Thursday, August 14, 2008

Don't worry Michael, it's Only a Game...

Soccer needs its human element. Unless you support Ajax and their adherence to the true faith, the game is rarely an aesthetic experience alone. Even when Spain's tiki-taca style conquered Europe this summer, it was more the human story of the perennial bridesmaid getting to the altar which made us smile.

Rather than merely delighting us visually, soccer hooks us because it invites us onto the field as a ghost-participant in the events, triggering our hard-wired instincts into matching the players’ emotions. So it was that in the split-second the German referee whipped out the red card at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium yesterday, I felt for an instant in the cleats of Michael Orozco.

So often on the field you want to whack the guy who is tugging your jersey, holding you back at corners or dissing you verbally, as he gets away with it out of sight and earshot of the ref. On a purely human level, Orozco did the right thing in fighting back at the bully, but soccer is not real life as it plays by different rules.

You know the red mist is not your friend, and when you think it is, it is too late. Even the best, like Zinedine Zidane in a World Cup Final, can give in to their animal instincts in a moment of madness.

Poor Orozco surely regretted his reflex the second he saw Wolfgang Stark moving his hand towards his pocket and he will have slept badly last night thinking he let his teammates, and the nation, down. His split-second reaction to an overly-close Nigerian at once recalled David Beckham’s reflex kick at Diego Simeone in France ‘98.

“Of course it changed the whole picture. The whole mentality goes in the trash.” Piotr Nowak’s words uncannily echoed those of England coach Glen Hoddle a decade ago.

Hitherto, the England v Argentina second round clash had been the game of that tournament, 2-2 at half time with a wonder goal scored by a teenage Michael Owen. After Becks’ dismissal, England took fright and put everyone behind the ball in a rearguard action, killing the contest as a spectacle.

Becks faced a torrent of abuse for his country’s subsequent exit on penalties, and sought sanctuary with Victoria in New York City, specifically in Brooklyn, where their first son was conceived and named after the borough.

Watching the replays, Orozco’s elbowing was not a patch on Leonardo’s KO-ing of Tab Ramos at USA ’94, and on another day he might have escaped expulsion, but he knows he can have no complaints. Age 22, he can only return to the Olympics as an over-age player, but let us hope, like Beckham, he uses this as a platform from which to grow stronger. As it was with Becks, sterling shows for the Nats in future will forgive everything done in the past.

“I'm really not going to think about that anymore," said Orozco." Life goes on, and I've just got to think about what's coming up next...I can't turn back. I gotta keep going forward."


Talking of the human side of soccer, Nick Hornby’s 1992 book ‘Fever Pitch’ began a tidal wave of soccer literature which continues to this day, because it tapped in so accurately to the bizarre surrogate life of the fan.

But 18 years earlier, an equally remarkable work illuminated the mind of the player.

Only a Game? was Irishman Eamon Dunphy’s diary of a season spent playing for Millwall in the English second division. Its painful account of the frustrations and disappointments of the professional soccer player make it one of the great books on the beautiful game, a sport which hitherto had such a paucity of literature behind it, unlike baseball, boxing or cricket.

After retirement, Dunphy became a journalist and made a name for himself, issuing forthright opinions on everything around him. Dunphy is now almost a parody of himself, but still great copy.

He has labelled Steven Gerrard “a nothing player” and Harry Kewell “a fat clown” for instance, and memorably threw a pen across the studio as he damned Jack Charlton’s Ireland on air as “a disgrace” during Italia ’90.

Dunphy was Roy Keane’s principal champion when the Irish captain stormed out of camp at World Cup 2002, splitting the little nation down the middle. “He’s right about everything”, said Dunphy, who ghost-wrote his autobiography, adding he would be cheering Ireland's opponents for the rest of the tournament (Dunphy himself had represented the Republic 23 times).

Six years later, Keane is now a target. “He's just been sucked into that awful Premier League vacuousness,” said Dunphy earlier this year. “He’s become rent-a-quote. It’s sad to see Roy Keane bullshitting.” Expect Keano, the simmering volcano, to never forget that slight.

Like spectators at a Shakesperian cock-fight, the Irish watch enthralled as two men fight with words about soccer, a sport which thrives on what Emile Zola, no relation to Gianfranco, called 'the beast in man'.

-Sean O'Conor

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