x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE's Awana and City's Balotelli right to try out backheel in friendlies

What better environment than meaningless exhibitions for likes of Mario Balotelli and Theyab Awana to make a mockery of football friendlies.

Roberto Mancini withdrew Mario Balotelli immediately following his showboating.
Roberto Mancini withdrew Mario Balotelli immediately following his showboating.

I confess to a cranky and enduring dislike for friendlies, exhibition games, "practice games" and other false occasions which sell tickets to the public yet after which neither the "table" nor the "standings" change.

For years, I loathed the through-the-motions tedium of it all and grimaced over the money spent on NFL exhibition games just for one example, but as the century turned and green principles grew familiar, it enabled me to tack on a useful environmentalist stance.

I could rue the electricity wasted upon night matches that do not matter, the carbon footprint from the air travel used to travel to games that do not matter and the fuel used to sit in traffic jams for games that do not matter. All along the very idea of people sitting in traffic jams for games that do not matter has left me bewildered and melancholy.

Apparently friendlies and exhibitions can improve toning and sharpness and preparedness, which counts among the reasons managers favour them, but given managers' need for control, nobody can tell if that is true enough to counterbalance the waste of electricity and fuel. In some cases, the idea of managers loving something might stand as reason alone to discontinue it.

So as the UAE-Lebanon and Manchester City-Los Angeles Galaxy friendlies this month have gained international attention and stirred global debate because of their singular Cirque du Soleil plays, I see them only through the lens of my regard for friendlies and side with the Emirati television director Nashwa Hamad, as quoted in Nadeem Hanif's story for The National: Friendlies are "about experimenting".

They are about experimenting and wasting energy, but let's stick with the former from here.

On Sunday in Los Angeles, the complicated Mario Balotelli botched a trick shot for Manchester City. A week earlier in Al Ain, the promising Theyab Awana converted a trick shot for the UAE.

Balotelli's clunker came during open play with a clear view of the Galaxy goal; Awana produced his trundler from a penalty.

Balotelli wheeled around and clicked his with the back heel, after which it skittered off to the right of the goal and croaked without dredging even one droplet of sweat from the goalkeeper.

Awana wheeled around and knocked his with the back heel, after which it rolled almost as slowly as mud into the goal on the right side to cause much online derision of the duped goalkeeper.

Both grabbed attention under the world's accepted standard-of-the-moment: they diverted from normality enough to overcome their startling irrelevance and make fairly interesting video in an era when fairly interesting video helps people alleviate the remorseless tedium of earthly life. They also wreaked a worthy bit of discussion. Were they unsportsmanlike? Were they otherwise inappropriate?

Well, they were friendlies.

Were the managers right, given that the City manager Roberto Mancini yanked Balotelli pronto and the UAE manager Srecko Katanec yanked Awana pronto?

Sure. They were friendlies.

In the former vein, embarrassment whether by failure (Balotelli) or trickery (goalkeeper) or removal (both situations) should be impossible by any human standard in a game that does not count.

It's a friendly; it's a time to try things; sometimes those things don't make as much sense as at other times; but nothing about the occasion makes much sense anyway.

That's why the obvious tiff between Balotelli and Mancini looked especially ludicrous, as if sport has become so dreadfully serious that non-events that do not count and waste electricity can spawn any such indignation. Surely Balotelli did not mean to show up somebody as much as to show off somebody (himself).

A simple removal would have done nicely for making the non-point, except in those cases in which "friendly" or "exhibition" tiffs might be staged for the mere entertainment of the bored audience, which might feel appropriate.

Meanwhile, Awana's reportedly deep and plausible contrition shows he meant zero harm toward Hassan Mognhnieh, the Lebanese goalkeeper.

It means he experimented. It did not seem particularly disrespectful, especially in the friendly confines of a friendly. It probably even gave the goalkeeper another experience to stash into the goalkeepers' haunted-memory bank, although we can question any alleged value of anything that happens during an exhibition.

In the latter vein, look upon the managers' removal of the players as another acceptable case of experimentation, as it can provide the managers an illusion of control in a players' world.

It can give them the thought they're implementing standards for real matches by punishing something that would not happen in a real match anyway. Maybe the manager could end up feeling better, at which point we could discuss whether or not that justifies the existence of the friendly.

cculpepper@thenational.ae


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