Correction Appended: Aug. 16, 2012
Last Sunday, with the flame not quite extinguished on the 30th modern Olympics, roughly 100 miles up the road a soccer match was taking place. And this was no insignificant game, but rather the curtain raiser to the new domestic season in England. The Community Shield is played between the winners of the English Premier League (Manchester City) and the FA Cup (Chelsea) and, in what was supposedly a thrilling five-goal affair, City came out on top 3-2 with the best goal of the lot scored by their temperamental Argentine Carlos Tevez. Last season Tevez interrupted his own season by reportedly refusing to play in a Champions League game at Bayern Munich (which resulted in the club suspending and placing him on gardening leave) but nevertheless returned in time to help City seal their first title since 1968. Tevez’s churlish attitude, to say nothing of the actions of some of his peers, is one of the reasons why soccer fans aren’t exactly excited about the new season, which kicks off this weekend.
The other reason? The culmination of the London Games, which saw the British team net a quite staggering 65 medals – the country’s best tally in over a century — of which 29 were gold. As Great Britain rejoiced to the daily stories of sporting success, and celebrated the vast army of selfless volunteers, packed arenas and a sense of pride not seen very often, if ever, across the land, a reality dawned: the Olympic heroes weren’t just humble and gracious — they were so much nicer than the young men who chase a soccer ball around the field for a couple of hours every week and make, during that week, more than most British people make in a year — including a good number of the hitherto unknown British medalists.
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Consider: Instead of watching with barely concealed contempt the likes of Chelsea captain John Terry, British sports fans could cheer for the runner, Mo Farah. Terry has spent most of the past year under the cloud of a racism charge, for which he was found not guilty in a criminal trial in July. He still faces a disciplinary charge by the English soccer governing body, the Football Association; he denies the charge. Farah, who won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, is a Somali immigrant, with an intense work ethic and commitment to alleviating famine in Africa. For these glorious days, the back pages of the newspapers were no longer clogged up with the likes of soccer midfielder Joey Barton (who has had a chequered career, to say the least), who lashed out violently at his fellow professionals on the final day of last season. Instead, we could read about down-to-earth heptathlon winner Jessica Ennis, the darling of the Games. And wasn’t it refreshing to not learn about the sordid details surrounding Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez’s treatment of Manchester United defender Patrice Evra (and Suarez’s subsequent refusal to shake hands after being found guilty of racially abusing the Frenchman during a league match last season) but rather the back story of the rower Heather Stanning, who is a captain in the British Army but put her career on hold to train full time and is set to return to the military and could be deployed to Afghanistan in 2013?
But like it or not, the soccer season has returned. As well as the Community Shield, a whole host of international matches were played midweek (England looked surprisingly sprightly by beating Italy 2-1) and the EPL is back this weekend. What are the odds that come Manchester United’s fixture against Everton next Monday, which is the final game of the first week’s action, all mentions of Britain’s Olympics team are gone for good, as we settle into nine solid months of soccer?
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Even soccer fans at the Olympic Park didn’t sound too keen for soccer to return. Ben Parker, a 26-year-old Manchester United fan, noted the difference between Olympic athletes “working hard for four years compared to wealthy footballers playing week in week out.” Maarten Jonckers, 49, originally from Holland and an Arsenal fan said, “I’m less interested in the build-up this year, absolutely. Nobody can talk about anything else than the Olympics, it’s fantastic.” And Martin Gallagher, a 49-year-old West Ham fan, pointed out that “people care about football but don’t care about footballers.”
Perhaps the powers that be in the national sport are finally paying attention. David Bernstein, the Football Association chairman, wants soccer players to learn from Olympians. “After the sporting spirit we have seen at the Olympic Games, players must recognise that with the privilege of playing comes the responsibility for managing themselves and their behaviours in a similar way,” he said. The FA met with the Professional Footballers Association, the trade union for professional soccer players, during the Games because the sport’s governing body wants to see an improvement in the standards of player conduct on and off the field. Perhaps the timing of the meeting was a coincidence but the stark contrast between the foul language employed by soccer players (to say nothing of the diving that goes on) and high levels of sportsmanship during the Olympics was all too evident. England’s coach, Roy Hodgson, has also had a “wake-up call” in light of the Olympic success story. “Our athletes did perform so well, not only in terms of their athletic performance but in terms of their behaviour,” he said in the build-up to the friendly match against Italy.
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In spite of its bad reputation soccer can play a positive role in British society. As wonderful as these Olympics were, the euphoria was arguably greater still back in 1966 when England won the World Cup (though neighboring Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would disagree). Every two years, if England (or the other nations) makes the finals of the World Cup or European Championships, life comes to a standstill as fans desperately will them to win. The EPL is one of the country’s most popular exports, with live games packing out bars around the world, no matter the time zone. And many a black soccer player – Sol Campbell, David James and Theo Walcott are but three recent examples which spring to mind — have been excellent role models to kids of all races in the U.K., who don’t have too many black heroes to look up to.
And one such person who loves his soccer is Mo Farah, a lifelong Arsenal fan. The club have invited him to their season opener this Saturday against Sunderland (Farah’s wife is due to give birth to twins so it’s unclear whether he’ll attend). He’s said that “I used to dream of playing for Arsenal but crossing the finish line on Saturday was better than if I had scored for them in the Champions League final.” Farah might not be the only one having second thoughts.
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The original version of this piece stated that rower Heather Stanning left the army to train full time.