Prior to Euro 2016, I wasn’t a great lover of international football. And I’m still not. I can’t get my head around the number of zeros in some of those boys’ salaries. I have a hard time dealing with putting a monetary value on someone’s talent to the tune of tens of millions of euro, even though I know this is done in the Corporate World on an average day. Yes, I know they train their little socks off. And they work hard. And they sacrifice so much in their determination and commitment to win, but I simply don’t get it. What’s the attraction?
Why do millions of people put their lives on hold for four weeks as they watch their teams’ progress? Why do thousands more put themselves in debt to go abroad and support their teams in person? Why do people get so hyped up about 90 minutes of fancy footwork, theatrical romps, and jibs and digs? What’s the attraction?
When your home team doesn’t make it through to the final 16, there’s the disappointment to deal with. No matter what the odds, there’s always hope that a miracle will happen. I was lucky. I’ve moved around and could draw tangible if tenuous loyalty lines to other countries. I followed Ireland of course, even if I spend too much time bemoaning the Irish Manager’s lack of dress sense. I followed Hungary, too. Watching Hungary play on the big screen with thousands of Hungarian fans was incredible. I also followed Wales because I like the Welsh and was surprised to see that they play something other than rugby. I got into Iceland because they are fun and I’m sure some of those players have had ballet training. I’m not quite sure what I’d have done if any of these teams had had to play each other. But it never came to that.
When we boarded the plane to Lisbon a few weeks ago, Ireland had a 1-0 lead over France. It was half-time. I was hoping and praying that we’d pull it out of the boot and make history. By the time we landed in Portugal, that dream had died. I rode the Welsh wave in the surfing capital of Ericeira as they made their way through to the semi-final. And I hoped and prayed some more. And it worked. They got through. A group of 20 or so of us watched the Wales-Portugal semi in a little pub down by the beach called Café Joy. Mostly Irish. Mostly rooting for Wales (except the one Bremainer who has yet to forgive them their vote in the Brexit referendum). But they fell to Portugal. And the Portuguese went mad.
Our flight home from Portugal last Sunday had lots of free seats. There was a final to watch. And when the captain announced the final result, the fans around us asked where they could buy champagne in Budapest after midnight. I like those priorities. Nice one, Portugal.
I realised then what the attraction was. It’s not the soccer, per se, it’s what it represents: a chance to focus on something bigger; a chance to suspend reality for a while and live vicariously through lads who live vastly different lives to ours; a chance to hope for a miracle that just might happen. But mostly though, it gave us the opportunity to take pride in countries which, for various reasons, we might be a little disillusioned with right now.
Euro 2020 will mark the 60th anniversary of the competition and will be held in thirteen cities in thirteen different European countries. And while I still prefer rugby to soccer and doubt that I’ll ever fully appreciate the multi-million-euro pretty-boy antics of international football, I quite enjoyed the buzz. So spread the love, I say, spread the love.
First published in the Budapest Times 15 July 2016