By Paul Gardner
American owners of English soccer clubs, it seems to me, walk a rather delicate line between being welcomed for their money, and condemned for -- well, for being American.
To most English devotees Americans are still soccer outsiders, a whole population with weird, mockable accents who call football soccer and who invent funny terms like assist and shutout, which the Brits, simply because those terms are American, won’t use.
That’s all good, clean fun -- and besides, it makes it quite acceptable for totally inexperienced Brits to come over here to teach us how to play the game. Their game, as they would have it.
We’ve just had a lovely example of that attitude from Sporting Kansas City, which have engaged a 21-year-old English TV announcer, Callum Williams. “Covering Major League Soccer is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Williams tells us. Always? Can that be right? Never mind, let’s not quibble, as Williams sails merrily on, telling us that he wants “inject some British passion into MLS -- although some of it is already here.”
Oh please, the passion thing again. It was rather unfortunate for Williams that his plea for British passion coincided with Manchester United’s Jonny Evans giving us a splendid example of passionate play. His passionate tackle has put the USA’s Stuart Holden out of the game for six months with a horrendous 26-stitch gash in his knee.
No malice, says Evans -- and I’m sure he’s right. No malice. Just passion. Getting stuck in, as they say. Whatever, 26 stitches is a hell of a lot of stitches.
Williams has also let us know that we’re just not good enough when it comes to TV. As if ESPN’s Jed Drake hadn’t already made it brutally clear that the only way to get on the air is to have a Brit accent (ESPN’s recent canning of JP DellaCamera, with his American accent, is simply appalling, unconscionable), here we have Williams telling us that he is going to “improve the viewing experience of MLS soccer.” Maybe he is, but that sort of boasting, from a 21-year-old, comes over as something rather more obnoxious than passion.
To even matters out, we have an American who was also caught out by Evans’s passionate display. I had never heard of General Charles Krulak before a few days ago. Now, I rather wish I had remained ignorant of his existence. Krulak is a former American marine, a Vietnam veteran. He is now a director at Aston Villa, which is owned by the American Randy Lerner.
Krulak has offered his advice to the Aston Villa team -- which, at the moment, is not doing at all well, being in danger of relegation from the Premier League. True to the basic simplicities of warfare and trials of strength, Krulak’s advice is this: “What we need now is to quit pointing fingers and everyone look at the Claret and Blue of our kit and the badge they are wearing and go out and kick the crap out of the next teams we play until the end of the season!”
I suppose there might be some excuse for Krulak in that the phrase “kick the crap out of” is pretty standard American usage and that he therefore didn’t mean to encourage the Villa players to go out and really kick opponents.
But his words are still offensive. I, for one, do not regard it as acceptable to compare a soccer game to the horrors of a bloody battleground. Krulak apparently sees no difference between what is supposed to be a game played in a spirit of sportsmanship and a grim battle where a man’s duty is to kill as many of his enemies as possible: “When my Marines put on their uniforms and the emblem of the Corps and went into battle and things got tough, they did not fight for their Commander, they fought for their brothers-in-arms, the men wearing their uniform and emblem.”
Krulak goes on, and of course, here comes the passion bit: “We have very good lads who know how to play with passion.” That bit about “lads” doesn’t sound too marine-ish, but the appeal to passion is far too familiar. It is also likely to be inflammatory and dangerous.
A week before Evans’ passionate tackle there was a pretty good example of just how volatile a game soccer can be when passion takes over. The occasion was a game between two old rivals, Liverpool and Manchester United. One of the most passionate rivalries in English soccer, I think it’s fair to say.
In keeping with that status, this was a game that featured four red cards, trouble in the crowd, police action against drunken fans, and the singing of offensive songs by ManU supporters about the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives.
And this was a youth game. Former Liverpool player John Aldridge was there, and commented: “I have never seen anything like that before at a youth game and I never want to see anything like it again. It was disgusting.” Yet, even in that healthy condemnation is a sort of admission that this wouldn’t have been so bad if it had occurred at a senior team game.
That is where we are with passionate behavior. It far too easily boils over into something dangerous. Passion is not the simple, admirable quality that it used to be. There is too much money at stake in the modern game of soccer for something as apparently wholesome as passion to remain an innocent quality.
Of course it has been tainted. It has been taken up by commercial interests, it has become a regular part of soccer salesmanship -- no matter what these guys are trying to sell you, whether it’s soccer shoes or game tickets, they’re going to work passion in there somehow.
The advertisers are relying on the word still maintaining its honorable meaning while they do everything they can to cheapen that honor.
All of that is deplorable. It is not made any better by General Krulak’s mindless reference to his Vietnam days and his exhortation to kick the crap out of everybody. One is reminded, yet again, of former Liverpool coach Bill Shankly’s famous -- and equally mindless -- remark about soccer being a more important matter than mere life and death.
A more reasoned reference point might be Bertrand Russell’s observation that “opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists.”