Hello old friend, I hardly know you


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The myriad and quality of children’s TV shows in Britain (albeit I’m recalling them now through the mists of nostalgia) ensured that growing up in England we spent a great many more hours in front of the tube than was undoubtedly good for us. So why didn’t we all become pasty-faced, weak-limbed, feeble-minded blobs with bad teeth? Because park football — or as you might term it, soccer -— saved us.

Park football would start very innocently, with you and maybe two or three of your mates,  jackets or jumpers hastily removed and utilized for their proper purpose as goalposts. Once two teams had been established, the regulation 11 versus 11 was usually soon abandoned as teams grew in size to 15, 18, 20 a side! And with the absorption of every new wave of kids, the pitch was forced to grow, with coats and jumpers snatched up and tossed back another 10 yards to accommodate the fresh recruits.

In addition to the excitement of wheeling away with my arms in the air, the cry of "GOOOOOOOAL!" ringing in my ears, I actually enjoyed playing the role of goalkeeper, too — throwing yourself all over the place, skillfully blocking a pile-driver shot whilst simultaneously avoiding landing in any dog-poop lurking in the goalmouth. I remember vividly attempting to recreate the efforts of England goalkeeping legend Peter Shilton, marveling at his super-human acrobatics, but reminding myself that he probably didn’t have to worry about avoiding canine deposits on the way down.

I remember the football of my youth as the game in its purest, most joyous form. Everyone followed the rules, though there was never any suggestion that they needed to be enforced.

Last month, the world was witness to the greatest sporting event on the planet — the 2014 FIFA World Cup. More Americans watched the World Cup this year than ever before, and more Americans are participating in playing football now than at any other time, though probably not down parks dotted with dog deposits, all of which is very positive. But still, even here, it’s something I’m struggling to get excited about.

You see, the football we have today, the professional game, it’s not something that I love any longer, at least not with the same passion or joy. The game today has changed irrevocably and not, in my humble opinion, for the better.

Spirit has been replaced by cynicism as players routinely engage in the most loathsome ‘gamesmanship’ to ‘earn an advantage’ for their team — to be clear, they’re cheating — and brand now trumps ability with the likes of Nike, Adidas, Puma, et al. spending millions of dollars trying to convince us that some very average players are, in fact, world-beaters. (That’s sort of cheating to.) And the grossly over-paid prima donnas, whose sleeves of tattoos simply serve to underline that they have way too much money and even more free time on their hands, strut around the field occasionally contributing to the game, but mostly just falling down, clutching a random body part and screaming as if in labor whenever an opposition player comes within five yards of them.

Don’t get me wrong, though it may not sound like it, I do still love football, and I love that more people are beginning to love football, especially here in America. It’s just that today’s football isn’t the football I fell in love with.

Recently, I overheard a couple of colleagues discussing their sporting passion, baseball, and bemoaning the fact that it isn’t what it used to be. It used to take two, perhaps two and a half hours for a game to finish. Now, it can routinely take three or even four hours for a game to conclude, and it’s a trend that’s only getting worse they said. Lengthy pitcher/catcher debates, batters incessantly stepping back from home plate to adjust their gloves, their helmet, and their underwear after every pitch, and now the added frustration of a new, prolonged replay system. My colleagues weren’t happy. I felt their pain; I share it.

Football has been termed "the beautiful game," but with every passing year I feel it loses a little of its beauty. This year’s exciting World Cup has been somewhat redemptive, but one World Cup cannot paper over all of the cracks any more than one excellent World Series can cure baseball of all its modern ills.

But I suppose beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure today’s game looks beautiful to today’s kids. But sadly this, or worse, is the only game they’ll ever know. My children will just have to become adept at navigating something unpleasant either way; whether it be the presents dogs routinely booby-trap the local park with or the analogous gifts that the modern game of professional football has for them. Personally, I’d prefer the former to the latter.

Mark Turner is formerly of Oxford, England, but has lived in America for the past 15 years, the majority of that time in Colorado. Mark enjoys playing soccer, hiking and biking when the weather's good, and when the weather's rotten, writing blog entries that he hopes will amuse and entertain. Mark can be followed on Twitter @melchett.

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