Tag: Football

An odd shaped mirror

It seems obvious that a country’s culture is reflected in its art. The two are essentially inseparable. Art depicts what matters most to the culture, and changes with the flow of this collective stream of ideas. You assume that if a culture is particularly obsessed with heroism, the natural world, or family, then the art produced will mirror these feelings. Art also has the power to inform culture, guiding budding trends and movements, but it still must innately appeal to people to do this, and therefore must be built on some existing foundations.

I’ve argued quit a lot in this blog (here, here and here) that sport, like art, is a fundamental spoke of any culture. Although it may lack intellectual glamour, for me sport is as important to helping us understand the cultures of the world. What children get up to, what people do in their spare time, what they talk about with friends; know this and in some small way more know the people. So, if sport is fundamental to a culture, does it reflect it? Are sports where individualism rises to the top more popular in countries who favour the deeds of the individual? The charismatic megafauna I thought I found in Hungary suggested so, but by the end of the day I wasn’t so sure. The Indian Premier League, the crash-bang-wallop kaleidoscope of cricket that is insanely popular in India is colourful, loud and energetic. This is much like the India I and many others have experienced. Does the IPL also possess the same inequality? There are certainly haves and have-nots.

VK & PD IPL.png

Now I’m living in Canada, I keep an interested eye on the sports like hockey and baseball, to see if they will tell me anything extra about the country that has taken me in. There is only so much you can learn from watching on TV however, so I had to attend some games in the flesh. I’ve always loved going to sporting events, there is always something visceral, another sense stimulated, when the men and women are pounding up and down, or into each other, right in front of you. Another layer to the live experience is being in a crowd. You, and tens, hundreds or even thousands of people are all tied together by string from your eyes and heart through the ball or fists or feet of the players before you.

So, the live, Canadian experience, come at me. I’ve not been to any ball games, but a couple of hockey games. Ice hockey of course, as if I need to say. The Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, and the Guelph Storm in the OHL. So friggin’ Canadian, eh, I imagine. Cold and rugged. But enough of the landscape for want of people, does this frenetic game, and the live experience, tell me anything. Well, Canadians are meant to be very tolerant and accommodating, and they’d have to bear all the breaks and distractions served up for us. It was bad at the lower-level Storm game, with cars on the ice and lights and pounding dance music for any or no reason, but it was excruciating at the Leafs game. Watching players standing around idly while some TV advert blared on somewhere, I got the perverse feeling we were not there to watch the players but that they were there to provide entertainment alongside the dancers and explosions and hot-dog adverts. Its altogether quite a passive experience, some applause for every goal but not a great deal more noise than that, the biggest cheer of the Storm game when they score a 5th, rewarding everyone with some free buffalo wings. I enjoyed the matches as a general rule, despite my difficulty following the tiny black puck up and down the ice. The Leafs game especially had a wonderful, tragic air about it, the home team succumbing to a home defeat from a short-handed goal despite young tyro Matthews raging against the mediocrity around him.

Contrast this with the meaty roar that greats Peter Betham’s knock on, sealing Wasps win against Leicester tigers. Or the unfiltered disappointment when Queen’s Park Ranger’s second short on target sinks Wolverhampton Wanderers [what a combination of team names!]. Or the unbounded joy when Cambridge United’s Luke Berry, from down on his backside, knocks anoter nail into the Notts County’s coffin down at the Abbey* on Newmarket road. These provided natural and timely contrast to the two Canadian hockey games. They felt poles apart. One polished and gleaming like the ice, the others a little grubby, but essentially savoury experiences. Nowhere was the contrast more stark than at Cambridge United, where in a tin-roofed terrace behind the goal in the 4th tier of English football the songs and spirit were legion, and the energy marched down the concrete into the legs of the never-will-bes in the pitch. Its an experience that sets me grinning from ear to lobe just thinking on it again.

Does this then inform me of the difference between English and Canadian culture? The English passionate and filled with fervour? Ha, ask around, I think you’ll find we’re famously reserved. Canadians superficial and passive? In a country where people hunt for meat and fur, where everyone has snow tires and tales of digging out of snow drifts? I think not. If you think the English accent is sophisticated, come shout “wanker, wanker, wanker” with us at the way goalie, it might change your perceptions. Certainly settles which of the two countries is more polite.

