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It’s time to celebrate

As a child, my sister and I were dragged each week, kicking and screaming, to Sunday mass at our local Catholic church. Restless and frustrated with the stoicism of the services, we invented a game. The rules and object of the game were very simple—to make the most ridiculous faces without being detected by our mother in order to make the other crack up laughing. The loser, of course, would be reprimanded for his or her monstrous act of irreverence.

Looking back, I have to place the blame not at the feet of the juvenile siblings but rather the solemnity of the service. Years later, while working on a service project in the Bahamas, I had the chance to attend mass at a Baptist church. I was shocked when I witnessed singing, dancing, and clapping. The energy and enthusiasm were palpable. I was captivated. The atmosphere was electric.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the Theater of Dreams, Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. My first experience with live English football just so happened to be the Northwest derby and one of the most heated rivalries in world football, Manchester United  versus Liverpool. I was blown away: by the size of the stadium, the green of the grass, the massive dimensions of the pitch, and just how frigging cold it is in England in March.

But most of all, I was blown away by the atmosphere. I sat in the “Clock End,” opposite the famed Stretford End (and preferred second half target of the Red Devils). It would have been an unremarkable area if not for it being adjacent to the traveling Liverpool supporters. For no less than two hours, the away fans sang their hearts out, from the iconic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to the simplistic “Ja-vi-er Ma-sche-ra-no! Ja-vi-er Ma-sche-ra-no!”

Despite being trounced 3-nil—and the aforementioned Señor Mascherano getting an early shower—the Scousers never stopped singing. As a result, several MUFC fans in my section never stopped hurling abuse. Either way, it was an incredible atmosphere, the greatest source of live entertainment to which I’d ever been exposed.

The next year, as a birthday present, my mother purchased me a ticket to a European Champions League game: Bayern Munich versus Barcelona. I didn’t realize just how amazing this gift was until I stepped off the train and saw the glowing orb that is the Allianz. From the outside, the arena in Munich is an architectural marvel. On the inside it is a boiling cauldron of chanting, singing, and flag waving.

From high atop the second tier, I was ensconced in a sea of colored flags and banners. The synchronicity of the booming chants proved a cacophonous weapon for the home fans against mighty Barca, already with a three goal-aggregate lead. It may have also been the impetus for the game’s opener, a stunning strike from Franck Ribery. What you can’t hear on television is that every time Ribery finds the net, the stadium finds the song, “Le Champs Elysees” by Joe Dassin, a homage to the winger’s French heritage. Despite Seydou Keita equalizing and putting the tie out of reach, you get the sense that, if nothing else, everyone left the stadium thoroughly entertained.

After all, football is about entertainment. Isn’t it?

Why then do I feel like I’m back kneeling at the pew, scolded for my sacrilege? So-called purists of the game will complain about modern footballers: the neon-colored shoes, the tribal tattoos, the look-at-me haircuts, and the ultimate desecration of their holy ground: goal celebrations. The ranting and raving of the purists would have you believe they want to return to the days when footballers wore button-down shirts, black work boots and feebly tried to move 20-lb. sewn balls. And sometimes it feels like FIFA, and several football associations around the world, feel the same.

Last week, Neymar, the impossibly gifted Brazilian international and (for the time being) Santos forward, was sent off after being booked for wearing a mask emblazoned with his own likeness. Neymar, after carving up the Colo Colo defense on his way to the third goal in the Copa Libertadores contest, took the mask from a fan and duly obliged him by sticking it on, albeit upside-down. The referee, none too pleased, brandished a yellow card to young Neymar, his second of the evening, sealing his exit.

The previous weekend, AC Milan forward Antonio Cassano, far and away the most skilled Italian playing the game today, was booked for removing his shirt after scoring an incredibly important penalty against city rival, Internazionale. A benign gesture at the time, it later proved fatal when he inexplicably pulled down a rushing Inter player to receive his second yellow and marching orders.

Who me? What about the guy with no pants?

Which brings us to our beloved domestic competition, Major League Soccer. Eric Hassli, French forward for expansion franchise Vancouver Whitecaps, was sent off last week for celebrating a goal against New England for removing his shirt. The referee was unimpressed and, even though Hassli was wearing another Whitecaps top underneath, presented him with his second yellow card of the match.

Now, while I can’t condone Roma’s Mirko Vucinic’s de-pantsing trick from last year’s Euro qualifiers, I can empathize with the above predicaments. Why do we demonize celebration? Why do we adopt a puritanical approach to the most hedonistic of sports? Scoring a goal is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Some have gone so far as to rank its resulting euphoria above the pleasure of sex (I might need to quote Lori Petty in Pointbreak here though and say maybe you’re not doing it right, then).

Nevertheless, scoring a goal is an amazing feeling. Whether it’s in a five-a-side pickup game, a high school championship or in front of 80,000 at the San Siro, it is a wonderful thing. Goals, like those who score them, come in all different forms—delicate chips, blasted volleys, nutmegs, backheels, and headers. Goals are great to watch. But every so often, the goal is surpassed by the goal celebration.

I’ve been watching televised soccer for almost 20 years and in that time I’ve seen choreographed dance routines, corner flag boxing bouts, backflips, and fake boat rides. I’ve watched Romario rock his air baby, Cantona look disgusted with the mortals around him and Fabio Grosso look to be on the verge of tears. I’ve seen Totti suck his thumb and Tevez suck his binky. I’ve seen undershirts with messages written on them, from “Free Palestine” to “Feliz Cumpleanos.” Just this past weekend, Argentinian side Velez Sarsfield celebrated a goal and a “cumpleanos” simultaneously when Santiago Silva ran to the touchline to retrieve a lit candle in honor of a teammate’s birthday.

Sure, sometimes these elaborate gestures don’t go off quite as planned. Two weeks ago we all saw Jermain Defoe’s “100” message written on a shirt underneath his jersey, despite the fact that he failed to score his century goal. Then there are the neo-Nazi salutes, the throat slashes, and a whole host of abusive gestures such as the middle finger and the Barry Ferguson “V”.

But, even the most misguided celebrations are often entertaining. And isn’t that what football is all about? It’s the reason we pay way too much for “authentic” replica kits, the reason we save for travel and ticket costs, the reason we plunk down hard-earned dough week in and week out—so we can share in the pleasure, share in the spectacle, be a part of the drama.

I know, I know—a match-winner removing his top can incite fan violence. Has that ever really happened though?  And if so, doesn’t it say more about the person reacting violently to someone removing his shirt than the bare-chested player himself?

Maybe it’s our puritanical roots. Maybe it’s our jealousy. Whatever the reason, it’s ridiculous to think we should expect our heroes to shuffle back to the midway line silently, like nuns in the cloister, heads bowed in reverence for their savior, Sepp Blatter. And maybe that’s exactly what the so-called “purists” want too.

But not me. I’ll be standing, I’ll be cheering, I’ll be chanting. And when Nani follows up a left-footed strike with a perfect 10 backflip, I’ll be applauding both. Because it’s fun. Because it’s entertainment. Because it’s football, bloody hell.

It ain’t church.

4 Comments

  1. the brandi chastain rule

  2. DOOP!

  3. too long

  4. Subscribed to your weblog, many thanks

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