Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Boo-tiful Game

Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s President likes to talk about the healing power of football. Joga bonito, as it is nicknamed. The beautiful game. But whether a reflection of the times, football -- the world game -- has become increasingly violent.

In the other day’s elimination match between Valencia and Inter Milan, a melee broke out after full time; one that went on for more than five minutes and spilled all the way to the locker room. In the knockout match between Olympique Lyonaisse and AS Roma, the French team’s Brazilian forward Fred threw a nasty elbow at the Italian team’s defender Cristian Chivu that opened up his nose like a spigot. The television analyst spent an annoying several minutes muttering what coward Fred was for his actions.

What makes football such a passionate game is how it is a reflection of life and the battle for turf. To score a goal is a difficult enough task that is why when the ball meets the back of the net, the celebration is rapturous and filled with emotion. By the same token, one of life’s basic tenets is life is unfair and difficult so even the tiniest of victories or good fortune is enough cause for celebration.

Pitched battles
The FIFA World Cup is one of the most intensely viewed and followed sporting spectacles; more so than the Olympics that tends to feature sports that are either slanted towards certain countries or are just plain unwatchable. On the pitch, no one is any one favorite. Even the best of the best, the Boys from Brasil can get upset on any given day. When it comes to national teams, it’s war. Literally.

The Soccer War, as the six-day battle between neighboring Honduras and El Salvador was known, had long term repercussions not just for the countries that butted heads but also for the whole region. Both Honduras and El Salvador already had strained relations owing to immigration and political unrest. After their national teams scored a win apiece against each other, they faced each other in a tiebreaker in Mexico to go to the 1970 World Cup. On June 27, 1969, El Salvador nipped Honduras 3-2 in extra time to advance. By the game’s end, there was rioting in the stands between followers of both teams. The melee degenerated into a full-scale shooting war when the Salvadoran Army invaded two weeks later. A ceasefire was put in effect but not until there were some 2,000 dead on each side. The war suspended the Central American Common Market, the equivalent of the European Economic Union and succeeding military junta rule in El Salvador drove the country to a civil war.

In May of 1990, Red Star Belgrade, already the winner of the Yugoslav football league by aggregate score, traveled to Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, Croatia to play a meaningless final match against host team Dinamo Zagreb.

Prior to the match, there were street skirmishes between supporters of the two clubs. And right before kick-off, Serbian fans of Red Star Belgrade provoked the Croatian crowd with nationalist slogans such as “Zagreb is Serbian” and “Death to Tudjman,” reference to the newly elected pro-independence President of Croatia. When the Serbs began to destroy the stadium and throw rocks at the Croats, a fight ensued. Unfortunately for the home side, the Serb-controlled Yugoslav police didn’t lift a finger to prevent the Red Star hooligans from instigating the violence. When the Red Star fans began attacking with knives, it became too much for the Croats to swallow so they began to fight back. Only then did the police intervene but to everyone’s horror, they went to break up the Croats.

The Croats assaulted the police and then took back the stands from the Serbs in a battle that lasted for over an hour. Dinamo’s Zvonimir Boban who would captain Croatia’s World Cup side in France in 1998, became a folk hero when he kicked a policeman who was beating a fallen Dinamo fan. Boban became an icon in the struggle for independence.

The game was never played but it would go down in history as the start of the Great Patriotic War that saw the disintegration of the Balkan country of Yugoslavia.

As former England captain Terry Butcher once said, “Off the pitch, I was always a mild-mannered ordinary bloke, but put me in a football shirt, it was tin hats and fixed bayonets. Death or glory.”

A red card for racism
Football is said to be a sport without borders, but in Europe that is supposedly more tolerant of racial mingling, there has been a rise in a number of incidents that have people wondering about the state of the game.

In match between Barcelona and Real Zaragoza at La Romareda in Zaragoza, the home side’s fans started money grunts to spite Barca’s Cameroonian forward Samuel Eto’o. As Eto’o threatened to walk off the pitch Zaragoza goalkeeper Cesar Sanchez angrily gestured to the crowd that his side also had black players.

In 2004, Luis Aragones, the coach of the Spanish National Team was filmed by a television crew trying to motivate striker Jose Antonio Reyes by making racist remarks about Reyes’ Arsenal teammate, Thierry Henry. Aragones said, “Show that black little shit that you are better than him.” The English media strongly protested Aragones’ words and actions, but instead Spanish officials were notoriously slow in denouncing the remarks. In a friendly match between Spain and England at the Santiago Bernabeau Stadium, Spanish fans taunted England’s black players particularly Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Philips every time they touched the ball. UEFA heavily fined the Spanish Football Federation and warned them that any further incidents will result in the suspension of international play on Spanish soil.