In fact, out in the icy oval there was a frivolousness and a gaudiness that I don’t think you see in other aspects of life here. Maybe its that US of American influence, perverting the natural order of things**. Maybe what this reflects is the diversity of ideas that are allowed to coexist here, even if they grate or grind somewhat. So it is allowed to be like this, rather than an overt expression of a people. Because if these experiences are meant to mirror what a country is like, it fails to reflect half the things I’m fond of. A mirror that’s got bent all out of shape.





*it may have another name now, but it will always be the Abbey

**of course it is also possible that I am attributing the things I like to Canadian and as Canadian values, and the things I dislike as American, and so casting America the role of pantomime villain is has often assumed recently. There are certainly Canadians who are jerks, and plenty of lovely, cultured Americans who too dislike the things I’ve mentioned here.



Colourful synthetics, dark bloody skin; rowdy exuberance, polite applause; going solo, doing it with brothers in arms; avoiding death or leaning closer to it. I’m aproachimg halfway on my expedition/holiday across the continents, looking for and at sports in all their guises. I’ve just left the sunny climes of Spain behind, and am enjoying the air by the banks of the Danube in Budapest, Hungary. I’m here to see a different cultures take on sport, for a bit of nationalism fuelling sport, but all hopefully a bit of weirdness. But before all that, a quick round up of whats been so far:

In Morocco there was football: on the streets, in the stadia and in the middle of nowhere; its simplicity and tribalism allowing it to take root wherever it finds itself.

In Spain there has been great diversity. I started with the swirls and swoops of the kite surfers in Tarifa. Men and women trying to fly, what joy.

After this I wound my way up to Cadiz, then across to Seville. Here I encountered the drama and passion of flamenco, and the ritual and (questionable) artistry of the bullfight.

After this I escaped to the Sierra Nevada. Here I dangled over some ledges, watched climbers scale sheer walls of rock, and pondered the draw of closeness to death. We seem curiously keen to put ourselves in such situations when being alive is so important to us.

From here I journeyed to Almeria, not sure of what I would find. In fact I found a puzzling question: what makes something a sport? I had concluded that bullfighting was not, as there was no true contest. But where did this leave the kite surfing or climbing I had watched? What about the flamenco that unveiled itself in a murky bar one evening?
I’m not convinced it is, but I was enthralled by it nonetheless.

Almeria also posseses some stunning coastline. This is not lost on the local surfers and paddle boarders, although I doubt it is appreciated beyond their tight knit circles.

Back on the less salubrious town beach I went in search of the dance-martial art of capoeira. Unfortunately it was not to be found, but I did chance upon the trio of beach volleyball:


Acrobatic local kids at flipping through the air:

And the surprising sight of Almeria University’s 7s rugby team stepping, offloading and strutting across the sand:

Cursing my arthritic knee, with memories of matches passed and dreams of matches unrealised plaguing me, I headed to Valencia, via Murcia. There was little in Murcia. There was however a great deal in Valencia. A stroll through the long city park (converted from the now diverted river bed) I watched locals play football and even more rugby. Two separate teams with great numbers in their mini and youth sections. Perhaps Spain is one to watch for the future in this regard.

From there things got a little less mainstream. First I chanced across a game of pilota Valenciana. Two teams (the classic red vs blue) swatted a little ball up and down the narrow street with their hands, ricocheting off walls and flicking it off the floor. “Dont let it bounce twice” I imagined them cry as I stood and tried to fathom the rules.

From the simple to the ridiculous, I next found two clown-costumed crews building towers out of their teammates. Mediaeval music, cobbled streets, a cloth-capped child perched on top; what year had I stepped into?

After that it got a lot more modern, with the dynamism of a handball game:

And the very American razmatazz of a basketball game:

Despite the odd looks I got (especially at the handball game, must’ve been the ‘tan” I had from a day at the beach) the two home teams won. Perhaps I was a lucky charm. Certainly I felt lucky just to be there.
In Barcelona there was just time to be reminded that for some people exercise is the game before I had to leave.DSCN2669[1].JPG

I also found out in Barcelona that my visa for India had been confirmed. So, come at me Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and India, show me what you’ve got?

When in a crowd

As I mentioned in a previous post, it may not be entirely obvious why this sporting voyage I am on started in Morocco. The answer is something unassumingly know as the MdS, or les Marathon des Sables. This “race” (perhaps better termed a survival event) takes place in the Moroccan Sahara. And you run for 5 days. And you carry all your gear (except water and camping equipment). It is, simply, an absurb test of one’s endurance, an incredible test of your mental strength and a crazy thing to volunteer yourself to do. Yet its entries are highly sought after. Why? Why would an otherwise sane person put themselves through this torture? There’s no prize money, relatively little media coverage and so little fame. You may be running with a group, but there is almost no intra-group competition and so not much of an echo of tribal warfare. So what is going on?

