Six (increasingly silly) reasons why leftists should support the All Whites
1. Football - or soccer, as it is demeaningly termed here in New Zealand - has had a long association with the left, in both the antipodes and the northern hemisphere. It was football which brought Allied and German troops together in no man's land on Christmas day during World War One, and thus foreshadowed the left-wing soldier-citizens' revolutions that brought the war to an end in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918. Che Guevara may have had a rather bourgeois liking for golf, but he used games of footy to help train the volunteers for his guerrilla armies. In New Zealand, postwar British immigrants - the co-called 'two bob Poms' who fled the cramped austerity of Yorkshire and East London for open spaces and public works projects downunder - championed the twin causes of football and trade unionism. Back in the eighties my father, who remains even today an unregenerate rugbyhead, would mutter 'bloody Pom - they're all Poms!' whenever a trade union leader or local footballer was interviewed on the telly.
2. The internationalism of the World Cup, and of football in general, ought to help shake Kiwis out of their insularity. Rugby is our national sport, and we still assume that much of the rest of the world attaches the same rare importance to the game. It does not. If we were to dump rugby for football we would discover that, in sporting as well as economic and political terms, we are very small fish in a very large pool. We would discover that even in South Africa, Australia, and England, let alone Argentina and Spain, it is football, not rugby, which is the pre-eminent sport. Instead of imagining ourselves as the rightful champions of the world, we would have to consider ourselves inferior to nations as previously insignificant as Senegal, Honduras and Ivory Coast. We might lose some of our First World hubris.
3. The All Whites have already attracted considerable support from the New Zealand public, despite the fact that they are very unlikely to reach the second round of the World Cup. Whenever the All Blacks play, we expect nothing less than victory. Losses, especially in World Cup games, prompt national mourning and weeks of recriminations. If the Kiwi public can learn to cheer the underdog against the overdog, then it will become a good deal less neurotic.
4. The All Whites are playing Italy, a team which is both aesthetically and politically objectionable. Italy plays a dull, vicious style of football designed to create one-nil wins and opposition injuries. They are sore losers - when they were knocked out of the 2002 World Cup by South Korea, for example, they reacted by whingeing for weeks and booting all the Koreans out of Italy's domestic club competition. One of the major forces in Italian football is the club SS Lazio, which was patronised by Mussolini and enjoys the support of thousands of neo-fascists today. Italy won the 2006 World Cup final after the Lazio player Marco Matterazi used racist language to goad the French captain Zinedine Zidane into a headbutt. We should avenge Zidane.
5. Tommy Smith is left wing.
6. Do these arguments seem a little laboured? Do you sense that even their author finds them somewhat unconvincing? Do you think he might have some other, less respectable reason for urging support for the All Whites? You should do.
The sad truth is that I have very personal reasons for wanting New Zealand to get behind the All Whites and let the All Blacks labour in obscurity. After growing up in South Auckland as part of the oppressed minority known as soccer players, I want revenge on rugby. Rugby was the sport of the larger and cooler kids, who rounded on skinny wretches like me in the school changing rooms and condemned us as 'soccer sissies'. Rugby was the sport that dominated school awards ceremonies. Rugby was the sport that was all over the TV. And it was my high school's First XV, and not its First XI, which attracted groupies at the afterball party.
Like my fellow soccer sissies, who came mostly from the green, middle class fringes of South Auckland, I developed a repertoire of responses to the jibes that were thrown my way by rugbyheads. I would respond to sneers about soccer being a 'girl's game' by noting the manliness of Pele and George Best; I would refute claims that 'nobody plays soccer' by pointing out that, outside the veldt of the apartheid state and the coalfields of Wales, it was soccer which was the global game of choice. Deep down, though, I recognised the justice in the accusations I faced. Like the rest of the boys in my soccer teams, I was skinny, pasty, and had freckles rather than muscles on my limbs. I blew on my hands to keep them warm at Wednesday night practices, and winced on the rare occasions my head came into contact with that greasy heavy round thing called a ball. I played soccer not in homage to the genius of Pele and Best, but because I feared the prospect of getting spear-tackled by Polynesian kids twice my size, or drowning on the muddy bottom of a scrum. I was not so much an enthusiast for soccer as a refugee from rugby.
There was a curious dissonance between the timorous middle class boys who opted to play soccer in South Auckland and the hard men from the old country who coached the game. I remember a coach called Mr Dunbar, who had grown up in a Glasgow slum and spoke with the sort of accent that forces distributors to add subtitles to Ken Loach's movies. Mr Dunbar had come to New Zealand to help build hydro dams on the cold central plateau of the North Island, but the bunk dormitories of Mangakino had probably seemed like luxury to him. Like the other members of Papakura Boys C, I could only understand Mr Dunbar when he swore. Luckily, perhaps, he swore often, especially when he was watching me listlessly pursuing opposition strikers down the left side of my own half, or ducking my head at the last moment to avoid contact with an aerial cross, or skipping neatly out of the way of a ferocious free kick.
I can recall one occasion when I enjoyed a sort of vicarious revenge against the rugbyheads who dominated sporting and social life in South Auckland. One Friday night in 1992 a visiting youth football team from a particularly hard part of Yorkshire - from Scunthorpe, perhaps, or Grimsby - turned up at the Forge, which was then the closest thing to a nightclub in Papakura, and ordered a few drinks. As luck would have it, the local first XV was also boozing at the Forge. Assuming that the Poms who had just walked in were as soft as the average bunch of South Auckland soccer sissies, a couple of the props from the first XV wasted no time in starting a fight. Within five minutes they searching for their front teeth in the carpark at the back of the club.
I don't wish violence upon the rugbyheads of New Zealand, but I would love to see the country turn its attention and affection toward football, even if only for a few weeks. Let's all be 'soccer sissies'!
Footnote: I'm pleased I got up last night for the clash between South Africa and Mexico that launched the Cup, and pleased I went to bed before the nil-all draw between Uruguay and France. I got the Mexico-South Africa scoreline right, but picked Uruguay to edge out France by a goal. I'm hoping that Nigeria's Super Eagles can sneak past the Maradona-damaged Argentinians tonight. I've picked Germany, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Argentina, Spain, the Netherlands, and Ghana to make the last eight, and the Netherlands to beat Ivory Coast in the final. (I know a lot of people are talking about Brazil playing Spain in the final, but these teams are in adjacent groups, and it seems to me quite likely that they could meet each other as early as the second round.)