebrating the entry of Britain, Ireland and Denmark into the Common Market (as it was then) against Germany, Italy, France, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. My buddy Mole and I went from our bedsit in Muswell Hill, where we hung out looking for The Kinks, to Wembley on a cold gray night and stood in one end of the stadium, which was about half-full (my memory was accurate: the attendance was announced as 35,000 - even then the country was split on the question of European unity).
I remember Northern Ireland and Arsenal's Pat Jennings in goal for The Three, with Bobby Charlton commanding the attack like a puppet-master, with no one grabbing his jersey or kicking his legs out. Ireland's Johnny Giles stood out in the rest of the midfield. I recall Italy's Dino Zoff playing the second half in goal for The Six and I recall the first goal, by the Dane Henning Jensen. And I remember being most impressed with the German, Horst Blankenburg, at centre-back alongside Franz Beckenbauer.
I did a little research to check my memories. The referee was, of course, English: Norman Burtenshaw, who's most famous for celebrating an Arsenal win in an FA Cup final he reffed. The Three were managed by Alf Ramsey, whose team were mostly English or players from the English first division. Scotland's Colin Stein got the other goal. 1966 England World Cup Heroes Bobby Moore and Alan Ball, legendary enforcer Peter Storey, and Alan Hunter from Northern Ireland; but no Welshmen, unless you counted Emlyn Hughes, who was born in and played for England. Germany's Helmut Schon had selected a mostly German squad, including The Bomber, Gerd Muller, but also Johann Neeskens of Holland and France's Marius Tresor, whom I would watch in later years. Blankenburg never played for Germany, partly because he offended German managers and partly because he played as the anchor of the great (Dutch) Ajax teams of the 70s; Gunter Netzer, who captained The Six, was another German who played less than he should have for his country because he played his club football for Real Madrid.
My memory says the match was played at something less than an urgent pace, but still compelling. And one other thing was ingrained in my memory: at halftime, as Mole and I wondered where to go to relieve ourselves, we noticed no one in the crowd moving. Then I realised a small flood was rushing down the terrace, and over my boots, which were my 1973 pride and joy - what the country musician Gary P Nunn would call "manly footwear" in his song 'London Homesick Blues' - were getting wet. This was my first lesson, going in at the deep end, as it were, about the sheer class of England supporters.
Later that winter, up in Scotland, Mole and I would stumble upon a Highland League tussle between Inverness Thistle and Caledonian FC (the two teams later merged, against the wishes of their hardest-core supporters, in order to play in the third division of the Scottish league). I had decided to root for Thistle that day, which, in the words of one Scot I knew years later, covering American football, made me a regular. Incidentally, when I was doing late-night NFL years later, we'd always get emails asking what soccer team I supported, and I found that saying Inverness Caledonian Thistle was a good way of avoiding conflict, at least until I made the mistake of boasting about Calley’s win over Celtic, and received death threats by email. But when I returned home later in 1973, I was now a football fan: when I went to Seattle that summer for a friend's wedding, I made a point of taking in the Seattle Sounders. My boots emerged unscathed.
But it was different after I moved back to Britain, Over the years, it was mostly at football matches I encountered the downside: racism and xenophobia, as well as smelly surfaces. In fact, until Brexit unleashed such emotions five years ago, I had rarely, except at football grounds, been abused for being a Yank. One year at West Ham, my Swedish cousins were discussing how disappointing the stands were (we could barely see the pitch from our corner of the North End, and the tannoy was the size of a six transistor radio) but made the mistake of comparing, in Swedish, Upton Park to the ground of their own Kalmar FF. I noticed the crowd backing off from us, and finally someone pointed and yelled out "Wogs!". I was tempted to point out that by the technical racist definition, we weren't, but in my American accent I decided that wouldn't help. On the tube back from the match, with my father and brother, who'd watched from seats on the sidelines, we were then accosted by Hammers fans who yelled "four poofs and a pensioner". My brother asked me "what's a poof?" and I said "let it go".
I watched QPR fans making ape noises and hurling bananas and peanuts at Bob Hazell, who was black and who played for QPR. Their own team. I made the mistake of taking my wife and a female friend who worked with me at ITN to a match at Arsenal. We stood at the home end, with the Gunners' supporters, but left at the half because, down 2-0, the level of seething frustration and menacing hatred was making us distinctly uncomfortable. It boiled over into violence after the match, of course.
