Friday, June 20, 2014

From England but Dislike Football? Liar!

The fact that I am not into football is a cause of regular disbelief to most Korean people I know or meet, even to the point that I get accused of lying about it sometimes (especially when England lose).  My students in particular find my lack of enthusiasm for the beautiful game most perplexing. But I promise them it is the truth, I'm really not that interested.

Now, with the World Cup in full swing, of course I wouldn't mind seeing England triumphant (unlikely) and I obviously support them and am curious as to how they do, I even watched the Italy game.  However, their defeats caused me about 0.5 seconds of disappointment. I was much more bothered by England failing to beat Sri Lanka in the cricket at Lords.

Not only am I quite indifferent about the world of professional football (I don't mind a kick about every now and then; nice game and good for fitness), it has actually grown to be something of an irritation for me, causing a mild disliking for it.  Here are my reasons, for my students and those of you out there that think it is impossible for a true Englishman to not like football:

1. Saturation

When I am in England, I very quickly go past saturation point; bored, bored, bored I am of people talking about it and it being on TV.  I like sport, I play squash at a decent level, I love cricket, and I workout pretty much everyday.  I like to know what is going on in the world of sport, but when you flick the TV onto sports news, it is most often 99% about football, and it is usually non-news that is repeated over and over again.  The 24-hour Sky Sports News in the UK, was basically Sky Football News with one minute every hour for whatever else was going on in the world of sport.

2.  Moral Vacuousness 

The professional game is basically morally bankrupt in all departments, from the organisation of it, to the supporting of it, and the playing of it.  The game is the worst possible influence on children, who idolise some of the worst characteristics of some of the worst role models.

I'll let the video above do my explaining of why FIFA is such a disgrace.

When it comes to supporters, I am sure most are great and in fact English sports fans generally are some of the best, most loyal, and most vocal.  However, football has served to encourage one of the worst parts of British culture and that is general drunken thuggery and violence.  Football hooliganism is still a problem in the UK and has had a very nasty history.  I know it is not the fault of the game itself, but I can't help but associate football with probably the most deplorable aspect of my own country's culture.

A few years ago, I worked for a while in a bar in my hometown which regularly showed football matches on a big screen every weekend and I'm afraid the clientele that showed-up were some of the worst human beings imaginable.  On top of this, their behaviour was never worse than when the football was on.

Onto the players then and what happens on the pitch.  Football has turned into game game full of real nancy boys, I must say.  They dive, roll around on the floor, cry, and when they don't get their own way, throw hissy-fits at the referees and basically show no respect whatsoever for each other or the officials.  Almost every game is spoiled by cheating and unsavoury behaviour.  Even in the very first game of the world cup, the game was marred by a dive by a Brazilian player to gain a crucial penalty.

The spectacle of football surely is, at least in part, a show of athletic prowess and a display of competition between men.  Professional footballers are great athletes, but I don't see a lot of men on the field much of the time, only spoilt little boys.

The classic contrast is that of rugby, but I have been told that cheating goes on all the time in rugby, it is just not as obvious.  Well, my response to that is that's a shame but the vast majority of young boys in my country don't idolise rugby players, and if they did, they would have a much better grasp of fighting spirit, fairness, toughness, and respect by watching a game of rugby, even if some of it is an illusion.

I actually prefer to use cricket as an example of a good sport to teach us good core values, especially test cricket (played over five days).  Obviously, sometimes cricketers cheat or show examples of 'professionalism', but when they do there is great debate and moral outrage about it.  See the example below of England player Stuart Broad refusing to walk after clearly hitting the ball and being caught.

For those of you not familiar with cricket,, the batsman in this situation does not have to walk off, he can wait for the umpire's decision, but it is expected of him for such an obvious edge off the bat.  Masses and masses of column inches in newspapers, TV debates, and controversy were the result of this situation, especially as it was in an important Ashes Test between England and Australia.

For another more recent example, see an incident in a one-day game between England and Sri Lanka below:

England player Jos Buttler was given out - quite rightly - for walking out of his ground before the ball was bowled.  This is extremely unusual and has only happened a handful of times in the history of the professional game.  The Sri Lankan players had warned him twice before doing so (they actually didn't even have to warn him once), but there was still moral controversy about it, with many saying it wasn't in the spirit of fair play and the game of cricket.

I think this all means cricket, its players, supporters and organisers still have a moral conscience, it isn't perfect and there are problems with the game, most notably match fixing scandals, especially in India.  But the core messages of cricket and the example the game sets to young people is still praiseworthy.  Football has totally lost its way in this respect, examples of absolutely blatant cheating are minor talking points that occur in almost every single game and no action is ever taken to make an example out of offending players in the vast majority of cases.

3. The Players and the Scandals

I guess I could have included this as a part of section 2, but I thought it deserved its own place.

The vast sums of money involved in professional football have corrupted it to the core. Of course, this happens in officialdom and allegedly appears to be an issue in the success of the Qatar world cup bid, but over-paying the players has given them an inflated sense of self-importance and causes any numbers of apparent character defects in some.  Here are some examples:

I don't watch football - with the exception of the World Cup - but I had heard of all of these incidents linked above and they easily came to mind.  Many youngsters idolise these morons and copy their behaviour, believe it or not.

I see football, and the exorbitant amounts of money paid to its stars, encouraging some of the worst things in society.  It promotes the pursuit of money, fame, and celebrity worship above all else and discourages good manners and behaviour.  There are many positive aspects to football generally - think fitness and community building - but the professional game and its main characters are doing more harm than good.

