I am not a sports fan. Generally speaking, I just let sporting things happen, somewhere over there. I may be aware of them but I don’t tune in. I certainly don’t participate.
I’m the kind of guy who usually tunes in for the big events only; the Six Nations, The Ashes, the Olympics, the World Cup, that kind of thing. I do a bit of reading up (ok, I just read the sports section in the Sunday papers – the only time I do that – the weekend before the event starts) and gently enjoy the spectacle. Mostly. After watching a game, or a day’s play, I flinch and desist from the achingly predictable return to stereotypical male behaviour surfaced at the next day’s video conferences, where I am suddenly in the presence of several deeply technical experts who waffle embarrassingly for ages before turning to the business of the day. So tedious. So boring. So sad. So infantile.
This last week or two, I’ve paid some attention to the Euro 2020 thing, watching more games of soccer than I’ve seen in the entirety of the last 12 months. On the whole, I’ve been underwhelmed by it all. So many teams have given us the usual dull game of midfield passing followed by more and yet more midfield passing. The tension, such as it is, limps along, simmering, due to the fact that every now and then there’s a brief attacking thrust and the whole show slides to one end of the pitch or the other. Briefly, the few players capable of running forward with the ball, taking on defenders and passing them before slipping the ball accurately to a colleague to press the attack, do their sparkling but intermittent thing. This flurry of excitement may sometimes lead to a goal. But then we are back to the hesitant midfield dribblery and dull passing. There’s little entertainment value in watching grown men kick a football to each other without worrying the other side on the pitch. Nail biting it isn’t.
Happily, there have been some mighty exceptions to this soporific pattern, and yesterday I watched a team play out of their skins for about 80 minutes, running with astonishing vigour all over the pitch, swapping their collective positional shape seemingly via psychic connection, and relentlessly taking sweeping risks – mitigated by immense athleticism and skill – to attack and harass their opponents, who were also a team of great ability, effort and grit. Here I am praising the play of the Italian team winning against Belgium in Munich last night. It was wonderful to watch.
But then. The thing I find most admirable about sport in general is that concept of sportsmanship. That selfless dimension that plays the game according to the rules and doesn’t push the envelope in a cynical and unpleasant way. The kicking of the ball into touch when an opponent is down injured. The stolid acceptance of an umpire’s decision. The handshakes after a tough match. So how disappointing it is when a team with the extraordinary abilities of the Italian soccer team can think it acceptable to behave like spoilt 12 year olds for the last 10 minutes of a game at the very top level of the sport. The sordid clutching of the face as the player screams in agony and throws themselves to the ground after the slightest knock in a tackle. The blatant diving to seek an advantage. At one point, with just a few minutes left to play, I think there were three Italians simultaneously writhing on the floor, all being studiously ignored by the referee. But the referee seems unable to intervene to punish this spoilt immaturity. What is possibly even worse is the mirthful head-shaking dismissal of this behaviour by professional pundits in the TV studio, chuckling at those clever Italians and their rampant ‘gamesmanship’, legitimising it with a public display of fawning.
Sorry TV guys – and they were all guys – but it’s not gamesmanship. It’s just cheating. It’s largely the reason why soccer remains so low on my radar when it comes to watching sport. It’s why watching the Italian team, an experience that should be one of marvelling at their skill, their boldly adventurous playing style, and their brilliant athleticism, crumbles into one of dismay at their clueless willingness to reveal, at the close of a triumph, their inner puerility.