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Totti Today: Football Isn’t the Nomadic Spirit I Wanted to Be

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UEFA and FIFA will insist they’re my pusher, but then give me back Alvaro Recoba. You can’t, can you?

Inter Milan’s forward Alvaro Recoba of U Photo credit should read PACO SERINELLI/AFP via Getty Images

This week’s off-the-pitch headlines were dominated by the ESL acronym, which left me divided as to which port our Totti Today ship should dock to next. Did I really want to dedicate any more time and attention to UEFA chief Alexander Ceferin’s ineptitude? Does Florentino Perez really deserve to be given the time of day after pitching his “savior of football” sales angle?

Instead, I spent the latter half of the week in search of a football competition that meets three basic criteria:

  1. The competition begins with all contestants wanting to take part in it
  2. The competition is the top-lever tier of its category
  3. Winning the competition trophy is its own reward

That meant I could immediately throw out the Europa League, which doesn’t come close to meeting any of the three criteria (even if there is some element of it that almost, so nearly satisfies criteria number two—and some would argue therein lies the magic!). You can also, unfortunately, throw out all the domestic national leagues. Though you had some tournaments like the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (now the EFL trophy) which actually do come so close to ticking all three boxes, and I imagine have hosted some matches that, for the emotional rollercoaster value, were actually pretty good.

But ultimately, on a year-to-year basis of repeat value, they won’t do. What’s left?

I was convinced that the Champions League was the last true competition standing in football, with that familiar mid-week theme playing in the back of my head already, until it hit me: The Champions League exists (in theory) as a rite-of-passage to the Club World Cup.

SOCCER-MANCHESTER-BAYER Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Now I’m not going to waste time debating with myself about whether the Club World Cup is loved as a competition or not. Let’s just save time and admit that it isn’t, and nor has it ever been.

As someone who spent my high school years in England, I remember perfectly well how the treble-winning Manchester United team’s decision NOT to compete in the FA Cup of the 1999-2000 season because of fixture congestion in December of 1999, and United’s obligation to represent Europe at the Club World Cup. United was pilloried at having “sold out” the spirit of the FA Cup and derided for their choice to focus on representing the badge abroad. Which, if you think about it, says more about European entitlement and snobbery in a game that purports to be about breaking barriers around the world. After all, when we’re judging our football fanaticism by how “real” it is or how tied it is to “the spirit of the game”, what standards are we really judging ourselves?

I’ll spitball a few criteria for that, too. I’d wager you can measure “the spirit of the game” (as nebulous a concept as that may be) by how much we want to see the game give support to:

  1. Providing a place for us to meet up and talk about the spectacle
  2. Providing a vocation for young men and women from the age of 8 years old and up
  3. Promoting the right to participation that is independent of factors including (but not limited to) race, gender, nationality, political affiliation.

Or if I want to put it in straightforward English, my “real” football fanaticism is tied to believing that all you need is a ball, an air-pump, and two cones each at either end of a field, and you can walk around anywhere in the world to make friends, rivals and worthy enemies without even having to speak a word; what you show each other on the pitch will do all the talking, across cultural barriers and boundaries for you.

FC Bayern Muenchen v Tigres UANL - FIFA Club World Cup Qatar 2020 Photo by David Ramos - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

Isn’t that the spirit we felt was under attack this week? It’s the romanticism of association football. But the Club World Cup shows that association football has overstayed its welcome in my dreams.

Nobody likes the Club World Cup, nor do they pay attention to it. I certainly don’t. It’s the top-tier of club football, but it doesn’t hold the appeal that the Champions League does for me, because I know nobody will be talking about the CWC down the sports bar on Wednesday nights that were made so much easier for me (at least when I was in university) when I could switch off for the evening and just watch Chelsea take on Valencia with “the Championsssssss” sounding off in between commercial breaks. I’m certainly not going to anyone else for their fanaticism in football, because I am a plastic football fan by many people’s definition.

