I have loved the game—have stood for hours on the rain-swept terraces of Ninian Park in Cardiff waiting for the Bluebirds to appear, gone mad with victory and wept in defeat, jostled homeward in a two-mile-long herd of sodden faithfuls after the match, refought each move in pubs on Saturday night. The names of the great teams still ring with amazing passion in my mind: Arsenal and Spurs, Wolves, Chelsea, Sunderland.... And the names of the grounds spark wonderful memories of rainy magnificence: Highbury, White Hart Lane, Molyneux.... And, of course, at the end of the year, Wembley. I never understood how the English could maintain a reputation for stoicism when once a year they displayed themselves, men, women and children, a howling, hopelessly emotional mob, slaves to the thunderous waves of anguish that crashed through the huge stadium while the greatest prize in football—or soccer, if you insist—was decided: The Football Association Cup!
That was years ago, you understand, when England was king of the game—so powerful that when occasionally a British team was made up, including international players from the other home countries, the only conceivable opponent was the Rest of Europe or the Rest of the World. So powerful that it didn't deign to enter the so-called World Cup competitions of those days. As I remember, Italy or France used to win most of them, but it was of little interest to us. We had better things to watch: the sudden magic of a Lawton, the towering grace of a Swift, the never-to-be-equaled sight of Matthews rocking impossibly through whole regiments of opponents to flick the ball again and again into the goal mouth with lethal precision. There was a Cup Final even in Matthews' mature years when the second half became an astonishing, almost solo performance in which the middle-aged gentleman so confounded the enemy that he and the opposing goalkeeper seemed the only players to touch the ball. He was a world hero—Mays, Unitas, Chamberlain, Gordie Howe rolled into one, and then some: the greatest-ever football player in a world that doted almost exclusively on football.
One of the many things that made Americans different from the rest of the world (for it always seemed to me that I had far more in common with Frenchmen, Greeks, Chinese and Zulus than with the hygienic beings of that brand-new world) was the fact that they played their own insular games, which appeared to consist more of talking about what to do next than actually playing. They alone could believe in the old canard about international sports bringing countries together in friendship—because they had no one to compete with in their "world" championships and so didn't know the bitter despair of national defeat. How would they like it if they lined up Ruth, Foxx, Ott, Dizzy Dean, et al. as the American national team, only to have the bejeezus knocked out of them by a bunch of crowing jingoists from France? Friendship, hell! On the few occasions when England was beaten I would have been happy to declare war instantly.
But America was welcome to its illusions—and to its sports. Certainly we were well satisfied for them to stay out of football. From what we saw at the movies of their cheerleaders, marching bands, battalions of substitutes, players wearing armor and that unique American invention, the time-out, cropping up every few seconds, they could bring nothing but sorrow to our games. Oh, happy days of youth!
The terrible thing happened last summer. Four hundred million people around the world watched the World Cup Final on television from London, and Americans became faintly aware that even their super-dooper-booper bowls were (for want of anyone but themselves to compete against) pretty small potatoes compared with a fanaticism such as this.
Out came the money! A sports-loving representative of one of the proposed new American leagues went down to Brazil to watch Pel�, one of the finest players in the world today. "We can afford him," he said—a phrase not calculated to win throngs of happy friends for America. The horrifying fact is that he may well have been right. But what insolence! It is as though some billionaire sheik should decide to stage an exotic little amusement for his entourage and casually try to buy Kaline and Drysdale to play for a season before a handful of uncomprehending eunuchs.
Pel� did not bite—anymore than Kaline and Drysdale would have—but that did not stop our sports lovers. The money was there, and the deed was accordingly done: association football was launched in North America.
Now that the season is over, it is gratifying to be able to enumerate some of its disasters in the hope that it will die a natural death on the diamonds and gridirons of Chicago and Los Angeles and return to Rio and Shanghai and Glasgow and the schoolboys of Omsk, where it belongs. And it is heartening to have such a powerful influence as network television working hard toward that end.
For they have turned the game of Matthews and Pel�, of Lawton and Garrincha, of Inter of Milan and Real Madrid, of millions from China to Chile, into a driveling mockery, imposing alien rules and meaningless borrowings from American games and topping off the awful miscarriage with the inanities of the television medium itself.
Everything most to be feared has come to pass. There they all are: the introductions before the cameras � la American football, the "benches," the substitutions, the loudspeakers drooling the obvious; there are the idiot statistics (six corners, 17 saves, 24 throw-ins, and so on), in the manner of a game that shall be nameless which exists more as a statistical addiction than as a sport; there are the half-time entertainments (Hullabaloo Day at Yankee Stadium. We had things to talk about as we stood soaking wet in Ninian Park!). There are the girls in short skirts (who could probably give us a better game than some of the multilingual, three-legged assemblages that have been passed off as teams).