In Dan Sheridan’s book “A Fighters Heart” he talks to legendary MMA fighter and trainer Royce Gracie about how it felt to be on top of your game. To take blows and escape holds that the would fell lesser men and come out on top. Gracie said that when he walked in crowds, and I pondered this as I strolled through Fes’s crowded medina, he felt like a wolf among sheep. That he felt different from the soft, doe eyed public, that he was a different type of human, such was his mastery of physical confrontation. And it felt great. Was this what the MdS runners were after? To prove they could conquer the desert, so when they returned to the “real world” they could stalk through the crowds, heads held high and know they had done something others could not?

Not supplied: car

My original plan was to head to the start of the race and talk to competitors about their motivations. However, the secret start place and £3000 press pass required kiboshed that plan. So instead I put the question to a couple of people involved in the MdS. First, Victoria Nicholson, previous completer of the MdS and now organising the Walking with the Wounded’s team effort*, and Nigel Doggett, a new competitor running this year’s MdS in support of Hft**. ND’s answer was simple: he didn’t expect to feel different to others after the race, and his motivation for competing was to raise awareness and money for his charity. VN’s answer was a little different, having completed the race previously, and she said that there was a strong, good feeling of satisfaction that persisted afterwards. However, she was adamant that it did not make her feel separate from others, and that she could encourage others to do it if she had. This support for others and tendency towards group-thinking maybe supports my previous argument that sport is for forming an in-group. But it does go against the “wolf among sheep” idea I mentioned earlier. So perhaps it is a bit of a red herring.

However, some sport I did manage to see in Morocco suggests the idea is not completely bogus. Seeing as Morocco is football mad, and it was a Saturday, I looked up the local football team in Fe’s, the ancient university town and sometime capital of Morocco. Turns out that MAS Fes were at home, so I decided to head to the match. It was a great decision.


It started with the bus to the game. We (I was accompanied by my newest friend, a lofty German called Jan) got on and so did about 25 Morocco boys, aged 10-16. And did we know about it. Shouting, banging, singing at the tops of their voices, climbing on seats and swinging on rails. At one point they kicked in the roof window and clambered onto the roof. They probably had about 4 bus tickets between them and certainly no match tickets at all. But they didn’t let that stop them going to the game of their team.

” the wheels on the bus go round and round” it was not

We had to fight through a mob at the gates to get in, all trying to enter for free. A bank of police and security held them off while waving us through. But eventually, they managed it. Not immediately. After a fairly dull first half MAS Fes and  Moghreb Tétouan were still nil-nil and the teams most passionate fans were still outside. But around 10 minutes into the second half, some barrier or gate somewhere was breached, and Fes stadium was taken. They swarmed in, adding about a quarter to the capacity and trebbling the volume. Stirred by the raw passion, desire and disregard for the proper way of things MAS Fes belied their bottom of the table position and took control of the game. Two goals later they had the match won and the fans were bouncing even higher and singing even louder than before.

Both fans and players ecstatic
We were also pretty pleased

I can’t tell you much about the game itself, a fairly low quality affair between two teams struggling at the bottom of the table. What made it such an experience were the fans. Colourful, boisterous and entirely emotionally invested in their team and its fortunes. No. Their fortunes. For as far as they were concerned, they were the team. Fans of many sports teams have a perhaps irritating tendency to refer to the exploits of the team they follow as “we”. “We need to attack more, we do not have enough leadership in the pitch” and so on. But for these kids I felt it was genuine. They had fought to overcome the odds, they had charged forward and they had then won the game
You could see it afterwards, 11,12, 13 year olds walking 3 metres tall. Strutting, boasting, owning the streets. Nothing anymore was beyond them. We watched in suppressed horror as they mobbed various trucks on the streets, climbing up the sides and riding down the streets, invulnerable and imperious, drinking in their victory.

Perhaps it was scary for on lookers. Perhaps the kids knew this. Perhaps they felt different from the rest of us, wolves among sheep. Tough, loud and feral and so very alive. Doing things others could not. For them this is what their sport was about. Fighting and winning and living side by side. So maybe this mentality is not true for everyone. But that day, that town, those streets: there were wolves. And as a sheep, I wished I were them.




