Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Soccer, Media & the Culture of Restraint

Soccer, or more accurately football, is my first game. I played in high school, college, and with club teams. I began my training on the streets of North London with a tennis ball. This proved excellent for hand/eye co-ordination.

I realized long ago, even with the gutsy attempt by Pele in 1975, that soccer was not America's cup-of-tea, though I marvel at progress in youth soccer, especially for young women.  My guess is that professional soccer does not appeal to the American sports psyche that demands much more muscle, bombast, and smash mouth. I am not talking about civility and aesthetics here. British soccer attracts its share of louts and miscreants who would be right at home at many tail gate parties in America. When my father took me to Arsenal games, he occasionally asked me to cover my ears because the chants of the crowd were so brutal. And not so long ago the derogatory racial chants in English football stadiums should have shamed the nation.

So soccer has its brutish, loutish, shadow side.  History is filled with accounts from Britain and around the world of crowds rioting in soccer stadiums. I shared too many trips with soccer fans on the ferry from London to France and back to understate how badly behaved these fans can be. No wonder they have been banned from attending matches in Europe on more than one occasion. 

Soccer might have its divinities but its not exactly like going to church. I find myself returning to that shrine called Premier League Football, primarily to watch Tottenham (where I went to school) and Arsenal (where I lived) and resolve the psychic tension I have been wearing all these years. I assume young New Yorkers are faced with the same panic when deciding betwen the Yankees and the Mets. Maybe not.

The other day I watched on Fox Soccer a Football Association Cup quarterfinal game between Tottenham and Bolton. Through halftime the game was fast, tight, and tied 1-1.  A few minutes before halftime Bolton player Fabrice Muamba fell face down on the pitch. Soccer players fall all the time but not in this manner. The camera showed a player trying to turn him over on his back but failed. Then it became clear that this was not a usual soccer "dive" that players often exaggerate, hoping to draw a penalty.

This was different. Medics rushed onto the pitch and started chest compressions. The crowd became silent; some in tears as the reality set in. The announcers by and large held their tongues. Cameras did not focus on the events in mid-field, except for showing a long, shadowy view. After about ten minutes Muamba was carried off the field while the medics continued to perform chest compressions.

The crowd chanted his name. The players from both sides seemed stunned. The game was "abandoned" as was at least the next scheduled match. Football officials and sites such as ESPN provided sparse information. There were some complaints on social media about this lack of information. One post suggested that, if this had happened in the US, Muamba would have gotten a round of applause and the game continued. His team might have worn black arm bands for the following match. Life goes on.

NPR Radio suggested this was unusual behavior for the often rabid British football fan and the outpouring of religious goodwill a little surprising given England's very secular status. Whether the crowd had its own intimations of mortality one can only guess. But the fans behaved well, Fox Soccer behaved well, and the local press behaved well. After all, it was only a game.

Most impressive to me was the respectly media silence after someone has suffered cardiac-arrest on national television and in plain view. Fox made no attempt to drag in a medical specialist to explain what had just happened. No mikes pushed in faces.

Fabrice Muamba, a very fit 23-year-old, had a heart attack and was near death.

And millions knew it and showed it.

(At this writing the Associated Press reports that Mr. Muamba is breathing independently and showing "encouraging signs").

(As of this writing Muamba

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