Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A kick in the balls

If I'm one thing, it's passionate about sport. Although I'll keep attentive when watching any code, two particular disciplines for which I reserve special affections are rugby and soccer, both for very different reasons. In recent times, I've come to question which I prefer. The answer has always been clear. In fact, I'm surprised I ever asked the question.

Soccer has this addictive quality, like an opiate of the masses - and that's what it is, essentially. It's a pastime which keeps voting working classes apathetic and otherwise occupied and, for hooligans, gives them a twisted pursuit with which to escape the mundane nature of their existence. For the armchair supporter, though, it's much less politically charged. It's simply a primal urge to roar at the bright colours and fast movements because it releases endorphins and adrenaline, or so non-fans would have you believe. There's always something distinctly tribal about being a fan, no doubt, but to what extent the primal nature of such feelings is taken depends on the code in question.

With soccer, it can be quite frightening, as numerous incidents of homophobic, racist, xenophobic or sectarian chanting and publicised events of organised hooliganism have proven. But only certain people have fallen into that level of addiction, and for the majority, it remains a harmless distraction. This doesn't stop the feeling of dejection at a crucial loss, the euphoria which accompanies a vital win or the smug satisfaction that comes with ribbing a colleague or friend who supports a team your side just thumped. There's no such thing as a friendly rivalry in soccer. The players of an opposition team and the club itself are the subject of an irrational hatred based on geographical proximity or historical grievance.

The sinister element of the sport always has me uneasy about soccer, which is why I always come to the conclusion that I prefer rugby. It's a sport founded on respect and camaraderie - as the old saying goes, rugby is a sport for thugs played by gentlemen, soccer is a sport for gentlemen played by thugs. Following a rugby team, for me, is nothing like following a soccer team - there's no sense of detachment. You're in it for the whole hog. You're part of a cult. Geographical and cultural proximity probably have a lot to do with it. My soccer team of choice - Tottenham - are English, while my rugby team - Munster - are Irish through and through. It's difficult, and too late, for me to phrase my feelings adequately, which is probably why non-believers have such a hard time comprehending this phenomenon. It really is something that you must experience for yourself.

For further reading, I'd suggest Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, the single greatest sports book ever written, ever. No-one has ever come as close as that genius to capturing just exactly why it's OK to be in a sulk for the weekend because a professional sportsperson did the job they were paid to do and scored against your team of choice.

Sounds stupid when you phrase it that way, but if that's the case, ignorance is bliss.

I'm quite content to be stupid.

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