There was a time when soccer (as Americans call European football) was known as o jogo bonito, the beautiful game that could be played by men, women and children all over the world. A Brazilian player became the epitome of that Portuguese definition. His name was Pelé and his popularity as a class player contributed to making soccer a global phenomenon. There was also a time when fans went to soccer stadiums, big and small, with a charge of overflowing enthusiasm and the strong feeling of making a difference, not just in terms of the outcome of the match but of enjoying, win or lose, the beautiful game.
Today’s soccer is far from a beautiful game. It is a sport that is sustained not by the passions of the fans but by a business system that revolves around billions of dollars. The rich powerful clubs control the various levels of competition and small amateurish clubs cry out desperately for a slice of the profits. When the British invented modern soccer (ball games were practiced even in medieval Europe, in cities like Florence) the principles that inspired the sport were fairness and respect for the adversaries. Today’s players wear armbands with the slogan “respect,” an invocation that is supposed to silence rants against players of color, another form of systemic racism that poisons societies all over the world.
Fair play today cannot be dictated by regulations or by referees. At one time, the Brits were adamant supporters of the concept of fair play and fairness in general among the sporting crowds. There was nationalism at play, of course, but it was mostly under control. Healthy nationalism is a victim of the polarization of societies wherein sporting events have become the occasion for venting animosities and more shocking, racist impulses.
Societies differ, of course, to the point that a horde of British fans poured out their racist venom upon three young black players who missed their penalty shots in the European final against Italy. Nothing of the sort happened in France when their best black striker, Kylian Mbappe, wasted the decisive penalty kick against Switzerland and caused France to be eliminated from the European tournament. Not to mention the fact that the French national team is predominantly black. While episodes of perduring racism can be managed by stringent public policies, little can be done to bring back to European football the spirit of fairness that should accompany the exuberance of all those who love o jogo bonito.
In this light it was quite disheartening to see the British players strip away from their necks the silver medals for second place that they had received a second before. This was truly the negation of the plea for respect, due to the adversaries and to the sport institutions. The ugly display was followed by a tumultuous rowdy demonstration outside Wembley, the very temple of soccer. People leaving the stadium were assaulted and robbed, among them the English Formula One driver Lando Norris, who lost his expensive watch.
The world is tolerating ugly displays in what should be happy encounters. It is unfortunate that the creators of soccer offer such displays of poor sportsmanship. But there are good exceptions that are worth mentioning. Seven British players and their coach Southgate kept their medals on their necks after they were placed by UEFA President Ceferin. But not the captain, Harry Kane. The missing medal will weigh on his record. Surely Britain deserves a more conscientious captain and a stern moral warning from the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Its worth remembering, however, that the PM himself irresponsibly rebuffed concerns about the spreading of Covid-19 among spectators at Wembley. One can only pray that no such aftermath will occur, as the stadium was completely filled by thousands who crashed in without tickets.