More Than Just a Game

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5818331_600x400When I was preparing to move to the Black Country, one of the first things I did was google. I learned the populations of the main towns, about their industrial histories and various other facts and figures. I also realised football (or “soccer” where I come from) was much more than just a game.

Obviously, being a New Zealander, I come from a country that is also obsessed with a particular variety of “kicking a ball around a park” but, having grown up in a house where rugby was usually on at some point during the weekend (unless it was cricket season), at least I understood that version.

My first UK job in Gloucester saw me in a centre where rugby was still relatively dominant and when I moved to the north of Scotland all I had to learn was that Aberdeen struggled and there was usually some sort of off-field conflict between Celtic and Rangers fans.

Now I’m in the Black Country and football and the two main teams of Wolves and West Brom are more than that. So I needed to learn.

So I’ve been looking at the sports section in the newspaper (which should really be called the football section) but there are so many new names – managers, owners (a strange concept to me) – and it’s difficult to follow the myriad of player trades where footballers are shifted like chess pieces for million-pound sums incomprehensible to most people.

I still remember the national “soul-searching” in New Zealand when rugby first turned professional – it’s that recent. Over here, football is further down that path. Has it gone too far?

Anyway, the first thing I’ve learned about Wolves is that the team isn’t doing well. The manager Dean Saunders (who seems to me to be the coach) has been in the job only a few months and is failing.

About a month ago I wrote a little article about a local bar owner who invited Saunders to do a “Q and A” session at his pub. Saunders cancelled at the last minute, saying he had team commitments the next day. But the pub owner said he thought the manager under siege wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a grilling from 150 die-hard Wolves fans.

I suppose in many ways, although football and rugby have very different rules and I’ll clearly always prefer one to the other, they aren’t that different off the pitch. A few similarities I’ve noticed:

* If the team fails then it is the coach (or manager) who must be for the high jump.

* The team’s players have a contradictory status: when they are doing well, they are beyond reproach. When they fail (particularly off the field) their failures are dissected in detail by solemn-faced commentators asking “how this reflects on the game”.

* Many fans can become obsessed. In New Zealand 99 per cent of the population dresses in black on a big game day and reporters write of “national mourning” when big games are lost (trust me, we lost the World Cup a few times in past decades – I should know). In both places, the game will be the talk in offices and over the phone. It’s difficult to escape from sometimes.

* When the team is winning members are referred to by fans as “we”. When the team is losing, fans often revert to referring to them as “they”.

So I think that if I can master the various names and trades then I can become a Kiwi football fan in The Midlands. Or maybe I’ll just always be a bit too Kiwi for that.

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