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Focal Plane: Footy indifference

This is the seventh instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Previous edition: Whazzup Addiction.

Somewhere, an air filled sphere strikes a twine netting. Somewhere else, an entire nation is jumping for joy. Except one.

Vivienne Souliyah lives on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. The national football team has just defeated that of Sweden at the 2002 Men's World Cup, on a dramatic golden goal by Henri Camara. Souliyah doesn't give a fuck.

It is about 08:50 Senegal time, SUN 16 JUN 2002. Outside is a scene that has become all too familiar to Souliyah. The streets are filled with people dressed in the national colours of green, yellow, and red. They are waving flags, singing songs, honking horns, chanting chants, shouting shouts, and generally enjoying the Lions' performance. Their quarterfinal appearance equals the best showing by an African team at a World Cup.

Souliyah shuts the window and tries, in vain, to resume sleeping. But the commotion outside is much too loud to permit that. Finally she grabs the newspaper from outside her apartment door and pulls it apart. The front section is devoted almost entirely to a preview of the Sweden-Senegal match, a massive photograph of team coach Bruno Metsu gracing the front page. Even the national section contains little non-football news, considering that the entire country has virtually ground to a halt ever since Senegal took the pitch against France to start the tournament two weeks ago.

Is Souliyah a clear thinker who has her priorities correctly in order? Or is she a victim of that debilitating disorder, football indifference?

Fact from fiction

When one says the phrase "football indifference", the first thing that comes to mind is probably the United States, with perhaps Canada and Australia also evoked. The surprising truth, though, is that one can find nonsupporters nearly anywhere, even in such a notorious football hotbed as Italy. Professor Gianluco Pasarelli of Milan State University has been studying football indifference for ten years, ever since he met several people at the university for whom football was little more than a diversion for small minds.

"Football indifference can strike anyone, anywhere," says Prof Pasarelli. He says that whilst the oft-publicised cases of "World Cup widows" should not be overlooked, women are not the only ones who suffer.

"The work I've been doing suggests that about 10% of the Italian population doesn't care about football. Amongst females, that figure does rise, but only to about 15% or so. This disproves the notion that women don't care about football."

Prof Pasarelli is working on a book, The Demographics of Football, that disproves some of the most commonly held misconceptions about football supporters: that they are overwhelmingly male, that they are dominated by the lower classes, that they are rare in America.

Ladies first

He acknowledges that women's interest in football has been growing of late, partly relating to the rapid rise in quality of the women's game. The 1999 Women's World Cup, won by hosts the United States, is widely credited with giving women's football an identity worldwide, particularly in the already crowded sporting landscape of the US. The success of the Women's United Soccer Association, the first top level women's football league in the nation, is maintaining the sport's high profile.

In Europe, where women's professional leagues have been around for decades, things are also changing. Last month, Frankfurt lifted the first UEFA Women's Cup, the European championship for club teams, in a thrilling final match that drew over 12,000 fans, a European club record. Nations that have not traditionally been football superpowers, like Iceland and the Ukraine, are making their women's teams known. These successes are bringing more women than ever into support of football.

The fact remains, though, that a woman who does not care about football is hardly considered uncommon in most of the world, whereas a man who does not care about football is, at the least, strange.

"Our boss told us we'd get time off during each of Italy's matches, and my husband asked if he could keep working anyway," says Carolina Vittori, who works with her husband Mario in the public records office in the city of Napoli. "We all thought he was nutters. Then again, maybe he knew something we didn't. I almost wish I hadn't watched that Korea match." Italy were unceremoniously dumped from the second round when they lost in overtime to a red hot Korea Republic side.

Mario says that he and Carolina have never seen eye to eye on the issue of football. "She always has these crazy mood swings. If Italy win, she'll be hyperactive and elated for a day or two. If they lose, she'll mope around the house or start getting angry about stupid little things."

Peer pressure

Prof Pasarelli says that the best thing for football nonfans to do is to stick together, especially during the month of the Men's World Cup. "The best thing to do when your friends are watching matches is to go someplace that's normally crowded, like a beach or amusement park. When a match is going on, these places are likely to be almost completely empty, and it helps one avoid running into overzealous football fanatics."

Some people who are indifferent to football can take solace in groups of other like minded people. Mario Vittori, for example, says that when Carolina goes to her family's house to watch an Italy match with them, he likes to play cards with some of her disinterested cousins. The family, though, has not yet given up trying to convert them. "Someone will always come in and go, 'Oh, you should have seen Vieri's equaliser!'," Carolina says. "And he'll go, 'Mmm-hmm. And you should have seen the three notrump bid that Mariela just won.'"

Others, though, aren't so lucky. Teresa Dagalle, a resident of southern Los Angeles, is interested mainly in basketball. When the Los Angeles Lakers won their third consecutive National Basketball Association championship on WED 12 JUN 2002, she tried to get her housemates to go celebrate in the city. "I was all, 'Come on, let's go turn some police cars over!'. And Patrice was all, 'We can't! It's Costa Rica-Brazil tonight!'. Patrice and Jan have been like that all month. When that stupid World Cup's over, we can finally do stuff again."

Souliyah also doesn't know anyone in her area who's not interested in football. With each Senegal win, she found it harder to concentrate on her sculpting as the nation erupted into a frenzy around her. "It's just a game," she sighs. "Who would have thought that just about the entire human population could lose its collective head every four years over how many times a ball goes into a box?"

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