I now issue a nostalgia alert before taking you back to English youth and amateur soccer in the 1970s and 80s. In all of the years I played at school, club, university and later at adult level, I can barely remember a single card being shown. Few players or coaches had the audacity or the impertinence to talk back to referees and dispute their calls. We also somehow managed to play without committing a constant stream of deliberate fouls, and very rarely got involved in nasty little rivalries with opponents. In short, I showed more cards in one game this past Saturday than I experienced in 20 years as a player, when up until the mid-1990s I played 30 to 40 games a season.
There's no profound insight behind the two main reasons for this change, and they go hand in hand -- the vast amounts of money in professional sport, and the saturation coverage of every game, from every angle. It all kicked off in the early 1990s when the biggest English soccer clubs looked at the U.S. sporting business model and realized they'd been under-selling themselves. They created the Premier League and, with their European counterparts, lobbied UEFA to turn the European Cup of genuine champions into the cash-yielding Champions League (including a host of non-champions).
If that seems like a major leap from the U-15 game I reffed, let me make the obvious connection. The unsporting behavior on the youth and amateur soccer fields is directly mimicking the worst behavior of players and coaches in the professional game. The eye-watering sums involved means that the emotions of all those participating too often border on the unhinged. Numerous TV cameras are devoted to recording the facial expressions and gesticulations of those on the sideline -- the coaches, the injured star, the chairman. Goal scored -- unbridled ecstasy! Goal conceded - utter despair!
The media now focus on these banal narratives as much as they focus on its tactics and its results. They fake a parallel world of destiny, triumph and tragedy and treat its outcomes like monumental news. Events of apparently extraordinary significance are previewed, pushed and promoted as though the very future of mankind is dependent on the outcome of Sunday's "massive" game. Only for the commentators and their cameras to move quickly on to the next match-up as soon as the stands are cleared and everyone's calmed down.
This manufactured hysteria -- thankfully missing from my youth -- is now prevalent at all levels of the game. It's driven or encouraged by parents and coaches who harbor their own ambitions, and who foster negative play and attitudes to stave off defeat. Young players will be advised to nag the referee, or deliberately foul an opponent who dribbles past them. Poor sporting values are being taught and justified by peers who should be preaching the very opposite, while banners paying lip service to Fair Play do nothing more than flap in the wind.
That's a direct consequence of broadcasters showing slow-motion replays every single time a revered coach starts gyrating around his technical area and haranguing the fourth official. The phlegm can start flying for something as minor as a disputed throw-in. And if Jürgen Klopp is enraged about one of his players receiving a yellow card, then it must be all right for his ragged equivalent seventeen steps down the soccer pyramid to scream at the amateur ref who's only there for some fresh air and pocket money.
I can't find it in myself to fully blame coaches like Klopp, who are all under ridiculous pressure to deliver success. The same applies to the players, not all of whom moan at the referee. The problem lies equally with us, the watching public, placing an absurd and disproportionate emphasis on the importance of sport, and the media -- in all its forms -- who feed our desire to lose ourselves in a circus that essentially has no meaning.
"It's more than just a game" is the soccer media's favorite myth of the past two decades. What exactly this 'more' constitutes is never really explained, so it's packaged within hackneyed, vague and ostensibly noble concepts like Passion and Emotion (which is mostly just plain old Anger). In reality, the 'more' just means more cash, more commerce, and more overloaded hype.
It may disappoint me that soccer's no longer the game I grew up with, but it shouldn't surprise me. After all, as kids we mocked the older generations who were scandalized by the long hair and extravagant goal celebrations of the 1970s. There are increasingly more and more weekends, though, when I feel like I've become a relic who is so out of step with the modern game that I question over and again whether I should still be involved at all.
(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)