Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Football and the other football

I rarely use my blog to comment on current affairs, but not too often my home country hosts an international sports event of such magnitude. Poland has waited for decades for opportunity like that, an honor shared with Ukraine. The eyes of the world seem to be on those two states as they have an unusual chance to present themselves as modern, open and inclusive. Everybody back home seems to be eating, sleeping breathing football,  called soccer in America, as Euro 2012 European Football Championships play out. I’m of course on the other side of the Atlantic and I’m not much of a sports fun, but you can feel the excitement even here. It’s not simply a sporting event. It’s a cultural, economic and political opportunity, something unprecedented in my country’s history. And I’m obviously proud. But right next to headlines about rivalries on the field I read about how Polish and Russian  soccer fans, or should I say hooligans face off right before and after the game, starting riots all over Warsaw. Things got out of control, the police couldn’t contain it and there it was for the whole world to see, some people were not there to celebrate and have fun, but to beat the others to a pulp. It’s of course nothing new when it comes to Polish soccer and I even hear of team “fans” setting up intentional “honorable” fights. And it also happens in Western Europe, but is somewhat less visible. All this anger, aggression, racism and xenophobia tries to overshadow a carnival of sporting emotions. But I ask myself: why does it have to bare all those negative emotions. Americans also have something they call “football”, although they rarely use feet and it’s not really a ball. I don’t really understand it, but I like going to the games and I love everything around it.

An American football game feels in many ways like an entertainment event. Well prepared, polished and packaged. It’s a fun way to spend time with your family, I even see kids in attendance sometimes and everybody is having fun. It’s always very safe. And it doesn’t matter which team you’re rooting for. And yes, emotions ran high, I’ve seen grown people crying when their team lose. I  live in Gainesville, home of the Florida Gators. And the University has been very smart to capitalize on the popularity of the games, football is a significant source of revenue for the school. Alumni love the Gators so much, that they visit years later, buy season tickets or make a gift to the team. But it’s not only the football players who are the Gators, it’s all of us. All other teams share the Gator name, UF students call themselves Gator Nation and are “proud to be a Florida Gator” as one of the cheering chants go. There’s a sense of unity, there’s a sense of fun and excitement. And yes, the game is divided into quarters and it stops every  few minutes which is a good opportunity to push hot dogs, drinks and merchandise on people, but I’m willing to spend if I enjoy myself. From what I’ve seen, if it happens (and I’ve never seen it) that somebody gets rowdy, the crowd quiets them. We eat, we sing, we hold hands. It’s more like a picnic or a show (with strong product placement) than a game. I would never go to a match in Poland, I’d be too afraid that a disgruntled will hurt me. Here, I feel safe. It’s not even that emotions are being played down. We have an annual show called “Gator Growl” during which UF students repeatedly mock other teams and it’s low brow humor. Yes, we don’t like those other schools- they’re strange. Yet, there are never any problems when visiting students use the same buses, proudly display their fan gear or even sing their school spirit songs. Because sports are just that and rivalries should be friendly. I’m outraged to see that kind of behavior on streets of any European city however isolated it may be. This is not human behavior, it’s animal instinct.  I’m ashamed to even see it. We’re so proud of our heritage, our culture, our history. Europeans sometimes feel superior. Well, I did not see that yesterday. Americans could teach us how to have fun and relax and keep our emotions at bay.

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