April 17, 2008

 I am not opposed to football in theory.  I just can’t seem to form any strong opinions about it.  I watch when England are playing and I am near a television, and someone else has switched said television on, and for some reason I do not have a book to hand.  Otherwise I am not fussed.


I am not sure quite how this came about.  In the normal flow of things a boy in the UK generally inherits loyalty to his local team or, sometimes, the team from whatever county his family are from, or he follows Manchester United and joins the wandering fans with no homeland.  At some critical juncture something must have disrupted the process because I just plain can not seem to care about football.  I find it odd that people talk about their team as ‘we’ as if they, personally, have a hand in the result of a game or, in fact, how they can muster the enthusiasm for it all.


Being a man in the UK with no strong feelings about football leads to awkward conversations.  Football is the default topic which two men fall back to when they have nothing else in common, so I often have conversations like this:



Stranger: Looking forward to the big match on Saturday?



Me: um… Yes. [long pause]  I hope that our team scores more goals than the other team.  [long pause]  And thus wins the game.  [long pause].  I hear that the other team are not very good at football [long pause] and probably gay or something else which offends you.



Cricket is good when I have something more important to do.  If I put it on in the background and sit with some paperwork I can spend the whole day avidly watching cricket and convincing myself that I am doing paperwork.  Take the paperwork away, though, and it gets rather boring.  The only other time I like cricket is when the sun is shining, I am watching it in the flesh (ie. not through a TV) and someone is bringing me beer.



I quite enjoy rugby.  I used to play rugby (not very well, mind) when I was younger.  Despite being rougher than football, rugby is conducted with much more level-headedness and propriety.  Players do not back-talk the referee in rugby.  They address him as ‘Sir’ and if an official wants to discipline a player, he calls the team captain over and communicates through him.  Rugby in its early days was known as a game for ruffians played by gentlemen.  It is a far cry from the spoilt celebrity tantrums we see in football.




I was lucky enough to be living with a much more committed rugby fan than myself whilst I was at university during England’s victory in 2003.  Johnny Wilkinson’s 19th minute of extra time drop goal was the JFK assassination to English rugby fans – I was in my then girlfriend’s bed whilst she was at work, watching it on a tiny TV which I had hooked up in her room if you must ask.  2003 was as good as it got, though.  A lot of players had all hit a peak simultaneously and the team operated as a smooth white killing machine.  Afterwards the team had to be reassembled and played in before England got that good again.



When I moved to Oxford I moved away from daily contact with rugby fans and discovered that watching sports alone is really dull.  The only time I experienced anything similar was watching Frank Shamrock vs Cung Le in the Ultimate Fighting Championships with my kung fu friends.  Cung Le is something of a star in sanda (Chinese Kickboxing).  He is undefeated with a string of knock-outs under his belt.  His legendary scissor-kick-takedown looks like it should be wired and has no place in a ring.


I have mixed feelings about UFC, which would probably take a whole post in itself.  I love the concept of an open format where different styles can compete.  In reality though, everyone who enters fights the same way with MMA; a mixture of the most direct moves from thai boxing, western boxing and jiu jitsu.  It also breeds an arrogance amongst MMA guys that their style is the most complete because it encompasses striking and grappling.  I can see the argument (that ground fighting does not get covered in a lot of other styles) but I would have to point out that if “complete” is what we are going for then we should not forget that in a lot of styles biting is as fundamental as kicking and that a lot of traditional styles teach the use of weapons.  Striking and grappling ain’t half of fighting.  If we really wanted to let every martial artist compete on a level playing field then Iaido guys should be allowed samurai swords and Dog Style practitioners should be allowed to bite to the groin.


All of that is even before we start discussing the problems with ground fighting multiple opponents and the whole issue of treating martial arts as a sport and parading it all around like pro-wrestling.  On the other hand, it is a nice show.  I have a lot of respect for the guys who do it, particularly the likes of Sakuraba and Rampage Jackson who put on an entertaining show.


So anyway, Cung Le represented sanda, he competed in Wushu competitions and he knows one of my friends.  He was our boy.  There was a pride in Chinese styles at stake.  In our pre-fight build-up we talked about how sanda does not have ground fighting so Cung Le will need a follow-through after his throws.  Cung Le’s kicks are amazing but kicks, high kicks particularly, leave him vulnerable.  On the ground Cung Le was going to be outclassed so he needed to avoid situations which might lead to a takedown, watch for shoots, finish throws cleanly so as not to get taken to the floor.  There was a gathering energy as we talked, we really wanted to see Cung Le come out on top.  We started tempering our enthusiasm with cautionary remarks I would be happy, I said, if Cung Le gave as good as he got, that he fought a good fight.  If he proved that a sanda guy could hold his own against an MMA fighter.


Cung Le and Shamrock communicated during the fight with nods, smiles and little gestures.  On one level there was a friendliness to it but they were also psyching each other out, nodding after each encounter to say ‘good hit but you haven’t phased me.’  The fight stayed upright throughout – at one point Cung Le caught a kick and swept out Shamrock’s other leg.  Shamrock sat, smiled and gestured for Cung Le to join him on the ground.  Cung Le grinned back and shook his head.  Shamrock shrugged and stood.


The exchange was fairly balanced until the end of the third round.  Cung Le finished with a barrage of blows and as the bell rang Shamrock’s side threw the towel in.  Shamrock had been absorbing Cung Le’s round kicks on his forearms and somewhere into the third round one of these kicks had broken his arm.  We were elated.  This for me was the same thrill as Johnny Wilkinson’s drop goal – he had actually done it.  He had won.  Our boy had gone toe to toe with Frank Shamrock in a UFC ring and come out on top!


I followed American football for a while.  More than anything though , I had to stop watching becuase it pains me to her it called football.  Even though I do not particularly like English football, I still cringe when I hear American football called ‘football’ – English people were playing a game called football before there was a place called America.  I would not mind if America had taken a word which we did not use anymore, but calling a different sport by the same name just causes transatlantic miscommunication all around.


I like the idea of American football.  It all happens in short bursts and then there is a lot of setting up again which suits my attention span and toilet/fridge breaks.  The guys are armoured to hell and it out-does rugby in terms of spectacular clashes.  There are cheerleaders.  The problem, for me, again, was not the sport but having no one nearby who cared enough about it to have a conversation with.


That said, if I was going to follow an American sport it would have to be hockey.  In hockey hitting someone in the head with a stick is punishable with a double-minor (4 minutes in the sin-bin), after that the player is allowed back on to the ice (presumably so that he can have another swing).  It is a game which actually distinguishes between different kinds of brutality and assigns different penalties for each; elbow strikes carry less of a penalty than headbutting; punching someone is not as bad as punching someone with a run-up or whilst airborne.  They actually have to have rules governing the use of blades with the intent to cause harm.  What an awesome way to organise a sport!  I am sure that there is more to hockey than violence, but as an outsider I really can’t see it.


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