Last week I came across a piece from Jaan Martinson in Postimees.
The main topic of his detailed analysis was the value of the Premium Liiga on the market. After bringing several explanations and examples, the conclusion (drawn in the main title already) it is that the value of Estonian top-flight football equals to 0€.
I will not go into this topic as it would need a detailed answer to each and every explanation given and example brought.
However a short excerpt drew my attention:
‘(…) there is no doubt’ Martinson brought as part of his introduction ‘that football is the most practiced sport in Estonia. We don’t need to bring any statistics here, because whatever the sport area of provenience – basketball, athletics, wrestling – a sportsman is able to play football and often very well’
I read Martinson’s piece till the bottom, however there was a bell constantly ringing in my mind and telling me that this premise had something faulty that needed to fixed and explained better.
First of all, why we shouldn't need statistics?
There has been already a quite tight debate regarding which is the most popular sport in Estonia. Obviously, the answer may differ according to several corner views: numbers of people practicing, average crowd at venues, average tv audiences, dimension of the sports association etc.
As our topic is strictly related to how many people do actually practice football in Estonia, we can happily say that Martison assumption is well founded.
According to ‘Eesti Spordiregister’, football is the most practiced sport in the tiny Baltic republic with its 16,038 registered footballers (the balance takes into account all footballers officially registered within the Estonian FA).
How many of you were sincerely thinking that basketball must have been the first?
Instead, ‘koss’ (as basketball is nicknamed in Estonia) is only fourth on the table with ‘just’ 7,573 sportsmen and sportswomen, not even half of 'jalka'. Before the court game, gymnastics (14,827) and swimming (10,882) are the most popular sports among sports lovers.
So far, so good. So what is the problem with Martinson’s premise?
What did not sound right to me was the second statement:
‘whatever the sport area of provenience – basketball, athletics, wrestling – a sportsman is able to play football and often very well’
I have always deemed myself a fair footballer.
Never gone to a football academy but I managed to learn the game thanks to an obsessive passion and the ability to put partially into practice what I had watched from others.
Given that for 90% of my life (40 years) I have been watching only this sport, I have to say that the output has been quite fair for an amateur footballer as I was, am and will always be.
I obviously tried other sports, especially during my high school time, however with little success.
Basketball gave few headaches considering my height, and volleyball, though had a crush for it in the late ‘90’s, was also a good challenge.
I never deemed myself neither a fair basketball player not an average volleyball player and I have always stayed away from actively practicing it.
The last thing I wanted was to hurt myself and possibly others, especially in basketball, a contact ball game compared to volleyball where there is no contact.
The natural selection had decided for me already and I accepted my fate without complaining.
I reached a fair level on canoeing, but it required serious training and engagement on weekly basis.
When both went missing, results were poor and eventually I had to quit.
I could still jump in a canoe now and do something, I am sure there are still memories of the old ‘know-how’. However I never thought, back then, to do the same without even learning the basic technique of canoeing rowing. No one would have given me a semi-pro canoe to just try.
So, why would really anyone be able to play football instead? Why a wrestler, a basketball player and 100-m runner can play football whenever they want and ‘often very well’?
It is the widespread misconception that football, thanks to its popularity, can be really played by anyone without the need of learning basic skills and technique on how to play the ball. The ball just comes to you. You kick it.
It’s an elementary and simplistic idea of The Game which I don’t really agree with and I will explain you why.
It would probably fit when comes to teach our children to kick a ball as a game. I see with my son (less than 3 years old). He doesn’t have any idea on how to pass the ball. When he receives it, he just kicks it with all his strength as far as he can. Obviously, ‘scoring a goal’ it’s the core business for him and that’s how it shall be for any kid before 4-year-old of age, when usually they can be sent to football academy for their first ‘trainings’.
However, such a primordial idea of football cannot be applied to adults.
At the basis of the misconception ‘everyone can play football’ is the idea of football as a simple ball game.
It is indeed the most simple game in the world. Hence its popularity.
Why it is? Here is a couple of simple and probably clear-to-anyone reasons:
1) Football doesn’t require special equipment to be played.
Kids in Africa play without shoes (ask Didier Drogba) without grass pitch, without goal posts. They play ‘without’ basically.
In my childhood, two stones were enough to create a goal (or two school backpacks and some coasts), and the parking lot was my childhood’s San Siro.
We could also play football at home with a paper ball.
We could play it everywhere and with almost anything that could bounce.
Can anyone play tennis without appropriate rackets?
How long would take to create a basket with something else?
Can two people fight bare-handed in the middle of the street without grabbing police attention for disturbing the public order? 'Sorry, we were just practicing wrestling'.
2) The rules are very simple.
Exception made for the offside rule (however it is hardly practiced in street and home football) all the other rules can be explained in few minutes or on the spot. Watching a football game gives an immediate idea of what they are and they don’t require any in-depth explanation.
After many years, I am still unsure what all the basketball rules are. Probably my own fault, however I am sure for a basketball lover is much easier to learn football rules than viceversa by just watching a game.
When I approached the Australian Football, it took a while to understand all the rules, and watching a game does not help reminding them.
However, being simple can account for its popularity but cannot account for being a sport that could be practiced by anyone.
Football is not athleticism.
One does not wear football shoes once or twice in a while to play football as he was going running, swimming or lifting some weight in the gym (which also have their own techniques).
You cannot keep yourself fit with football. You need to be fit for football. And ‘being fit’ does not mean only ‘being in good physical form’ or simply ‘being a sportsman’, you need to have some basics learnt as in any other sports, despite how simple and popular football is.
What I am saying, it will be intuitive to everyone who is more confident, trained and acquainted with the game.
How many times have we seen those ‘athletes’ showing up at a football pitch for simple training games without having even the idea of how to stop a ball? How to control it? And, especially, how to make it theirs without hurting others?
As I said, I would not go to play basketball without even knowing the basics of it, let alone on the simple assumption that ‘anyone can do it’.
In football the Latin motto ‘citius, altius, fortius’ (faster, taller, stronger) does not fully applies like in most of the athletic sports.
Messi (to take one of the most exploited benchmark of modern football) on a football pitch, he is not faster, taller or physically stronger than others.
On a 100m run he is probably slower than a right full-back.
There are plenty of taller players in modern football.
And when comes to physical strength, he is probably not the bulkiest of the lot.
However, he has achieved what we all well know. How could he do that?
Technique and vision of play (apart from a kind of natural talent only some gifted human beings are born with).
If it was not like that, football pitches would be populated only with the fastest, the tallest and the strongest athletes available.
Instead, in football history, several players did not present these qualities: Maradona was short and light; Brazilian legendary full back, Garrincha, had one leg shorter than the other because of polio; Baggio played the last years of his brilliant career with indescribable knee pains.
In conclusion, being a good sportsman is not enough to be a fair footballer.
Anyone could try to play football, however results are not guaranteed for the simple fact of being a good sportsman elsewhere.