Lord Herman Ouseley is the chairman for Kick It Out, a campaign against racism in football. He has been working hard to get more Asians and blacks on European teams and to speak out against racism along with white football players. “It’s a long-term project in tackling racism in football. The way of tackling racism in football is about long-term educational work - with fan groups at the local level, with the organizations that represent the game and then getting all the groups to work together. We have worked hardest with the fan groups, I suppose. But we recognize the need for educational work at all levels of the game - working say with security staff, having plans in place to ban racists from grounds, making sure that those found guilty are fined. It means working with everyone from fans and officials to the players themselves. Some players, for example Ryan Giggs, go into schools on a regular basis to discuss issues of racism.”

Game, set, and match… for football
Prior to the start of the 2006 World Cup, Italians woke up to find out that their much-beloved Serie A was embroiled in one of the worst game fixing scandals in sports history. Top teams like Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio, and Fiorentina were found to have conspired to have favorable referees officiating their matches and rigging results. Juventus was not only stripped of its league titles from 2005 &06, but it was relegated to second division play and kicked out of UEFA play.

Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time Italy’s premier league was rocked by a game fixing scandal. The most recent was in 1980 when AC Milan and Lazio conspired to fix a game.
The scandal left widespread feelings of guilt and anger towards the owners, managers, players, referees, and league officials. Said one Italian football fan, “I don’t think I can ever watch another Serie A game again knowing that if something fishy is taking place.”

The relegation of Juventus, AC Milan inability to recover from its points reduction, the flight of many of the league’s top players to Spain, the stigma of the game fixing scandal, and most recently the suspension of games following the death of an Italian policeman during the rioting that took place during a derby between Palermo and Catania, have given a black eye to Italian football and placed their bid to host the Euro Championships in 2012 in jeopardy.

Attendance, particularly among family ticket holders, has dipped significantly that for the first time, the Bundesliga is actually drawing more fans.

In late September 2005, 11 Brasilian National Championship matches and as well as four second division derbies were ordered to be replayed in their entirety after two referees were caught fixing matches due to outside betting. Of the eleven replayed games, only two finished with their original outcome.

The price of losing
Prior to the liberation of Iraq from the yoke of Saddam Hussein, the country’s national sporting scene and football’s in particular was the personal playground of the dictator’s cruel and sadistic son, Uday. When the national team would lose, he would force players under gunpoint to kick concrete walls while barefoot until their feet were bloodied stumps. At times, he would throw them in solitary confinement and have them beaten with paddles. Sharar Haydar, a defender on the national team, was gaoled for a week after Iraq lost 2-nil to Jordan. Along with three other teammates, Haydar’s feet were beaten 20 times a day and was only fed with one glass of water and a slice of bread. Haydar fled the country in 1998.

In 2000, General Robert Guei, the leader of Ivory Coast’s ruling military junta, threw the entire football team into the brig for two full days after crashing out of the first round of the African Nations Cup. Guei took their mobile phones, wallets, passports, and publicly castigated them: “You should have spared us the shame!”
A great equalizer and a great hope
But it’s not all hate and the strife. There’s a reason why football is the global game and it is said to bring people together.

Football perhaps more than any other sport is life’s great equalizer. A goal can transcend generations and live on forever such as Diego Maradona’s weave through six England players en route to his second tally of the game during the
1986 World Cup in Mexico.

And any talk of the sport or even its greatest players will always have Edson Arantes do Nascimento or Pele to the world at large thrown into the picture.

Not bad for a pair of boys who born to extreme poverty. Their exploits have helped forge national identity and have given hope to many others to find their fame and fortune in a ball with a circumference of 28 inches and is filled with a network of pentagons and hexagons.

In war-ravaged Afghanistan, women long repressed by the deposed Taliban regime, have found a voice by now playing football.

In the Ivory Coast, the exploits of the Elephants – as the team is known -- on the pitch has done something the politicians cannot do: force people to lay down their arms and seek an end to the civil war that has wracked the country no end. The team, as led by Chelsea’s star striker Didier Drogba, has been a symbol of unity for this African country’s fractured peoples.

This former French colony’s military government has repressed its migrant population (that comes from neighboring Liberia, Ghana, and Guinea) and Muslim community that have caused much of the discontent in the country. But many of the team’s better players are from these oppressed minorities. So watching this team make quite a splash in the last World Cup united this West African country of 18 million people.

And for all the bad, there’s quite a silver lining in the horizon. The 2002 World Cup held jointly in Korea and Japan is a milestone in itself. The fact that Korea finally allowed a Japanese team onto its shores is a good sign for better relations between the two countries. Obviously, many haven’t forgiven Japan for its World War II atrocities. But still it does give one plenty of hope.

And who knows, maybe a few years from now, we just might see the World cup jointly hosted by Israel and Palestine. It could happen, you know.

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