The core of the first team of the club he’d signed for were expatriated Scots. Most had played professionally at respectable levels in their homeland before an invitation to chase the ball over the pond in sunnier climates tempted them abroad. Some had played in Ranger, Celtic derbies in Scotland’s top flight. It was common knowledge at the club but the players involved never saw fit to broach the subject, at least publically at any rate. Granite tough, skillful and canny, what had been lost with age they’d replaced with nous. They’d take turns to see who could make the young charges look the silliest.
When in possession, a veteran would toe poke the ball into any youngster foolish enough to attempt to relinquish him of it. The ball would ricochet with sufficient force back off of their hapless adversary for the Scotsman to retrieve and repeat the act, whenever appropriate, until the rookie would come to expect it. Given enough time, as the senior of the pair recoiled his leg to smack the ball into his youthful opponent once more, the defender’s self-preservation instinct would kick in.
He would forgo his efforts to poach the ball in favor of an attempt to shield himself from the projectile and twist his head and back in anticipation of the blow. Once the old Scot received the appropriate response and was satisfied the youngster had been suitably tenderized, the ball would no longer fly into his groin or chest or face. Instead, he’d bring his boot to rest on top of the ball, confident the desired Pavlovian response was now imbedded in the young man’s subconscious and his attention was focused on something other than his attempts to win possession of the ball. Once the youngster, committed to self preservation, shrank away from an anticipated impact not about to take place, the old Scot would nip beyond his oblivious opponent with the ball in tow. It was hilarious to witness but torturous to participate in. A part of a somewhat gentle hazing process, decades in the design and passed from one generation of players to the next under floodlit skies on cold, dank nights, developed to determine if the temperament of the new additions to the squad were suited to that of the established collective. Locker rooms and changing sheds are cramped enough without the presence of an abrasive personality in a squad’s midst for the course of a season.
Changing rooms are naturally tense environments at the best of times. Decades of player insecurities cling to the walls like layers of lead paint. There have always been more players out to vie for places on the team sheet than there’s been room to accommodate. Regulars on the list sweat the presence of those ordained to take their place at some undetermined point in the future, and those who wait on the wings dread the call into the coaches office to get the news. “It hasn’t panned out.”
For a group of men crammed into such confined quarters, changing sheds can often feel incredibly isolated places, but on that night, a new incarnation of the ever present tension hung in the air.
The young man wandered into the changing shed on that less than balmy Tuesday evening to prepare for a training session as he’d done dozens of times already that season. The old fibro shed that served as the club’s locker rooms only contained half the typical number of players he’d grown accustomed to find present this close to the start of a training session. Somewhat perturbed by the unusual abundance of available space in which to maneuver in and the uncomfortable absence of the ambient warmth ordinarily generated by a squad of men huddled together in closeted confines, he finished with the strapping tape, the cleats, the liniment and the painkillers with all the enthusiasm he could muster and wandered out to brave the cold with his more meteorologically conditioned teammates. On another night, they’d have given him some of the usual stick for the winter garb he trained in until feeling could be restored to his extremities. Instead of the usual mass huddled together to share a customary laugh at one another’s expense before the collective attention turned to the task at hand, he found two groups separated by 50 meters of soccer field.
It looked and felt like the prelude to an unpleasant event. No one seemed all that pleased to see him or to be there at all for that matter. He concluded it was probably best to keep his own company until whatever dark presence that had settled like a fog over the training ground had dissipated. The young man amused himself with a soccer ball until the assistant coaches volunteered his support with cone placement.
“Fuckin’ derby games.” The assistant coach hissed through his teeth as they walked out the parameters of the coned area.
“Every fuckin’ time.” The off-duty veteran cop muttered to no one in particular as he pointed to the location where he desired the next cone to be placed.
The hatred emanated from each group felt harbored-grudge old. The kind of hatred passed on at a cellular level, from father to son. The kind that takes generations to gather the sort of momentum he was about to witness.
A soccer game on the other side of the planet was at the root of the resentment. Rangers were set to play Celtic that weekend and each group of Scotsmen represented their particular club affiliation. Some present had experienced the rivalry first hand – played in one or watched from the stand – and the repercussions that arose as a consequence. Out in the cold, in the middle of a football pitch, all that history thought to have been left behind in the old country found a way to the forefront of those men’s minds. Men who week in, week out played, fought and sweated for each other, on that night, were bent to find a reason to come to blows. Both groups glared at one another from the corners of their eyes on the lookout for the slightest excuse. Everyone else present faded into obscurity. The grudge was all that concerned them. It grew all the more uncomfortable when the boss called everyone together to get the session started. The coach knew as well as anyone what was at stake, and the newly demanded proximity did little to soften the mood as he attempted to broker peace.
“Let’s leave that shit where it belongs!” He said at the top of his heavily accented lungs, but it was to no avail. Words were uttered, indecipherable to those not fluent but heard clearly by the ears they were intended for. The young man’s first impulse was to leave. Walk away and not return until the match on the other side of the planet had been completed and everyone’s sense had returned. That window of possibility had closed not long after he’d wandered out of the locker room before the start of practice. This was a fight he had no business in. There was no side to choose because he belonged to neither. The whole affair felt alien to him. For the moment it was best if he remained still. Silent and still.
A brawl is similar to an avalanche in some ways. There’s a moment where momentum takes the reins and the only means of escape is to wait for the energy to dissipate before you try to dig yourself out of the debris. The two groups consumed everyone in their wakes and dragged outsiders into the fray. He clenched his hands into fists before he raised them in front of his face in anticipation of the wave of blows set to envelope him, but to his surprise never came. He can’t remember the name of the man who halted the momentum that night but his presence parted the two groups like a sea. His growl was ferocious, and his accent harsh and deep. The words he used made sense only to those they were directed at but everyone present deciphered their meaning. He wasn’t interested in who would start it, only that all were quite clear, he would be the one to end it. There would be no fight that night. His challenge would go unmet. There’d be no soccer either. At the head coach’s instruction, the assistant coach locked the balls away before he proceeded to run the hate out of them. The innocent shared the punishment with the guilty on that night.
The notion of New World soccer rivalries had rung hollow in his ears ever since. Rivalry in the Old World is a difficult concept for New World soccer fans to comprehend if they have never witnessed it in the flesh. Typically it’s as old as industry. The origins are antique old and the grievance tends to be based in episodes of discrimination and injustice utterly alien to all but those embroiled in the details. They are the exclusive domain of the Old World and any attempt to manufacture or even hint at New World soccer traditions in a similar vein is utterly ridiculous. In the Old World rivalry often equals proper hatred. Hatred capable of inciting the kind of behavior that precedes spilled blood and group violence based on geographical proximity, and vague historical recollections is an aspect of the game best left to those in the Old World still interested in such matters.
Whatever benefit New World soccer’s decision makers believe can be gleaned from Old World examples of fanaticism doesn’t compensate for the copious emotional baggage attached to the deal. Romanticized notions of Old World soccer nightmares will serve only as a repellant to the swaths of New World soccer fans who associate such beliefs with mindlessness and hooliganism and attract a brand of ignorance Old World soccer wishes it could shed like a skin.
Even the subtlest comparison between New World soccer’s attempts at interclub rivalry and the most notorious examples of regional enmity in Old World soccer is impossible to take seriously because of this obvious disparity in maturity between the two. Any attempt on the part of New World domestic competitions to encourage such blatant nonsense in a bid to appear more grown-up makes this New World soccer supporter feel slightly queasy. New World soccer is a completely different beast to Old World soccer in this respect and many others. Soccer in the New World is a modern game and should be embraced as such. Why do we continue to deny this?