I like the Champions League’s ability to intoxicate through spectacle, smoke, and mirrors. I don’t need football to break cultural barriers for me, since I’m perfectly happy for it to exist in a vacuum on Wednesday and Sunday nights. Nor is that some kind of damning verdict on me or my nomadic interests. It’s just plain to me that those interests are best served outside of football, as they likely are for a lot of football players themselves.

FRANCE-TRANSPORT-AVIATION-COMPUTING-APP Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images

If you need to go learn the Emirati or Japanese way of life, it’s much simpler to go book a flight ticket and stay in an apartment over there yourself (not to say that getting even a short-term residency in the UAE is easy by any means). You don’t really need to be turning up with a football and telling the local neighborhood to take you on in a knockout tournament, with the winner-takes-all right to extend your VISA on the line, and nor do you need your cable-TV subscription to come with images of Bayern taking on Al Ahly just to be inspired to go globetrotting. There was a moment in time where football didn’t take itself so seriously, and perhaps even a moment where UEFA/FIFA wasn’t so hellbent on selling self-importance as a designer drug.

The actual World Cup itself (the Jules Rimet trophy that nations compete over) used to represent that time. It was football’s ambition to represent “the spirit” of the sport, every four years on a summer tour, but no more than that. Yet some people decided that wasn’t enough. They saw the capacity not just to sell out the house that summer, but to sell TV subscriptions purporting to have the same emotional weight as matchday-ticket stubs. Those people were right; I’ll probably never attend a match in person that will push me to the same highs as I did cheering at a students’ bar in the summer of 2006 with a house full of Arsenal fans nearly tearing the house down together, through every kick of the ball in that Arsenal vs Barcelona Champions League final.

And I wasn’t even in France where that final took place, nor was I in London or Barcelona. I was in Egham, Surrey.

Barcelona v Arsenal - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Hell, I just watched a Cagliari-Parma game last week that was an absolute rollercoaster ride. Two sides fighting to avoid relegation to Serie B, with Parma actually playing some damn good football (the kind worthy of competing at the top of Serie A, to be honest) and yet somehow losing at the death to a Cagliari side that simply believed in the moment more than Parma did. As much as I love Sardegna’s beauty, I didn’t envy anyone having to live there this April in order to feel the emotional highs I did watching that 4-3 Cagliari win alone at home in England. But as much as that may be the case for me, even I draw the line at the Club World Cup.

The Club World Cup represents a step too far. It’s the spirit of football oversaturated. Now it’s not just once every four years, but every winter (speaking from Northern Hemisphere bias) that football is meant to go promote participation around the globe. And whether that’s done in the matchday stadium or through images on TV, that’s just too much time dedicated to the football competition for me.

So that’s the long-and-short of it. Football is a good game in spurts, but there are so many games to watch across the calendar now, that any given competition can surprise you with an amazing match as much as it can bring you to boredom with the never-ending filler served up in between. If you want adrenaline sports action in quantity and quality, ice hockey is a better bet (even though ice hockey comes with people lamenting its death and the death of the enforcer role on the pitch all the same). UEFA doesn’t want you to acknowledge that much, though.

They want you to buy into the idea that watching football is your democratic duty, the chance to promote human rights, the chance to save kittens from all trees, and to have your say on the very fabric of humanity itself. All of this while they string together yet more arbitrary competition rules to reserve their right to collect 10 percent.

I’ve personally lost a lot of interest in all that noise—not in watching football itself, but the reality-TV squabbles of the characters within it that can’t outright admit that they are already reality TV. They’ll insist they’re my pusher but, as a football fan, I find it way more enjoyable to get high on my own supply.

Most of my football time is spent melting memories of games I never expected to carry with me for a lifetime, pouring that into a needle, and shooting up the cocktail of back-and-forth with 1990s and 2000s calcio fans over whether Alvaro Recoba wasn’t, in fact, the greatest player anyone had ever seen play in this lifetime.

Whether UEFA lives or dies tomorrow won’t stop me from doing that much.