Despite the less than fan-friendly experiences, I still followed football. There have been teams I've enjoyed watching: Ajax and the Dutch back in the Seventies; Dave Sexton's QPR in those same years; Bobby Robson's Ipswich in the '80s with its two Dutchmen. France with Tresor, Didier Six, then Platini and the rest; the Danes when they won the European championship. But football to me remains the most frustrating of sports. The English like to claim they invented the game, but my gut feeling is that football was being played, and the English came along in their club blazers and invented rules. Which decent chappies would always obey, so they needed only one referee to keep control, and two linesmen to enforce an offside rule designed to frustrate open play, a rule impossible to enforce accurately unless the official's eyes were on stalks pointing in opposite directions.
The apotheosis of football refereeing came in the 2010 World Cup Final final (the redundancy is FIFA's) between the Netherlands and Spain. At the time I wrote that "the BBC's Gary Lineker was forced to argue that this mixed martial arts slug-fest, a cynical festival of fouls, ref-baiting, diving, and bad acting was a 'good advertisement for football' -- solely on the grounds that at least the match wasn't decided on penalty kicks!"
Watching players writhing in mock-agony it occurred to me that, in My Fair Lady terms, what I had learned was that The Pain In Spain Lies Mainly In The Feign.
In that match the Dutch adopted Spanish cynicism and pushed it to the limit. This depended on their assuming, correctly, that English referee Howard Webb could not and would not 'ruin the match' by sending players off. Thus Webb allowed a spinning kick-boxing blow by DeJong, and later yellow carded Von Bommel, who immediately committed an even worse foul as if daring Webb to produce a second yellow and send him off. In the end, the Spanish got away with the worst foul: Pujols pulling down Robben from behind on a breakaway: the by now shell-shocked Webb actually yellow carded Robben, who pointed out to him, in English, that had he dived, Webb might have given him the call.
It's funny that both the English sports I've enjoyed more than football: cricket and rugby, also rely on one or two officials making key calls; rugby is especially bad in the sense that even small fouls, committed in the wrong place on the field, can cost a team three points, and also that no one seems to agree on exactly what the rules are, or which should be enforced. Lifting in the lineout was illegal when I started watching (United Services Portsmouth v the All Blacks in that same winter as the 6 vs 3 match) but everyone did it all the time, and it seemed to be penalized only when the ref wanted to make an impact. It has something to do with the English joy, first described by George Mikes, at enduring unnecessary hardship.
It's also funny that, although the world's three biggest countries (China, India and the USA) are not dominated by football, the English behave as if they were. In fact, the majority of the world's non-football nations are the former nations of Empire, starting next door with Ireland (GAA sports), extending to Canada (hockey), India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka (cricket), Australia (Aussie rules, cricket, rugby), New Zealand (rugby, cricket and more rugby). South Africa had a sporting apartheid for years: rugby and cricket for the Europeans, cricket for the 'Cape coloured', soccer for the Africans. Football spread mostly through Europe and South America, sometimes through English influences, but not via the Empire.
But part of the new nationalism brought home by Brexit is the triumphalism of English football, even if the England team, anchored in the children of immigrants, stands in living denial of the ethos of Brexit. Hence the political trouble, which extended past the final. England lost this on penalties, two of which were missed by young, black players. I had become more and more engaged as the tournament went on, the teams I supported (Sweden, then Denmark) went out, and the dominoes fell to make England's path to the final relatively easy. Then I found myself supporting England against Italy, and feeling that same ultimate frustration as longtime England fans, but this time not just with the result but more with the ugliness of the play matching the scenes around the stadium gates.. And also the silliness of deciding the sport's pinnacle event on penalty kicks. It’s like deciding the NBA title with a free-throw shooting contest.
So in the aftermath of the match, I found myself again let down by football. It was as if those England fans from January 1973 at Wembley were still pissing on my boots.
* Yes, English, not American. When your Brit friends ask 'why do you Yanks call football soccer?' tell them it was Oxford University students in the 1880s who invented the term to distinguish it from 'rugger', rugby football – ed.