Image for The ugly side of competitive sport

Racism in sport has generated much comment lately ...  which is fair enough. But it’s high time competitive sport’s ugly side was also acknowledged.

At our five-a-side soccer game recently, Frank’s* angry eruption saw things go pear-shaped, big time. One moment we were competing and then in an instant, we’d been press-ganged into witnessing an unedifying spectacle.

Frank’s meltdown was disappointing because I’d regarded our weekly catch-up as an opportunity for a bunch of us middle-aged blokes with varying levels of stamina and girth sizes to go through our paces. We could kid ourselves, just for a brief while, that we still had an ability of sorts to strut our stuff; even if it was with varying degrees of success. I’d signed up after my GP had recommended I eschew sweet stuff and get more active. So soccer seemed like a good idea.

Every week,a dozen or so of us would meet up at the local sports hall, divvy up into two teams and chase after the ball for an hour or so. Any watching soccer purist may have been unimpressed but what we lacked in skill was made up for by our willingness to have a go. I enjoyed the physical exertion. It felt good to do something non-cerebral and physical. It was, by a long shot, my most strenuous exercise of an otherwise sedentary week. Mostly things went well. Aside from an occasional misjudged or ill-judged tackle and late lunges, everyone played within the spirit of the game, more or less. After all, unlike footy, playing the ball, not the man, is one of soccer’s core rules.

Josh* - the object of Frank’s rage, and doubtless the class clown in his schooldays - had blatantly handled the ball once too often for Frank’s liking. But this joker wasn’t prepared to lose face and he bounded up to Frank. And we watched, agog and disbelieving, as Frank suddenly leant forward and headbutted Josh. The infamous Glasgow Kiss had come calling. But this was no bar-room brawl or boozy night out on the town. Blood spattered on the court and Josh reeled backwards, holding his hands to his face. Frank and Josh were promptly restrained; play was abandoned and, still stunned, we drifted away and headed home.

Looking back now, several less “serious” incidents come to mind; some involving Frank, and some not. There were occasions when matters could’ve gotten out of hand; over-exuberant tackles, gratuitous shoves and not so subtle head-high elbows. It was hardly Fight Club but it was more than a casual kick around. The lack of a referee meant these indiscretions often went unchecked. Contact sport is of course competitive by its very nature, and within some of us lurks a desire to win even if it means flouting the rules. Perhaps I was naïve to think that self-regulation would carry the day.

Frank’s assault ultimately spelt the end of my active participation with the world’s most popular game. David Beckham’s recent retirement coincided with my decision. Though, of course, that’s where our common thread frays. Beckham was a unique global super brand, whereas I’m a mere also ran, and a poor man’s journeyman.

To add insult to injury, without any hint of remorse, Frank rocked up the following week as if nothing had happened. There was to be no self-imposed suspension; no time off to cool his heels. And no closure, for any of us who’d witnessed his meltdown. One of the guys challenged Frank about his assault but he was stonewalled with Frank claiming he’d merely acted in self-defence. What was disturbing was that Frank seemed to believe he was the aggrieved party.

I miss the weekly soccer game. But I can’t say I’m missing the ever present and not so subtle threat of violence. This threat had never clouded my participation in the game throughout my years playing the game as a young bloke. Like I said, I was only ever an average player but I could hold my own and I derived hours of pleasure from my earliest years playing with my brothers in the back field behind our house and right through my school years.

Is adult male competition always to be burdened with unbridled testosterone? Will we males ever be able to compete and leave our egos back in the locker room? Getting on the wrong side of an already angry bloke often boils down to bad luck that can have disastrous consequences. Frank wasn’t held to account for his assault. And as far as I can tell Josh never filed any charges; his reasons for not doing so remain best known to him alone. Assaults in sport tend to fall into a grey area. And in some instances sport often minimises or excuses bad behaviour. So called “brain snaps” have been trotted out to explain away all sorts of violence visited upon opponents.

Like me, Josh has pulled the pin on soccer nights. And so the transgressor prevails, unhindered and unchallenged; forcefully making his way through life; any consequences of his bad behaviour not even a blimp in his wake.

*Fergus Moriarty is a pseudonym. He is known to the Edtior.

*Frank and *Josh are pseudonyms

Pic: Playing in the finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup and already havinbg helped France register a penalty, Zinedine Zidane was inches from everlasting football glory. In the dying moments of extra time, a verbal duel between Italian Marco Materazzi and Zidane resulted in the infamous headbutting incident. As per some lip reading experts, Materazzi is said to have called him a ‘son of a terrorist whore’. The result: Zidane’s head rammed into Materazzi’s chest ...