Over here, of course, “football” refers bizarrely to a sport in which players only touch the ball with their foot maybe a dozen times in a match. I’m referring to proper football; any references to the American variation will be dubbed “American football.” Anyway, we have to travel through the misty, cobwebbed decades, arriving in the early 1990s to visit Chicago, Illinois. More specifically, we have to check in with my tenure as a member of the St. Ignatius Wolfpack soccer team, for which I played as a left midfielder. At my biggest, I was maybe 5’6 or 5’7″ (1.7m) and 130 pounds (59 kg). I like to remember myself as being Walcott-fast but this probably exaggerates a bit (I did anchor a 4×100 relay, so there’s that…). However, for as fast as I was or wasn’t, the fact was that I was a puny, wisp of a lad who wouldn’t see the inside of a weight-room or the other side of 140 pounds (60kg) for several years.
The league in which St. Ignatius plays, the none-too-imaginatively named Chicago Catholic League, consisted variously of around ten or a dozen high schools. Two or three of these schools’ teams regularly competed for state championships and sent their players off to play at the college-level. St. Ignatius was usually that third- or fourth-place team, behind wealthier, larger schools. Beneath us, the remaining seven or eight teams struggled to fill their rosters with actual footballers and ended up recruiting players from the ranks of those cut from the American football squad—hulking, menacing, troglodytes who hated soccer, didn’t know how to play it, and wanted to destroy anyone who did. Some of them were easily twice my weight. No matter how fast I was with or without the ball, these goons and gorillas flattened me with enthusiasm and style. I remember getting concussions (I think), flying seven or eight yards in the air, pinwheeling like a rag-doll, and worse. I don’t remember many fouls being called.
I learned quickly that the fouls—or calls—just wouldn’t come.
I decided not to go down, no matter what. Of course, it’s not like the plan succeeded, as I was still frequently and remorselessly sent in all directions by many means—trips, shoves, stomps, body-checks, elbows, forearm-shivers, punches to the nuts and gut…I learned that I had to work through all of that or pick myself up and get back in the match. The whistle stayed in that ref’s pocket.
With this little autobiography in mind, I fly into a rage when I see guys flop to the ground in all of the stages and versions of agony they can concoct. Like Robben. Suarez. Busquets. Ronaldo. To be fair, they sometimes get fouled, such as when Szcz fouled Robben on Wednesday. However, the flailing, the wincing, the flopping around like a meth-addled fish on a boat-deck, it’s enough to drive a man mad. Part of me wants to appeal to these sorry simulators: how many penalties do you earn compared to how many you miss out on because of your reputation? Sadly, the answer probably turns out in their favor. This makes it all the more pathetic. It’s a strategy to them, a skill, perhaps, just as much as a favorite dribble-move. heck, some of them may even practice it.
When I saw Robben pinwheel in a direction very nearly opposite the one that Szcz’s impact might have sent him, I wasn’t even thinking of the looming red-card. I was so enraged at Robben for the theatrics that I didn’t even care about the implications for Szcz or the rest of the game. In my darker moments, a not-small part of me wanted him to pull a muscle during the flailing and have to come off.
I’ll save the “it’s a stain on the game” sermons for someone else to intone. I’m not here to moralize on the sanctity of the game. I’m just here to vent my gut-feeling, my almost-instinctual disgust, that there are footballers out there, many of them blessed with preternatural talent and skill, who go so far out of their way to fall all over themselves when I spent so much of my own brief, benighted career getting bounced around like a pinball without so much as a by-your-leave, not to mention a spot-kick or a red-card. I watch these marionettes go flying through the air, and I say to myself, “nah, that’s not how it feels or looks when a guy really crashes into you, I mean really crashes into you.” Save it, you sacks of shite, for the stage.