Monday, February 20, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 20th February 2006

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

When I attend football matches I usually sit in a seat that is roughly half way up one of the side stands and as close to the half way line as possible. This vantage point gives a view of the game from which the whole pitch can be seen and it allows you to see all the moves in the game clearly. When television cameras cover a match this is the position of the main camera, and it is also where the media sit. But last weekend I decided to abandon my usual position and sit on the touchline at White Hart Lane for Tottenham’s game against Wigan – and what a very different perspective of the match this gave. I was in the very front row of the lowest tier of the stand within a metre or so of the side line and the corner flag. When the action was close by I could almost touch the players and could certainly hear what they said to one another, and to the referee. When Spurs Egyptian international Mido was booked (right in front of me) he showed that he has mastered the English language (or a colourful part of it) very well since moving to Tottenham.

Sitting in a seat like the one that I had on Sunday you get no feel at all for the overall pattern of play, but you do see, of course, one or two incidents very clearly. You realise much more than you do in a more remote seat, just how frantic is the pace of the modern game. A player receiving a pass has a fraction of a second to kill the ball decide what to do with it and complete the move and it is remarkable to watch this from very close to the action. I suppose that these skills are taken for granted at the top in football but they are none the less impressive for this. There were two goals at the end that I was closest to and in each case the goal had been scored before I even realised that it was a possibility the pace was so quick. It is said that eye witnesses who are close to an accident often give completely contradictory reports of what they think that they have seen, and it is the same in sport. You can be too close to the action.

The other difference in sitting in a seat so close to the pitch is that you feel much nearer to the other spectators as well. At White Hart Lane the noisiest supporters amongst the home fans sit in the lower tier of the South stand which was right next to where I was sitting. The word “fan” is short for “fanatic” and that word is certainly apposite for this group. They chanted right through the match led by a man with a large drum which he banged rhythmically all the time, and they were fully emotionally engaged for the full ninety minutes. The chants were rather disappointingly witless but at least they were not too insulting either - which will have pleased the club officials who put a message in the programme condemning offensive chanting. The referee (a black man) was roundly abused for many of his decisions and his parentage was occasionally questioned but thankfully none of this abuse was racially motivated. Spurs have an ongoing campaign which deplores racism in football and it seems to be effective. Less welcome is the fact that although the ground is an all-seater stadium the group of fans in the lower South stand ignore the rules about saying seated for most of the match. This is something that the stewards struggle to control (although they try) and is regrettable, not least on safety grounds.

Attending a football match and sitting in the sort of seat that I was in on Sunday is as much a social, even tribal, experience as it is a sporting. As with all tribes there are rituals which you have to obey and certain behavioural norms are required. One of the chants is “stand up if you hate the Arsenal” which triggers a pavlovian response from those in earshot. Quite what my grandfather, who was a regular spectator at both Spurs and at the Arsenal in the 1930s (and supported both teams), would have thought of this I wonder. He certainly wouldn’t have stood up when asked to – and in his honourable memory nor did I!