Monday, June 30, 2014

The Sport of the Civilized?

This must have been before the fat lady sang.

What is is about the sport of soccer that brings out the most base and primitive instincts in its players and, even more, in its spectators?   Even  airlines are injecting themselves into the incivility, with some Netherlands airline tweeting  "Adios, amigos," or something to that effect to the departing Mexican team.  I would not suggest that [U.S.-style] football or baseball brings out the most refined behavior in its fans, but by comparison, it would seem that Queen Elizabeth II is personally presiding over each Super Bowl, and that a pre- "Camp Cupcake experience" version of Martha Stewart models World Series decorum for the rest of us.

When I was a child, I was a gymnast. If one was to be anything more than a once-or-twice-a-week-just-for-the-fun-of-it gymnast, gymnastics tended to encompass most of one's non-school waking hours. That's how it is with most sports now. 

When we were little, however, for my brother  there was a concept known as "seasonal sports." Each sport had its designated block in the yearly calendar. A child played soccer or maybe pre-protective-gear football in the fall. Some little girls started volleyball in the fall  quite early back then as well. (Boys' volleyball typically didn't start until later ages.) Then he or she moved on to basketball. In the spring there were softball and baseball, with just a bit of overlap into swimming. (including diving as children aged and matured),.Water polo was squeezed into there as children got a bit older, as was the sport of track and field.   Children developed different sets of motor skills and even social skills with each sport. Just as a child was approaching boredom with one activity, it was time for another sport. While score was kept and championships were awarded to winning teams, for the most part, the point seemed to be fun and exercise. Most parents (there's always the chance rotten egg in the carton) were concerned  primarily with, in addition to fun and exercise, sportsmanship,, socialization, and safety. most parents were not already into the planning stages for their children's professional athletic careers. It all worked out rather marvelously. I'm not exactly sure why it ever had to change.

My brother was among the last of those to experience sports in the multi-faceted format. What is typically observed now is the "club sports" phenomenon, wherein children and/or their parents choose a single sport. The child plays that sport all year. If it's a rainy day, the soccer and baseball coaches and parents fight. it out with the basketball and wrestling teams for gymnasium space. Schools have traditionally tried to maintain the old-style schedule and have encouraged students to experience more than one athletic even per year, but that, too, is giving way to the one-sport concept. Interscholastic federations seem to be moving the date in which a school athletic team may hold its initial team workout earlier by a week or so every couple of years. I may be off on my dates, but I believe football teams are allowed to work out with pads in June now. It wasn't all that long ago when something like mid-August was the very earliest when that was allowed to occur..

What does any of this have to do with soccer? Not much, I admit, though it does bring to mind an experience I witnessed as a child.  Even though I was a gymnast, my parents were opposed to excessive single-minded devotion to a particular sport or activity, so I was allowed to compete in the bare minimum of events that whatever gymnastics club with which I was affiliated would allow. This meant I had an occasional weekend off. On one of those weekends off, I went with my parents to my brother's soccer  game. I believe my brother and I were eight and were in the fourth grade when this happened.  Looking back upon it, it's hard to believe that it all occurred in a single game and that in my mind it isn't a composite of events from several games, but my parents assure me it all happened on that one day.

My brother's official soccer coach was a nice young mother named Emily, who didn't have much background when it came to coaching, teaching, or playing soccer. She met the qualifications to coach, which was that she was willing to volunteer her time, and her background check came back clean. It didn't take Emily long to observe other coaches conducting practices on the shared over-sized schoolyard used for practices to discover that she was in way over her head. She called the commissioner of the league, who recruited a young man named Tony who may have been twenty-one or twenty-two to help Emily coach. tony had a solid background in soccer and worked surprisingly well with young children. At practice, everything seemed fine.

Then we went to my brother's team's first game.  Coach Emily had asked her own little boy to carry the jerseys that been given to her  three days before the first game for the boys to wear and to place them in the laundry room.  She wasn't sure how clean they were after having been stored for a year, so she wanted to launder them before handing them out to the little boys to wear in the game. Nearly all of the jerseys made it into the washer  and dryer. The one that escaped notice was the one that was a different color than the rest -- the one that the goalie was to  wear. (A goalie is allowed to be in certain places and to do certain things that other players are not allowed. The different-colored jersey makes it clear as to whom is the goalie and holder of those privileges.) It somehow slipped off the pile  of  jerseys and onto the floor, into a space next to the washer -- a space frequently occupied by the family's rather large and smelly St. Bernard mix.  The dog wasn't going to let a small thing like child's goalie jersey get in the way of his resting in his usual quiet place. The dog made himself comfortable atop  the goalie jersey for the next three days.

