The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

Killing it softly

Charles Flores Sunday, 3 November 2019, 10:13 Last update: about 8 months ago

I hasten to explain my choice for main topic to the non-sporting among my readers. Football is not just a sport like any other most people on earth enjoy. The football World Cup every four years is a genuinely global event, unlike other world cups and world series involving a few nations and, sometimes, even squads from the same geographic location. Football has grown into a social, sadly at times even political, phenomenon that today faces the colossal challenge from the commercial overtaking it has had to endure. Yes, players, managers, clubs and federations have become richer, but the game has gradually become a parody of itself.


Ever since the Bosman ruling of 1995, when the European Court of Justice had decided to ban restrictions on foreign EU players within national leagues and allowed players in the EU to move to another at the end of a contract without a transfer fee being paid, on the basis of the free movement of labour, things have really never been the same. The decision, which undoubtedly had its positive aspect from a working man’s view, came at a time when private and satellite television owners literally took the beautiful game by the jugular to make it available only to those who were willing or able to pay for what used to be free-to-air spectacles. Later alterations, enforced by a raging public twisting politicians’ ears, provided some respite from the stranglehold, but the situation has not changed dramatically, and football has become, pure and simple, an industry for even the bureaucrats of the game at national, regional and international levels.

So today we have billionaire footballers who act like bejewelled ballerinas removing their diamonds before kick-off, officials who depend on electronics to decide things and crowds howling for football as we once knew it. I almost said “a man’s game”, but today’s women’s football has actually become popular thanks mainly to the fact that the girls have as yet not been elevated to demi-god status and their game is that very same natural and elegant game we had before the giants of private enterprise got their politician friends to provide them with an ideological bridge to even bigger exploits.

From the perspective of many people, it is not just the money and transmission rights that are ruining the beautiful game. Self-enrichment within the governing bodies of football has led to numerous scandals involving famous names, but there has also been too much tampering with the rules and conditions of the game. For example, the persistent hostility to the oft-mentioned idea of capping transfer fees to give smaller clubs a better, fairer chance in their on-going search for good players and holding on to their talented youngsters is, no doubt, in reverence to the big clubs taken over by big business run by the big owners who dictate to you what to see, where and when to see it, and, of course, how much to pay for it. Give them a hint you’re serious about the need to go back to the roots and they retort with tantrums about “a super league of our own”.

VAR is another sad addition to the game. In the desperate search for impossible precision, VAR has turned referees into robots. The flow of the game has been lost and, the worst thing, football fans have been left in the lurch. When it was fun to accuse (and defend) refs for blunders that cost points, it was still accepted that they are humans too after all. Many agree that electronics should have been restricted to goal-line and off-side decisions quickly communicated to the official.

Racism has infiltrated the game, but this is not a problem for football alone. Wherever the social cauldron simmers, be it in sport, the work environment and the whole social spectrum, it will be there, alas, and only swift and appropriate action can minimise its negative impact on society. It must be said, however, that most of it originates from politicians of a certain ilk currently dominating the world of politics.

But football itself as a game is also changing far too much. I will not go into too many details the non-sporting reader might find boring, suffice to say how the taking of corners, for example, has become more of a rugby scene than anything else. Refs do try to intervene, but players have turned a regulated physical challenge into a filthy scrimmage. Players celebrate a goal with a horrific pantomime performance, including making religious gestures and kissing the air, when greater players in the past merely shook hands or patted shoulders with team colleagues congratulating them.

For the poor officials, some of whom, I agree, should have gone judging dog shows and cactus competitions, the issue of respect has been lost. How football associations and federations allow players to show such disrespect is evidence of player power gone berserk. We witness players screaming at refs and their assistants, gesticulating wildly and, often, insultingly, and taking liberties over which an old-style referee would have asked them out of the field at the very first instance. There is a social reality to this. People are saying the same about teachers today and how they have to work so much harder to get, when they get it, respect from both students and parents.

Does it make sense to ask for football to be given back to us? Hardly. The way the game – imploding within the vast social inferno it grew into – has been stolen from us and it is being killed softly, alas.


The other poetry

From the poetry of motion that football can be, to the poetry of emotion. Fifty years on from my first poetry book, baked inside a small, ground-floor Kalkara maisonette, I have just had the launching of my new one, entitled “Balluta Blues”. It is an incredible feeling to have done the journey, but while the football poetry has faltered, the other goes on. Poetry in general has never lost its popular appeal, thank goodness, but fewer and fewer people actually dig into their pockets to find it.

The 1969 book, “Kalejdoskopju”, which I shared with Charles Xuereb and Pawlu Cachia, came out at a time when young men and women like us everywhere were beckoning a new and exciting future, with the liberal Left moving ahead and achieving changes in every sector of life, from culture to the economy.

The new book, poetry still, comes out when the Right is on a jamboree which no one knows where it would end and what rights and liberties could come under threat from extreme nationalism, racism and dangerous economic illusions.

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