A Clean Sheet and a Cleaner Mind
The months of June and July provided a shade from the exhaustion of the lockdown in the guise of various sporting events, ironically, despite being the hottest months of the year. They brought with them a momentary respite and distraction from the overbearing pandemic and the disconcerting healthcare crisis around the world. The much anticipated Euro Cup 2020 was the highlight of this summer, with new records being made and new players and teams taking the centre stage after what seemed like a long wait.
For those two hours at night, people across the world would leave their chores, rush through dinner or complete assignments in haste so that they could give their undivided attention to the game. For those few hours, they would forget about their surroundings and become one with the spirit of the game and diffuse with the energy in the room.
It almost works like alchemy, the allure of sports. As someone who started watching football not so long ago, I have come to two deductions. Firstly, the 20 long years of my life wherein I did not take out enough time for sports have been wasted on the endorphins I could have brimmed with. Secondly, sports, especially football is a festival of emotions for which you do not need expert knowledge or an undying allegiance to a team to enjoy but simply a fervour to follow it through till the end.
You need to appreciate this game for what it is - a collection of moments that are so fleeting that you have no time to waste on temporal matters but focus wholeheartedly on the game. You sit down in front of a big screen with a tub of popcorn and a cold beverage (pro tip: avoid hot drinks in and around a room where a feisty match is on the go) and for the next two hours you forget about the deadlines, or a fight with your partner, or your family’s daily dysfunctionality, and even maybe that you're amid a pandemic and that life has come to a standstill for the most part.
For those two hours, you do not take it one day at a time, you do not take deep breaths and think about how the pieces of your life will fall into place, but you dive deep as all the bets are off. You feel like you’re going through a ridge of crests and troughs, but you don't mind the troughs because those little moments, good or bad, is what sums up the experience of this sport into something wholesome. It is somehow okay even through the lows because you risked it all when you started to watch the game- accepting its outcome for the sheer journey of it all. It is sufficient to say that it is therapeutic to see those players make their lives’ commitment and devotion come alive in a matter of seconds.
The journey of a spectator is anything but linear for the period of a football match - it is chaotic and intense. To think of the journey of the players - out on the field, flowing, flying, heaving and yearning has to be an enigmatic experience - one that we can only speculate, assess and discuss but never actualise.
The final of the Euros was a pivotal event for both Italy and England. Italy went from plummeting to their bottom in 2018 when they did not even qualify for the World Cup to successfully lifting the championship trophy of Euro Cup 2020. Historical giants of the footballing world not qualifying for the World Cup of 2018 was as close to sacrilege for their team and Italy's fans as it could've been.
Italy lost its zeal, some players retired and some just left due to the backlash that they faced from their fans and their counterparts. Italy went through their worst phase brought about by a lack of driven players, direction, ideology, and dismal management. Until they found their way back to their calling, led by their manager Roberto Mancini who turned their trajectory by 180 degrees, back toward their ascent. With his tactics and shrewd man-management, he ignited the dying fire and passion in those players, manifested in their unmatched grit and determination during the Euro 2020 season.
When no one expected anything from Italy, they changed the face of the game, their retired players came back to fight and they proved to be the dark horses of the season. It was a historic and beautiful victory for Italy, finally after all their hard work. It was a classic case of rising from the ashes.
As important as this victory was for Italy, it was also a watershed game for England who made it to the finals for the first time in 60 years, since the Cup commenced their games in 1960. For a team who hadn't even made it to the finals before, this was a glorious moment for them to 'bring it home’ as the world chanted on. England had reached the semi-finals and quarter-finals in the previous years but never made it past that, losing quite a few games during the penalty shoot-outs in those instances. Thus, one can imagine how terribly fraught this moment must have been for the players badged with the three lions.
What happened during the penalty shoot out was unfortunate for England due to their history with penalties and the pressure of the moment, but what happened after the match was even more pitiful - the backlash and violence at the stadium by the English fans, who publicly booed the Italian national anthem first and then caused a ruckus with policemen and other supporters in a post-match rage. Racist slurs were hurled at the three players who missed the penalty shootout. Bukayo Saka, 19 (one of the youngest players on the England squad), Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were the three players who were subjected to unfairly carrying on the burden of England’s defeat and faced the brunt of the English audience’s racist and insensitive reaction. It goes on to show the ignorance and bias still entrenched in people’s minds about race. Makes you wonder if all the acceptance is just a perfunctory act.
It is by no means justified to have to face the kind of abuse that these players did, even if they missed the penalty. It is easy to rebuke sportspersons for missing a shot but what the spectators don't realise is the trepidation that is induced by these heavy moments of do or die, where one shot of yours will decide the fate of not just your team but your entire country. According to research, such moments in a penalty shootout may lead to footballers experiencing symptoms of anxiety. Some commonly occurring symptoms are increases in muscle tension affecting coordination and an increase in heart rate and sweating. Psychologically, anxiety can cause concentration changes such as loss of awareness due to mental tension or poor selective perception. The weakening physiological and attentional changes that occur are the factors that can lead to ‘choking’ in the moment. Imagine your stage fright or nervousness in a new social situation and multiply that by a hundred and maybe then you'll begin to fathom the mental state of a person in such a situation.
Rashford faced a deluge of slander on his Instagram and people went so far ahead as to even destroy his mural in his own home country, a country wherein he excelled not just in football but even outside the field. This is a man who has done so much good for society and even received The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award for his efforts to tackle food poverty among vulnerable children, especially during the pandemic.
Not that it matters that he did all of this, even if he hadn’t, there is no cop-out for the abuse. But this is to say how racial abuse still affects one’s life. Wherever you reach, however much you do, the so-called ‘privileged’ race, class, or gender will always find ways to bring you down. The xenophobic and rowdy behaviour of the English fans was abhorrent in ways ineffable. Even though these racist remarks were received with intolerance and chide from many people across the world, who stood with these players through staunch social media support and protests near Rashford’s mural, we are still far from the response these players and many others deserve from the world football community and association. This is just one case that came to light because of the enormity of the game's scale, but such petty racism is still prevalent in every corner of this world's football fields. To not let another Rashford, Saka or Sancho feel this disparaged and harassed, the world needs to put their foot down and refuse to tolerate such immature cowards in the guise of bullies.
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