Up Front 09/19

As a youngster, I was what my mother described as ‘soccer-mad’. I’d wake in the morning wishing I could dribble like George Best and shoot like Bobby Charlton. And by the time I got to bed in the evening—after a full day practising my world cup-winning skills on a patch of grass at the edge of the village—I’d sleep surrounded by my vast collection of Shoot magazines and dream of football glory on the pristine turf of Wembley stadium. On a wall by the side of our house, I had painted the shape of football goalposts and circled numbers in different parts of the net area. When I had no one else to play with, I set myself a target of a certain amount of points before I was allowed to rest, and as I became more proficient, I rewarded myself with lemonade. Those were glorious days. Like the summers we remember from our childhood they did indeed seem perennially sunny and endless. Until one day I discovered rugby. There wasn’t an immediate change, and I didn’t turn my back on football completely, but I soon developed a love-hate relationship with the oval-shaped ball. The hate part was struggling to catch and hold a greasy ball in mucky fields on a stormy winter’s day or trying not to show how painful a grazed leg felt after a tumble on an icy pitch. But the love part was the appreciation of a complex game played with a level of mutual respect that, considering the physicality of it, was always surprising. That appreciation stayed with me long after it became impossible to continue to participate, and like many others, I look forward to the Rugby World Cup in September. But I still enjoy the ‘beautiful game’ and I was recently reminded of a piece of soccer research announced by scientists at Ghent University in Belgium last year. The study was inspired by a slightly tongue-in-cheek quote by ex-footballer, now TV personality, Gary Linaker, who said: ‘Soccer is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.’ As it happens, the research findings proved that the Germans didn’t always win. But in Gary’s day, and mine, it did seem that way. It’s not something the average rugby fan has had to deal with since German rugby hasn’t yet brought their national team to prominence. Looking at the fixture list for the upcoming Rugby World Cup, the only European teams outside the United Kingdom are Italy, Ireland and France, all countries with whom we have friendly relations—at the time of writing. It’ll be fun to see who we’re cheering for in the final on November 2nd.