Stuck indoors

It may be winter, but Ian Plenderleith points out that the football can continue indoors

There are some things in football as sure to come around every year as Ian Wright’s suspension and Thomas Brolin’s attempt at career rehabilitation. In Germany and Switzerland it is the litany of the coaches moaning about the tough playing schedule when the annual fixture lists are produced, as if they thought perhaps this year they would only be playing their opponents once and that the national cup had been abolished. They carp on about too many “English weeks”, meaning that their poor oppressed players have to some-times turn out on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. And that the summer break is far too short.

Well, they have a point there. Last year the Swiss league season began on July 5th, just five weeks after Sion had swept up from their celebrations of the league and cup double. But it does ignore the fact that for three months in winter both countries stop playing altogether.

Yet barely a month of this break is gone when players report back for training in order to take part in one of the most supremely pointless exercises in continental football – the indoor five-a-side tournament. Not just one or two of them, but dozens of them in cities across central Europe, running live day after day on the German sports channel through the whole of January. They are all qualifying tournaments leading up to one final jamboree in each country, where a single lucky team is crowned as Indoor Champions. Hurrah!

In the middle of a football-free winter strange things can happen to your brain. You’ll do anything for a fix of live athletical action which doesn’t involve someone in ridiculously garish trousers falling over in the snow. And so you find yourself in a sports hall in Zurich watching the top talents of the Swiss league. Five men each side, ten minutes each way.

Watching this football is like hearing a favourite indie-hit being turned into a feckless, chart-aimed cover version – say Scritti Politti’s ‘The Sweetest Girl’ as murdered by Madness. All soul and passion have been sapped and you only vaguely recognise a shadow of the original. For although there are players in shorts before you with a piece of round leather at their feet, you aren’t quite sure what they’re doing there. Neither are they. Kubilay Turkyilmaz, probably the Swiss league’s only world class player, looks like he would rather be picking his nose in an empty field.

For the record, there were 91 goals in just six hours of football. That’s a lot compared with normal games (unless you support Barnsley). Also worth noting is that there were a lot more goals than tackles, and that in that whole period there were maybe half a dozen moments of genuine skill that were worth applauding. Not that you needed to applaud because every time a goal was scored someone pressed a button and a huge wave of crowd noise came over the loudspeaker, followed by two seconds of disco music. Sadly the person whose job it was to depress the appropriate knob was either not concentrating or was full of nervous excitement, so by the time the bogus ecstasy was relayed to the scattered crowd the ball was usually back at the centre circle.

Other annoying gimmickry included the brief blaring of a song every time someone was banished to the sin bin. “Ciao Ciao”, sang the voice, or “Do come back again…” Lightly amusing once or twice, somewhat pred- ictable as we entered the sixth hour of play, but a reflection on how seriously indoor football should be taken as a sport.

    You see we’re not here to watch football at all. Not just because those performing in front of us are having a kickaround rather than playing real football. It’s more that you notice among the spectators not just bored players waiting for their side’s next thrilling astro-challenge, but an abnormally high proliferation of smart suits and mobile phones. People who sit down for five minutes then disappear again. And though the organisers claim that the 2,700 seat hall is sold out, the seats are half empty because… no, surely not, most of the visitors are sitting in the two-tier VIP restaurant. What can they be doing in there? They’re certainly not watching the football, unless they’re looking at the TV screens above their tables.

And why are there so many sponsors for such a low-key, low interest event? Why are there free pens, free keyrings, free perfume and free newspapers every way you turn? Who would ever go to a football match expecting to patronise a wine bar or a cham-pagne stand? Why does no-one bother checking your ticket, which is for a standing space only, when you go and sit slap in the middle of the most expensive seats?

Nevertheless, we have reason to be grateful to indoor tournaments. They serve as a pro-totype of all that should be avoided if we are to preserve what is left of football following its commercial ravaging. If you get the chance then go to one, just once. And although you may emerge stupified, at least you’ll be thinking that, despite the ubiquitous brown-glassed executive peepholes and all the game’s twiddling with kick off times, shirt numbers and competition titles, things coud never get as bad as this. Could they?

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month