Football, football every where, does it make you stop and think?

My adventure into what makes sport so attractive for all humankind (see previous post) began in Africa, in Morocco, and in the busy market city of Marrakech. To be frank, I was a little daunted to be starting here; it would be a big change from the quiet lanes and inlets of Cornwall, my previous home. Marrakech hummed and thrumed with the verve and thrust of its entrepreneurs at their market stalls. There are musicians, dancers, “tamed” snakes and chained monkeys. It was quite intense at first, but after a bit of wandering around the terracotta dusted streets I began to feel more comfortable and relaxed.

That’s nice and all, but why am I telling you this? What has even brought me here? Its a very good question, one I asked myself a short time after chatting to Anna, who had welcomed me to my riad (hostel). I naively asked her what traditional sports or games I might find in Marrakech or up in the Atlas mountains, where I subsequently took an excursion. Her answer was simple: “There is only football, every where”.

Just a good ole kick around

This is a common pattern around the world, and it is getting more common. Go to almost any country, and where there are people with some spare time you will almost invariably find them kicking something around with their feet. Teams, individuals; goals, jumpers or a wall; matching strips or a patchwork of shirts. It thrives around the planet. Here in Morocco, immediately down otherwise dead-end alleyways there was the cut and thrust of little games as children play and play and play. Dropping out of a mountain pass from the high Atlas, before we had arrived at the first village, there it was: a rectangular pitch, two rectangular goals and the shape of a football game. Overlaps, two-on-ones, triangles; appearing and disappearing at will. The very essence of the thing. The same that you might find anywhere. And that is interesting; just why is it every where? 

Stunning sett-Hey wait was that offside?

I described football as ” kicking something around with the feet”. This is a fairly unassuming description, but one I think serves it well. For, of all the team sports, I reckon football (by that I mean association football aka ‘soccer’) is the simplest. Some players, a ball and apart from the odd one or two players, no hands. Go, take those rules and act them out any place, any time, any how. I think this is crucial to football’s success; it’s very humbleness, its simplicity, allows it to be picked up and shared and so spread between cultures. The freedom it gives allows individual expression, letting it capture hearts and minds. The simplicity then allows football to become a global phenomenon, uniting disparate peoples under a common game.

However, football does not just unite. Around Marrakech I noticed some colourful murals. Sure, not surprising in a bustling market town with plenty of tourists. But these were not nice, arty things, oh no. These have fists, grimacing faces, the world ‘ultras’ features heavily. These murals are by and for fans of Marrakech’s football team: “Kawkab Athletic Club of Marrakech” and furthermore they advertised the presence of a thuggish set of their fans who will not tolerate the other colours of the other teams ftom around the country. These are murals celebrating the city’s football hooligans.

‘Ultras’ has Italian origins, used for the extremely set of super fans who will fight for their club as well as support it. The word is used in many countries for the same set of people. People who say: “This team, these colours, this town, this is us. You are them. We do not like you as you are not us.” You could be anyone, it does not matter. You are either inside their group or you are outside of it.

This extreme mindset is in fact fairly simple in group out group psychology, which has been studied scientifically in the past. Experiments such as the “Robbers cave” experiment (http://www.simplypsychology.org/robbers-cave.html) demonstrated that rivalries and negative stereotypes can form between otherwise very similar sets of people, simply based on an arbitrary group label. This seems to be an innate tendency of the human mind. A part of our brains seems predisposed to want to create a group. It wants to create an “us”, and so simultaneously creates a “them”. Sport in all its forms creates great opportunity to do this, dividing people by town or by country. Surprising, given we all like the same thing.

We can perhaps imagine why we might have a tendency to do this. Picture ancestral man, struggling to survive in the teeth of competition from lions, hyenas and other human(oid)s. He or she that is more willing to form a group may well survive better. Those with a strong sense of “us” might be the ones who create more cohesive groups, aiding survival of all in the group including themselves. This tendency may well the still exist within us if it is so beneficial, but manifesting itself in evolutionary novel environments. Like at a sports match.
So perhaps part of sport’s popularity is the ease with which it facilitates us vs them. Perhaps football in particular achieves this the best due to its simplicity; it generates the very essence of group competition with the minimum of input. So we are still scared savannah dwelling humans at heart, looking for a group to identify with to keep us safe from them. Its a nice sounding idea. Certainly, I’ve picked some anecdotes that support it. But whether it really explains why sport is everywhere, I think we need to do a bit more exploring. What do you think?