Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"But you ain't got no legs, lootenent Dan..."

I am a big fan of club soccer. Not so much as my dad, who will call me every once in a while with a report on how Cheltenham, or Manchester...or even my beloved Aberdeen Dons are doing in the British premier leagues. Still, we will gossip from time to time about which notorious European player is embarrassing himself in the MLSA, or how one of the American prodigies is faring with Real Madrid...

So, I actually had a moment when I had to pull over in the car in order to laugh when listening to a comedy program on satellite radio yesterday. The comedian was talking about the differences in American sensibilities--how we call "football" by another name, "soccer" and call that other sport "football" instead. Being from the South, he thought that was funny...but was undone on his first visit to England, and his first encounter with European sports fans and their rivalries.

We have nothing on them, he said. We say "Go Yankees" and then throw beer on each other. The sports rivalry in England, he said, went back to the days when you would run down the opposing fans, beat them with sticks and hang them from poles after setting fire to them. "There's some real passion," he remarked...and that was borne out for him when he watched a national club match between England and Germany. For those of you who know these things, that rivalry goes way back...to the seventies and eighties when both teams suffered humiliation at the other's hands in World Cup finals...and beyond that to old wounds from wars and mutual assaults in the Middle Ages.

Being from Alabama, he said, meant that he had to have that Forrest Gump "but you ain't got no legs lootenent Dan" moment..."Why," he said, "do you all hate each other so much?" This, he asked of the English football fans he was watching the game with...."Duh, they BOMBED us," was the reply. Stupid, don't you get it...this game is a perfect moment to get back at them for what they did to us in the Blitz?

So, I pulled over and laughed. Of course, describing a joke does not make it funny...nor would me telling it over again. You had to be there to hear his inflection and timing. Still, it was funny and powerful at the same time.

The reality of most rivalries is that we get caught up in the passion and power of the experience...and lose perspective on the passion and power of the opposing side's fans at the same time.

That goes for arguments as well as for being a sports fan. How many times do you find yourself working an argument over because the competition exists instead of trying to work toward resolution? How many times do we get caught up in a struggle because of near-genetic programs of engagement with the Other in our lives? How many times does that theatrical release do nothing to resolve the wounds or tensions that we went into that argument with in the first place?

When I lived in Aberdeen, I had my first experience of a type of fan that they Aberdonians called "soccer casuals." These were youth that dressed, talked and acted in a certain way. Essentially, the rough equivalent of hoods, delinquents. They went to every home game the Dons played, and many of their road matches, with the express intent of fighting the other casuals on the opposing team. As the formal match ended, they would exit the stadium for the fight that began almost like a liturgy right afterward.

Dangerous, deadly and frightening...these matches were simply repeats of the conflict they had seen resolved on the field...but with more intense displays of violence and without the sanction of people aiming their kicks and hits at a ball instead of their neighbors' heads.

Too easily, I presume, we get to places in our lives where simple contests become opportunities for escalation. In a society where we need to feel in order to know we are alive...when does that need become dangerous to those around us?

When do we get off the Lt. Dan dumb question line and begin to see each other as human beings? The funny thing about the transparency that Dan had no legs...and valued himself as less because of it had nothing to do with Gump's awareness that human beings aren't defined by legs, or the lack thereof. It was simple fact to recognize, on Gump's part, that Dan had no legs and therefore was differently abled. Legs, so important to one, were an abstraction to another.

The reality of our live, my dad's and my own, is that soccer is a sport we enjoy-and enjoy talking about...but if Cheltenham wins or not, if Aberdeen makes it to the Scottish finals or not-our days aren't ruined.

May God give us all the grace to like the sport and love the person who plays it, instead of losing perspective on both.

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