It’s the little things.
I’ve been fully enamoured with the concept of the shirt swap since I first saw it in action. Mind you, I’m an American and a latecomer to world football, and we don’t have anything like this in American sports. I’ve never seen a baseball pitcher record the last strike of the last out of a playoff game and then trot to home plate, unbutton his shirt and give it to the batter. Or a hockey player tear off his helmet, throw his gloves to the ground… and strip off his sweater to hand it to the man who’d been trying to strangle him in a mid-game fight.
I first saw the shirt swap in the 2006 World Cup and was awed by this strange and wonderful ritual. In a game of grueling intensity, with outcome and advancement hinging on tight scorelines and endless pressure, I loved seeing players end the battle with this good-natured exchange. A show of mutual respect. A momento from the contest. A tangeable reminder that your rival was also your peer. It was saying, I just spent 90 minutes plotting your undoing, but now that it’s over: let’s be friends. A peace offering.
Imagine if this could translate to life’s other battles… Soldiers trading fatigues after a skirmish… Polititians exchanging dress-shirts after a debate… Barristers swapping wigs in the high court… Two drunks in a bar trading beer-soaked t-shirts after fisticuffs… Two sumo wrestlers exchanging… um… okay, you get the idea. (I did see a joke video once of two women tennis players trading shirts after a match. Granted, this might be enough to get me to actually watch tennis… woah now… I sound like I’ve been brainwashed by Sepp Blatter… ignore this bit.)
In any team sport, it is too easy to project our feelings as supporters onto the players. Though these athletes are paid professionals, we want them all to feel our same deep love and loyalty for the team, and, subsequently, we want them to take on the disdain, scorn and outright animosity we often feel toward the opposition.
In light of this unspoken assumption, those little moments of outright sportsmanship feel all the more refreshing. They allow us to suspend our animosity for a brief time and accept our enemy as a human being. From helping the victim back to his feet after a rough tackle to kicking the ball back to the other team after an injury stoppage, these moments of decency are a sweet pause: a reminder to supporters and players alike that we are all the same beneath our colors and loyalties and that, even in the heat of fierce rivalry, our basic decency needn’t completely evaporate. Supporters project this sentiment themselves when they applaud opposition players after a good performance or welcome home an old hero who now plays for the other side.
These moments are not specific to football, but because of the fierce, heightened tension that pervades football matches and the supporting culture, these instances of spiritual generosity provide a stark contrast and have a way of knocking me over.
Pele and Bobby Moore are credited with first bringing the shirt swap to widespread attention in the 1970 World Cup, I wonder how that scene struck people who had never seen it before… two living legends transcending the match context to greet each other as contemporaries. Though that was the instance that brought shirt-swapping to the broader culture, the phenomenon dates back to at least 1931, according to FIFA.com, when the French team asked for the English team’s shirts after a win. Now, an embedded tradition, we perhaps take the exchange for granted. But it remains a beautiful ritual. The epitome of what we mean when we talk about true class.
When I saw the Seattle Sounders exchange shirts with the Chelsea players after losing 2-0 on Saturday, my joke to a co-worker was: Well, that’s the high point of Seattle’s day… Of course, I know this isn’t true. Hosting Chelsea must have been a pure thrill for the fledgling MLS side from start to finish. The same as when a lower-league English side gets to face a Premier League giant in the FA Cup. Even in loss, the experience is momentous. But the shirt swap was the culmination of that feeling. Here is a symbol that on the day, some of the greatest players in the world were your peers. In a sense, when the players strip off their name and number and colors, they are briefly shedding their identity. For this moment, I’m not Frank Lampard, I’m not Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m not Pele… I’m not a Blue, a Red, English, Brazilian, American… no: I’m just like you. A man playing the game he loves.
It’s the little things.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for simplicity.
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