One of the most favourite phrases of sports commentators is that football is larger than life. And as a long-time fan of the game, I’ve witnessed that many times. One can never forget the roar of the commentator (Mladen Delić was this noble man’s name) when Yugoslavia qualified for Euro 1984 in France: ‘People, is this really possible’? he screamed several times, when Radanović scored in the last minutes of the match. The footage still gives me goose bumps. Or the great comeback of the Liverpool team in the Champions league final in Istanbul, back in 2005. It is still called ‘The Miracle’.
Turning football (same goes for other sports) into myth is something we are inclined to do. As human beings, we need heroes, villains and narratives that can redeem the boredom and imperfections of everyday life. Football myths are the same as any national, tribal or local ones, only that the heroes and heroines are people with recognizable faces, wearing our beloved colours. Moreover, these tales are very closely related to the narrative of capitalism (the emergence of professional sport is also closely related to it) – reward and gratification through hard work and extraordinary talent. The only problem is that, in the real world, things are far from ideal.
Footballers’ wages are enormously high. Many of them earn as much per week as most of us earn per decade, and their monthly pay is usually more than our lifetime would be. It’s no wonder that football is often seen as a means out of poverty, especially in countries where opportunities for normal life are rare and scarce. But what scares me most is that parents are using the talent of their children to achieve what they could not do themselves. As if they are not aware that only one in ten thousand kids is going to be a professional football player, and only one in one-hundred thousand would be world-class. I witnessed at least two very awkward situations which made me think of the true nature of professional sport.
Once I was offered a translation of a contract that was signed by the parents of two very young players, aged fourteen. I was astounded when I realized that the boys were practically sold into slavery to a sports agency, and that they would lose everything, in fact they should return the invested money, if they should ever decide to quit or if they got injured. The agent's fee was half of the price of the amount they'd receive in any future transfer. Nobody had a problem with any of that, the boys were happy, their parents too. Football was their escape route out of the family's poverty, and they put high trust and even higher hopes in the hands of the agent to find the best solution. I don’t know what happened to those kids, but I can imagine the burden on their shoulders, if they didn’t succeed.
Two years ago, I was present at a training match of a local youth club. One of my cousins was the goalkeeper. They were playing against another local youth club. The match had no importance. Just twenty-two kids running for the ball. But, my cousin's team lost the game heavily. They conceded seven goals. And then the cursing of the parents started. They were booing and calling the boy names, as if they were playing in the UCL final, and as if he was (and he was nine at the time) the only one responsible for conceding the goals. We tried to oppose them, but then they started to be aggressive. We literally had to leave the premises. Later in the car, I asked my cousin's father what was going on, and then he told me that there had been a coach of a bigger club present at the game, and everybody wanted their kid to be picked for a ‘transfer’. They had all seen the match as the opportunity to sell their sons, they wanted to earn money out of their own kids. The game ceased to be just a game and turned into meat market and battlefield for the ambitions of the fathers. Those children were just livestock, ready for slaughter in the name of the only god that we all pray to – money.
These days we are enjoying the World Cup and waiting for all those beautiful moves and spectacular goals. We are living in a hazy world of beer and junk food, of false manhood, and heightened nationalist euphoria accompanied with foolish pride or sorrow. We are turning a blind eye to the injustices of Putin’s regime, but I do hope that we shall not completely forget the kids who never got out of the block, whose lives have been traumatized and maybe even ruined, not because of the noble game, but because of the greed and poverty of their parents. For this alone, it would be grand if the poorest of the nations competing would end up as champions on 15th of July.