One of the real underrated pleasures of being a sports fan is having a close friend with opposing team loyalties. You love the Red Sox, he loves the Yankees; you live and die with Real Madrid, he is all about Barca; you are Brazil through and through, and for some dang reason the guy has a man-crush on Lionel Messi. If all of your friends support your team, how can you give a postgame in-your-face telephone call, and who can you annoy by wearing your team's jersey to his family barbecue?
I have gone to football matches in four continents and about a dozen countries; not as many as some, but more than most. As I've witnessed these matches, it always seems like the mixed groups have more fun. In contrast, I still remember my trip to the England-Trinidad World Cup match in 2006. The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-England, and the vast majority of them sat in quiet and intense consternation as the game seemed to be heading for a 1- 1 draw. I noticed, though, a small group of friends- or at least very very friendly people- some of them wearing Trinidadian black, and others with their faces painted with St. George's Cross. They certainly followed the game with intensity, and when England did something good, the English among them rose and cheered, and when the Soca Warriors warranted it, the Trinidadian fans rose and cheered. Between these moments, though, they spoke and laughed and drank and enjoyed themselves.
Now, don't get me wrong. There is value in being with your friends, all pulling together and high-fiveing when things go your way. But, for me the greatest joys I derive from watching soccer comes from either deriding my friends' most recent efforts or engaging in arguments with informed, intelligent, and passionate acquaintances or family members who do not happen to share my opinion.
I have a younger brother, Lloyd, who somehow managed to allow himself to go astray. Somewhere along the way he became a fan of Real Madrid and Manchester United. Never one to support the constant front-runners, and preferring a more attractive brand of football, I have always pulled for Arsenal and Barcelona. So, in the first half of the Arsenal match, as Arsenal went down two goals and a man, I received the inevitable call from Lloyd. Convention dictated that I took the call, and I received my ribbing with good nature. As the second half progressed, and Arsenal scored one goal, and then another, I contemplated whether to call Lloyd and return the favor. I elected to wait, hoping that Arsenal would pull ahead, thus justifying the enormous verbal payback that I would heap upon him. Anticipating the phone call heightened the enjoyment of match, and when the go-ahead goal finally came I immediately grabbed the phone, and when Lloyd picked up, I offered a carefully crafted lie, saying only, "I had to go to work. How did the Arsenal match end? "
Sepp Blatter is too fond of believing that soccer can cure the world's ills. He laments the presence of capitalism in the game, believes that the game can ease international tensions, and that the game itself is a public trust that is above national laws and politics. This is certainly rubbish, for at the end of the day, we are still talking about grown men kicking an inflated ball around an oversized lawn. But, on a smaller scale the game can provide a forum for conversation and friendship. Show up at any bar or pub in the world, and you can make a friend by asking a local patron about the local football team. Perhaps more importantly, it gives a reason to call old friends who might otherwise fade into our past, or to fire off an email to a friend or brother who we need but an excuse to call.
If nothing else, it is important to remember that despite the ugliest passions of ultras or other fanatics who have lost perspective on the game, the net result of football is a positive one, and true fans of the game who keep the vicissitudes of their both Teams in proper perspective do not live or die by their teams, but rather they see winning as an occasion to reach out to family friends, and losing as a reason to do the same.
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