On game day, Emily and her family were nearly late because they couldn't locate the  goalie jersey. Eventually the dog moved, and they both saw and smelled it. At this point there was no time to wash and dry the  jersey. Emily decided on the way to the game that the only right thing to do would be to have her own child, Max, be the goalie and wear the smelly jersey. It wasn't right, she reasoned, for another parent's child to wear the jersey her family's dog had befouled.  This might have worked had Max not been the tiniest child in the entire league -- only marginally bigger than I, and I was diagnosed as growth-deficient. Max gave the job his best effort, but before the break in the middle of the first half, my brother's team was down seven goals to zero in a notoriously low-scoring sport. A goalie needs to be somewhat tall and long-limbed, with speed in his favor. Reach and mobility would allow him to block the balls kicked in the direction of the goal. Tiny Max had neither reach nor speed in his favor.

At the mid-point of the first half, the coach of a team who had already finished its game noticed the problem and offered his team's goalie jersey to my brother's coach, who was then able to put it on a larger and more mobile child and to stop the onslaught of black-and-white balls being propelled into her team's goal. By half-time, the score was seven to five. Shortly after the second half began, my brother's team scored two more goals, tying the score. At that point, my brother was pointed out by the referee -- a kid who was probably nineteen and was likely being paid minimum wage, and who most certainly had no vested interest in the outcome of this pee wee soccer game -- as having tripped another player. I believe this resulted in my brother being given what is known as a "yellow card," which is some sort of warning.

Assistant Coach Tony, seen previously as a most mild-mannered young guy, did not agree with the ref's call against my brother. He stepped onto the field and unleashed  string of profanities that would gain a movie an 'R" rating at the very least.  Assistant Coach Tony was a married man. His very young and pregnant wife was present. She stepped out from wherever she was seated or standing among the fans and slapped Tony hard across his face. Each team was required to have made a large banner out of felt and held up with PVC pipes, displaying the team's name and mascot. Assistant Coach Tony used the banner to dodge his pregnant wife as he continued hurling obscenities at the referee.  Eventually a commissioner or someone else walked Assistant Coach Tony to the parking lot. His pregnant wife refused to accompany him. I believe she stayed to watch the game to its completion.

Coach Emily was left with a seven-seven game and no assistant coach. She implored the parents to help her. My dad offered his services, but admitted he knew little if any  more about soccer than Emily did. He'd always considered soccer a "commie sport."   A coach of another team standing nearby offered to help out since he had major bad blood with the opposing coach. My dad sat down with great relief and watched as guy called time out, I think (are tie outs even allowed in soccer?) and positioned the players. A few kicks later, my brother scored  the go-ahead goal.  

Then came the dramatic moment of the day, as though there hadn't already been sufficient drama. A woman from the opposing fans' side who must have weighed  a minimum of three-hundred-seventy-five pounds stormed the field and went after the referee. The woman was practically foaming at the mouth and was spewing obscenities that made those previously  uttered by Assistant Coach Tony  seem almost like acceptable catechism instructional language from a nun by comparison. The woman couldn't move terribly fast, but the ref didn't see her coming until very late in the chase. When he finally noticed  --  it probably was the tremble of the Earth caused by her ponderous footsteps that eventually alerted him -- he ran as fast as  he could off the field and to his car in the parking lot, on his way blowing his whistle, yelling, "Game Over! Knights win!"

With the ref absent and  no one left to hit, the  woman grabbed my brother's team's PVC  pipe holding the Knights' banner and with ease  broke it into two roughly equal pieces. No one really cared . The Knights had won the game.

Assistant Coach Tony had sent  word with someone from the league that he wanted to meet with the parents after the game in the parking lot. My parents wandered over with everyone else. Coach Tony offered to resign. "Hell, no!" one of the dads exclaimed. "It was all the ref's fault, anyway."  The parents nodded and spoke in assent.

We walked to the car. "Wow," my mom said once we were inside our car with the doors locked.

"I told you it was a commie sport," my Dad contended.

"I had no idea soccer could be so much fun!" my brother concluded.

I know  examples of parents attacking baseball umpires or basketball referees abound in the world of youth sports, but in our town, the notable incidents in and following soccer games seem to outnumber those occurring in and following other sports by about twelve to one. Is there really a different mentality found in soccer as opposed to to other sports?   


  1. I recently heard a commentator claim that Americans would be more successful at European football if they emoted more over fouls, potential injuries, etc. There does seem to be an added drama to the sport.

    1. It makes sense to me. Judge Alex made a comment to the effect that if there is ever another actors' strike, the actors should just be replaced with soccer players.

  2. We're a big soccer family. Jason plays, my step brother plays and referees professional soccer, my cousins play. I couldn't care less.

  3. I'd rather watch soccer than American football.