(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 6.)
INEVITABLY, saturation media coverage of the Fifa World Cup has led to arguments in pubs and workplaces over the relative merits of football and rugby.
Such debates are pointless. Loyalty to particular sporting codes arises from a complex, emotive mix of nationalistic, tribal and cultural factors and doesn’t necessarily stand up to logical scrutiny.
Like most New Zealanders, I greatly admire the All Whites and their coach, who have been exemplary representatives both on and off the pitch. But I still favour rugby because it’s the game I’m familiar with. If I knew more about football, perhaps I’d become as obsessed with it as others are.
The one thing that non-followers of football have difficulty understanding is the hysteria that surrounds the game. Fans no doubt put it down to passion, but to non-believers it simply looks like infantilism.
The over-the-top behaviour starts on the pitch, where players go into paroxysms of ecstasy every time they score, leap on each other in unseemly displays of homo-eroticism and writhe in theatrical agony if an opposing player so much as brushes past them.
These histrionics clearly have a contagious effect on fans, encouraging them to indulge in behaviour that even children would regard as undignified. They shriek with excitement, they weep inconsolably, they hug each other and they chant primitive, incomprehensible tribal mantras. And of course they like a brawl, too.
You don’t see these juvenile displays from fans of golf, tennis, athletics, swimming or motorsport – or rugby, for that matter. Football fans tend to look down on rugby as a brutish sport played by oafs, yet rugby crowds behave with impeccable decorum compared with followers of the round-ball game.
Football alone seems to release the inner child in its supporters – the secret part of them that never wanted to grow up. How else can you explain the childlike delight that thousands of fans seem to take in blowing on tuneless vuvuzelas?
And speaking of tuneless, what about the singing? One of the revelations of the Fifa World Cup is that football fans the world over all sound the same when they sing.
Actually, “sing” is hardly the right word. It’s more a gormless drone that dairy farmers would recognise as being similar to the lowing of distressed, unmilked cows. And the extraordinary thing is that this is true whether the fans come from a musical country, such as Italy, or from a country where sporting crowds take a perverse pride in being unable to sing, such as New Zealand.
MORE INTERESTING to me than the football was the controversy that erupted when a bunch of eye-catching, orange-clad female spectators wearing a discreet Dutch brewery logo at a match in Johannesburg upset the tournament’s official beer suppliers, Budweiser.
In a heavy-handed reaction, Fifa had the two women ringleaders arrested for “ambush marketing” – a criminal offence in South Africa while the World Cup is on.
This is a foretaste of what we can expect next year during the Rugby World Cup. As in South Africa, Parliament has passed a set of ridiculous laws to prevent unapproved advertisers cashing in on the event – laws that go far beyond what is reasonably required to protect the interests of official sponsors.
Among other things, the Major Events Management Act requires transport routes within five kilometres of RWC venues to be swept clean of offending billboards. Anyone foolhardy enough to contaminate these “clean zones” with non-official advertisements will risk a criminal conviction and a fine of $150,000.
In South Africa, undercover enforcers patrol stadiums to ensure no one breaks the rules. Even innocent umbrellas bearing unapproved logos are seized.
We can expect the same absurd carry-on here next year, when judges will be on call to deal with offences against the Act and enforcement officers will be able to execute search warrants and issue “cease and desist” orders.
Not the least objectionable aspect of this is that the taxpayer will pay for these Gestapo-style officials to do the sponsors’ dirty work while the corporate big shots schmooze over canapés and Veuve Clicquot in the VIP suites. (You can get bet more than a few politicians will have their snouts in the hospitality box troughs too, as a reward for their complicity.)
This will be the closest New Zealand has come to a totalitarian state since the draconian emergency powers adopted during the 1951 waterfront dispute. Advertising is a form of free speech, after all, and a government that gets away with banning advertising might be tempted to extend the idea to the suppression of other things it doesn’t like.
The irony, of course, is that the arrest of the ambush marketers in South Africa attracted international attention and ensured the rogue Dutch brewery got far more media coverage than it would have if Fifa’s sponsorship police had looked the other way. In the end Fifa was shamed into withdrawing charges and the women went free.
As for me, I’d wear a skimpy orange mini-skirt too if the only alternative was to drink Budweiser.