It doesn’t happen too often that I write about soccer because I must confess I have virtually no interest in the sport. I think that in my entire my life I witnessed only one soccer match–at the age of nine. I was visiting some relatives in Vasas (today part of Pécs) and there was this huge event in the life of the mining village: the Pécs soccer team came to play Vasas. It was held on an ordinary field, and the audience stood on the sidelines because there were no seats. Pécs won, everybody was cheering for Vasas, I was alone on the other side. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what was going on, but that didn’t prevent me from cheering madly for the visiting team. Even then I was an independent soul.
My interest in the game hasn’t grown since, so you can imagine how much attention I was paying to the European championship. However, it was impossible not to hear bits and pieces about the different teams and their chances. I must admit that this little information came in handy the other day when I went to the hairdresser who is Italian and an avid soccer fan. I casually mentioned the Dutch, the German, and the Italian teams. I sounded like a pro. Fortunately the conversation didn’t go far enough to expose me as a total phony.
What I really don’t like about the game is the violence that often accompanies it. The hosts of this year’s European championship, the Austrians and the Swiss, boasted about how peaceful the games were. They added that no liquor could be taken into the arenas. Moreover, from what I hear about ticket prices perhaps the audience was not the brawling sort. Even if in Austria and in Switzerland there was no trouble, the situation was different in Madrid. Fifty-nine people were arrested and one was found dead. The Spanish fans in their happiness broke shop windows, set garbage cans on fire, and acted half-crazed. And there was a scene that I hope Krisztina Morvai also saw: two policemen mercilessly beating a guy with their nightsticks. Wow! Maybe the defender of the “innocent” Hungarian demonstrators should shift her focus from Budapest to Madrid.
I think that the attitude toward soccer has changed radically in the last fifty years or so. Both Péter Esterházy and his brother were avid players. Their aristocratic mother disapproved. As Péter Esterházy said in an interview, it was not suitable for her children. Only lower-class kids played soccer. And similarly, middle-class men and women did not go to soccer games. Today, there is a soccer mania and almost everybody is interested in the sport.
But Hungarian teams attract very few fans. From what I understand, the teams are terrible. It takes a lot of money to develop a professional soccer team, and in Hungary there is simply not enough money. Moreover, the better Hungarian players leave the country so they can earn a living. On some of the bankrupt Hungarian teams the players occasionally aren’t even paid their meager salaries.
So the bad Hungarian teams draw small audiences, and the behavior of these audiences is unspeakable. They scream obscenities, run onto the field and occasionally beat up the players or the referee, and send the other team’s members to Auschwitz. A sociologist lately tried to differentiate among the social strata in right-wing demonstrations and found five distinct groups: the worst was comprised of the soccer hooligans. They are the ones who will most easily pick up beer bottles to hit somebody on the head, set fire to garbage cans, or turn cars upside down.
And moving beyond soccer to another of my sports beefs: international meets are usually accompanied by unabashed nationalism. (Even I at the age of nine cheered for the home team simply because it was the home team.) Wasn’t it naive to think that the Olympic games would bring nations together in a clean, noble competition? We all know what happened to this idealistic picture of the Olympics. But Beijing is coming, and the hype is already in full force. Although I won’t be glued to the tube, I’ll know more about the competition than I probably need or want to.