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.