So, there you go, just in case you didn't believe me, that's why I think the beautiful game isn't so beautiful.  I guess I wouldn't have any problem with it if the game wasn't worshipped like a religion my many people, but it has gotten too big for its boots and garners far too much attention.  I got fed-up with it all a long time ago and fail to see what all the fuss is about, but hey, each to his own and this is just my grumbling perspective on it.  How I wish people in Korea could read this post and understand my reasons for disliking football though, before they look at me in disbelief and call me a liar when I say it doesn't interest me.

Finally, Peter Hitchens sums things up nicely in this clip starting at about 7:10 on the odd situation of people from all over the world obsessing about the game and that strange but common experience of people from Asia mentioning Manchester United whenever you say you're from England.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hiking Brings the Best out of Korea

It is certainly possible that lately I have mainly been focused on the negative aspects of living in Korea.  Before you accuse me of being a grumbling old curmudgeon, I have been without my wife now for too long and I can't wait to join her in Australia in a couple of months.  I'm fed-up, and therefore my mind errs toward irritations and problems much more readily than the good stuff.

I have always found that there is a cure for this kind of melancholy, however, and that is a good, long ramble in the Korean countryside.  It is likely that the fresh air and the exercise readdresses some chemical imbalance in my brain, but I genuinely believe some of the best of Korean culture and its people reveals itself at this time.

Last week, I took a couple of days with a friend of mine to do a 40Km hike along the coast in Yeosu, at the central southern tip of mainland Korea.  The hike, known as the 갯가길, was a bit of a change from the usual intense mountain hikes I am used to in Korea and it also rather pleasantly meandered its way through sleepy fishing villages in between the cliffs, beaches and coastal forests.  One of the other bonuses about a coastal hike is that you can wild-camp and build a campfire, something that is usually prohibited in the mountains due to the fire risk.

Cooking ramen on a stony beach fire.

I have always found that Korean people are at their friendliest, most helpful, and most charming when I am hiking.  Of course, you could make this generalisation to almost any country.  If you want to find the most genuine, warm-hearted, and pleasant people, heading to the countryside is not a bad bet.

However, I am regularly frustrated in Korea by unwanted help; that is when Korean people do things for me that I don't need, that make me feel uncomfortable, and yet at the same time create a debt and a favour that I should pay back.  I don't get this feeling when acts of kindness are done while hiking.  For one, I can't pay them back in kind most of the time and this is understood, so the experience has a much more genuine feeling about it. Contrary to living in the city - where any inconvenience to make an unfamiliar other's life easier appears to be too much trouble -  I often feel like kindnesses are bestowed upon me in an attempt to make life more pleasant on my travels.  It warms the heart and reminds me that Korea isn't such a bad place after all, even in the lowest of times.

Since pretty much day one of arriving in Korea, hiking has been one of the activities I have enjoyed the most.  Korea's hiking courses are so accessible and most are doable in one day or a weekend.  Korea's countryside and coastline can be extremely pretty and the terrain and the extremes of weather can also provide a genuine challenge sometimes. The most memorable of all the challenging hikes I have done in Korea came at Jirisan, which includes the highest peak in mainland Korea.

One of the few pictures I managed to take before my camera gave-up in the cold.

Five of us very loosely planned a two day hike in mid-winter across the park from West to East (about 45Km) along the main ridge and the highest peaks.  With a couple of novices - who were slightly under-prepared - this was no mean feat, as the temperatures near the summit approached minus 30 degrees Celsius.  On the ridge, everything froze and on day two we were greeted by high winds and thick, sometimes waist-deep, snow.  The regular shelters along the ridge, bringing with it the chance to make coffee and ramen noodles, were an absolute godsend when the cold and the exhaustion were truly biting and we shared this relief and hardship with Korean hikers, who would share their food and lend a helping-hand sometimes also (the taste and the feeling of a hot coffee after a long day's hard hiking in a biting cold wind, is truly amazing).

It turned-out that we timed the trip perfectly, we managed to get on the first possible bus to the mountain and the last possible bus back.  By the time we finished, we were totally cold-blasted and exhausted, but it is certainly the hike in Korea I will remember most vividly and fondly, despite feeling almost broken by the end.

Bringing-Out the Best in People

It could be possible that for the simple-minded and the mean-spirited, spending their weekend traipsing up a mountain trail is not quite their cup of tea.  I would like to think hiking forces the best out of people and encourages close friendships and camaraderie between those of us hiking, regardless of where we are from.

For me, the shared suffering and enjoyment of reaching the top of a mountain with a heavy backpack is a means by which I can share a common experience with Korean people who still, despite my connections with Korean family, can be difficult to comprehend sometimes and empathise with (and vice versa, them to me).  It increases feelings of affection with the people around me.

Yeosu, apparently in the top 4 most scenic harbours in the world (according to some Korean sources). Nice, but probably not that nice.

Of course, on my most recent hike, it was less about straining to the top of a mountain with Korean hikers at my side - in fact, we only met one fellow hiker the whole 40Km - but more about stumbling upon parts of Korea that we would have never explored and meeting people most foreigners would commonly never meet.  Not only is there a fascination and a joy for me personally in meeting such people, but I can also see that this curiosity and pleasure is reciprocated on the faces of the Korean people I meet in these places.

The beauty of hiking is that in most cases the hardships put off the majority of people and the sight of someone sweating away under the pressure of a heavy backpack is possibly the least threatening thing imaginable.  The wandering stranger then appears to be someone to help rather than fear and it seems many of the Koreans I meet on hikes like nothing better than bestowing their kindness upon me and my companions, and in the heat of the day, with hungry stomachs and tired limbs it is never more wholly appreciated.