What is mod­ern-day foot­ball teach­ing our kids?


Fam­i­lies are the pri­mary vec­tors of the dis­ease we call foot­ball. Par­ents trans­mit to their chil­dren the love of a team, or just the love of kick­ing a sphere of plas­tic through space. Not al­ways, though. I’m one of the ex­cep­tions, hav­ing caught the bug in­de­pen­dently at age 13, via an M-Net de­coder at my lo­cal corner cafe, whose owner, Farouk, al­lowed me to stand for hours in the chip­sand-choco­lates aisle, munch­ing Ghost Pops and star­ing up at the holy screen of green. Some­times Farouk in­vited me to watch in their lounge up­stairs if a game ex­tended be­yond the cafe’s clos­ing time.

My dad, mean­while, was

ut­terly in­dif­fer­ent to foot­ball; he pre­ferred the­atre, lit­er­a­ture, herb gar­den­ing, kite fly­ing. When I spent hours kick­ing a ball against our front wall, he ap­proved – at least I was mov­ing. But if he walked into the lounge and found me sprawled on the couch, ab­sorb­ing a World Cup clash or one of eTV’s de­layed Premier­ship high­lights pack­ages, he wouldn’t sit down next to me. In­stead he would just stand there and ask me ques­tions. Noth­ing hos­tile or dis­mis­sive; just baf­fled and amused. For ex­am­ple: “Why don’t they score more goals?” “If the off­side rule en­cour­ages neg­a­tive tac­tics, why don’t they change the rule?” “That player wasn’t even touched in the tackle – why is he scream­ing as though his leg has been am­pu­tated?” “If nei­ther side is try­ing to score, why are you watch­ing?”

In five years’ time, my son

will be ask­ing me the same ques­tions. I still won’t have the an­swers. Right now, hurtling to­wards age two, he likes the idea of foot­ball more than he likes the game it­self. His ap­proach is to scuff the ball across the gar­den and yell: “Playing SHOCKER! Playing SHOCKER!” Be­fore a minute has passed, some other thrill – a pass­ing plane, a shiny door han­dle, a sud­den vi­sion of a bis­cuit – hi­jacks his at­ten­tion. Game over. This month he will join a tod­dlers’ foot­ball club down the road. I’m ex­cited about all the joys that await him – but also a bit ap­pre­hen­sive. What will this won­der­ful, en­slav­ing game teach him about life? What if my son, at my prompt­ing, falls for foot­ball so hard that he wastes half his teenage years watch­ing Arse­nal matches? Pre­cious time that he might have spent kiss­ing girls, or de­vel­op­ing mo­bile apps that bankroll his par­ents’ re­tire­ment? Even worse, what if he be­comes a foot­ball jour­nal­ist like I did, and spends a chunk of his life find­ing un­nec­es­sary new ways to de­scribe a goal­less draw or a cool fin­ish? Un­like mil­lions of day­dream­ing dads, I know my son will not be­come a pro foot­baller – not even close. He’s drawn a short straw when it comes to ath­letic DNA: both his par­ents are spec­tac­u­larly clumsy, and he al­ready prefers sit­ting on a couch with a book to run­ning with a ball. Be­ing both very tall and slightly mad, he might just hack it as a Sun­day-morn­ing goal­keeper.

I also know I won’t

be one of those brain-dead fa­thers who spew their sur­plus ag­gres­sion from the touch­lines at their kids’ school sport fix­tures. These knuck­le­heads are rife in the psy­cho­log­i­cal mine­field that is sub­ur­ban South Africa; luck­ily they tend to pre­fer rugby and cricket games at lar­ney pri­vate schools as the are­nas for their abu­sive “sup­port”. Even so, we can’t es­cape the fact that foot­ball has a knotty value sys­tem – an en­trenched set of ideas about vic­tory and de­feat, about group iden­tity, about ag­gres­sion and mas­culin­ity, about hon­esty and dis­hon­esty.

Foot­ball can teach many good life lessons, but its dark side has the abil­ity to in­flu­ence many a young viewer. This begs the ques­tion: how will the next gen­er­a­tion en­joy the Beau­ti­ful Game in years to come?

Some of those ideas re­ally

work for me as part of a child’s up­bring­ing: the ex­po­nen­tial power of team­work, the sin­gu­lar joy of shared suc­cess, the in­evitabil­ity and healthy com­edy of de­feat, the gen­eros­ity of a well-timed pass to a bet­ter-placed com­rade. But some other, uglier bits of the foot­ball value sys­tem should have no place in my son’s mind. The racism, sex­ism and ho­mo­pho­bia that poi­sons the ter­races world­wide. The play­ers’ boor­ish dis­re­spect of of­fi­cials and op­po­nents. The idea that it’s okay to bla­tantly lie by fak­ing or ex­ag­ger­at­ing in­juries. The win­ner-takes-all, greed-is-good cul­ture that struc­tures the econ­omy of the en­tire game. Soon enough, my son and I will de­bate this stuff – if he’s in­ter­ested, of course. For all I know, he will pre­fer books or herb gar­den­ing, like my dad, and find foot­ball to be an id­i­otic en­ter­tain­ment. He would be to­tally right, but he would also be to­tally wrong.

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