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By Philip Delves Broughton

When the game wasn't so beautiful

Published on Jun 20, 2014 1:30 PM
US fans celebrating after their team beat Ghana 2-1 in their first match of the 2014 World Cup outside the Das Dunas Stadium in Brazil's Natal on Monday. Across the world, millions are following the fortunes - or misfortunes - of their teams as one collective, noisy and cathartic experience. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It's wonderful that America has fallen in love with World Cup soccer as it plays out across the greenswards of Brazilian host cities such as Curitiba, Manaus and Natal. To walk through New York City on Monday night and hear the restaurant crowds whooping at John Brooks' late-game goal, which propelled the United States over Ghana, was to experience soccer as it is experienced in the rest of the world: collective, noisy and cathartic.

As someone who grew up in England in the 1970s and 1980s, though, I still can't take seriously this idea of soccer as a wholesome multicultural bauble, the sporting equivalent of the small-plate gastropub. I'm bemused by these young people all over New York with their World Cup sticker albums, wearing club shirts from Barcelona and Chelsea - and even Paris Saint-Germain, for heaven's sake.

Until recently, when the Qatar Investment Authority bought Paris Saint-Germain and scrubbed it up, investing tens of millions of dollars in new players, it was a terrifying club. Its stands were ruled by a group of fascist skinheads, the notorious Kop de Boulogne. Few Parisians dared venture to its games. At a match in 2008, its fans greeted the visiting club from Lens with a banner reading, "Paedophiles, unemployed and inbred". Longtime Chelsea fans now complain that games at their home ground, Stamford Bridge, once raucous affairs, have become as stodgy as a night at the opera. It's now nothing more than thousands of well-behaved bankers and lawyers muttering approval at the latest high-priced midfield acquisition. The old frisson of hooliganism is gone.

In Northampton, the town where I grew up, the professional team was nicknamed the Cobblers, a reference to Northampton's past as a centre for shoemaking - but unfortunately also Cockney rhyming slang for "rubbish".

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