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It’s a beautiful game

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.45, 20 November 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

It is no wonder they call “it the beautiful game!”  2010 was going to be such a drag of a year waiting for the Oval Ball World Cup and the incessant drivel that goes with it. Will the stadium be ready? Will the wharf be transformed? Wild guesses as to what the world cup is worth to the country (think of a number between $7.50 and $934 million). All of this would have been mainstream news if the All Whites had not beaten Bahrain and taken us into the greatest sporting event in the entire world. We can now be focused as a nation on the beautiful game.

What a good thing for schools, especially the primary schools. Football is such a wonderful game for the young ones – girls can play with boys, skill matters more than size, it can be played on any surface and it doesn’t require a lot of expensive gear.

The start-up rituals of football games under the control of FIFA is so civilised compared to rugby. The teams walk out, side by side led by officials. They are here to play sport after all. The players lead out the little ones – they are the future of the game both as supporters and as players. The anthems are dignified, hands are shaken between players and officials, pennants or flags are exchanged and the teams are ready to go.

Compare this to the bullfight testosterone laden start to rugby internationals. The teams charge out with steam bellowing from their noses like bulls on a hot Madrid afternoon. The anthems are sung by celebrity artists and then, if New Zealand is playing, a haka is performed with grotesque sincerity and greeted with the undignified arrogance / indifference of the opposition.  No hand shaken, no pennants exchanged.

The comparisons don’t stop there. In one game you can see the ball while in the other you simply guess where it might be. In one game the referee is in charge and whistles without the self indulgent yapping of the rugby referee who seems to want to coach the teams as well. In one game the focus is on the skill of beating the opposition while in the other it is simply on beating.

Little wonder then that someone once said that Rugby was a game invented by gentlemen but played by ruffians while soccer was invented by ruffians but played by gentlemen.

And that is its attraction to a lot of parents. Kids can play the sport and be relatively safe. Last year rugby beat other sports hands down with more than 49,000 rugby players injured. Football and netball were a distant second and third. I am the first to admit that I played football because I was small and had I played rugby in a weight division I would have been playing with eight year olds when I was fourteen. So football, which was never available at our primary school became the game of choice.

And a good choice it was too, especially at secondary school when Arthur Leong joined the staff of Fairfield College and shortly after was selected for New Zealand. Coached by an All White! (Well, actually that name came later.) We played for our club and learnt the trade from a set of dour men of Scots and Dutch and English extraction. The 2-3-5 formation was soon being put to one side for we had seen grainy films of the great Puskas and his Hungary team. What a thrill for us as youngsters when our club’s top team, Tech Old Boys from Hamilton, won the Chatham Cup in 1962.

My greatest thrill as a player was in my last year at school when the great English Captain Tom Finney led an FA Team to New Zealand and a schoolboy representative team that I was in was asked to play an exhibition match with them – forwards and backs split to make composite teams. I had Tom Finney beside me which led to a wonderful footballing teacher and colleague, Dave Metzger, always following an introduction of me to someone else with the statement “He played with Tom Finney you know!”

My own coaching career never went beyond being a young teacher who took a sports team but I enjoyed coaching boys of far greater skill – I was happy to hand over the reins of the First XI when a better coach joined the staff. Damn! A year too early – Ricki Herbert arrived at the school and I never got to coach him.

He was a tremendously talented and focused footballer. He knew with certainty that he was headed for the top and had all the skills to do just that.

The nadir of my coaching career was when I was coaching one of my son’s team of six year olds. Having succeeded in getting them to consistently remember that after halftime you headed for the goal at the other end of the field, I was perplexed by the performance of the goalie one day who let through a number of goals while making Nureyev-style moves with his back to the ball. I headed around behind the net and asked what the story was. Off he goes into another pas de deux on his own. “Well?” I asked. “Look,” he said “over there. Look at the shadow I make on the ground when I dance!”

As Danny Blanchflower said: “Football is not really about winning, or goals, or saves, or supporters – it’s about glory. It’s about doing things in style, doing them with a flourish.” Sport can do that for little ones and what better sport than football.

That’s why I am excited at the imminent launch of a FIFA programme – Just Play – into some primary schools in our part of the world that will teach children the beautiful skills of the beautiful game in an exciting way.

The wonderful victory of the All Whites will inspire so many students to get into football and quickly acquire the skills of this game of which the simplicity is its beauty.

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