Some of my best friends are football (soccer) fans.
I suppose I should say, rather, still football fans, because there was a time when most of us from
the cloth-capped, horny-handed, shift-working classes were football fans. It
was a now almost unimaginable age when you could go to a football match without
the risk of being stigmatized as a semi-literate, racist, card-carrying yob –
or finding yourself in the middle of a bloody street fight between rival gangs
I’m damned if I know why they’re still fans – my
friends, that is, not the yobs. I secretly
wish they weren’t. Well, not so
secretly, since some of them will soon be reading this.
Most of them know my views off by heart anyway. They no long bother to respond to my ravings
on the subject. Perhaps worse, they don’t even bother to stifle yawns.
Let me admit that I have very little to say on the
subject of football that remotely qualifies as original or intelligent. I don’t pretend to understand the psyches
that drive grown men into paroxysms of partisan fury, or ethnic animosity, even
though I’ve read all the theories about the latent tribalism that governs even
an enlightened society. Why do people
cover themselves with tattoos, or put rings through their noses?
I was myself once a football fan. But that was an adolescent fancy, decades ago,
at a time when football more or less reflected the gentler temper of the times:
less stressful, less cynical, less knowing, an age in which – not to sound
old-fashioned about it – exhibitions of sportsmanship and self-restraint were
considered commendable rather than evidence of some fatal fallibility.
When I tell you that I supported Leyton Orient you’ll
know what I mean by less stressful, less cynical and less knowing.
Nothing to lift the spirit has come out of football
for as long as I can remember. Nothing to
lift the spirit is ever likely to come out football, at least not while the
sport is administered by the self-serving, unquestioning, wealth-worshippers
who currently administer it. Not while
the tycoons who own the richest clubs do so only as a result of incurring monstrous
and unsustainable debts. Not while the
players are paid so much that they feel freed from the burden of exercising any
kind of self-control, or of recognising that they are bound by any kind of authority
or code of conduct. Not while a
substantial minority of the people who attend the games continue to be allowed
through the turnstiles without a valid mental health certificate signed by at
least ten doctors.
My friends always respond to my ravings by citing the
occasional moments of sublime skill.
They refer me to nail-biting games in which the fortunes of the
contestants swing back and forth, hanging in the balance until the final
whistle – like the one last weekend, in which Arsenal, at one point three goals
down to Reading, fought back to win 7-5.
I appreciate such occasions, of course. The trouble is that the flashes of
inspiration are aberrational, hemmed in by an endless cavalcade of stoppages
for fouls and injuries, furious player protests and the issuing of yellow and
red cards by referees who would qualify for an alternative profession running
tables in Las Vegas – the entire dismal procession invariably accompanied by a
drone of witlessly repetitive, often offensive, anthems from the terraces.
The tabloids gleefully off the football frenzy. The sex scandals, the racially aggravated
incidents, the on-field tantrums – the whole panoply of controversy – provide
an endless supply of grist for a mill in perpetual motion.
The race thing, I have to say, baffles me. About a third of the players these days are
from what we kindly call ethnic minorities.
Two-thirds, perhaps more, are from far-flung foreign fields. How does a Chelsea supporter make monkey gestures at a
black player from the opposing team justify the act when his own team is
It defies subtle explanation. The whole thing defies subtle explanation. Or is it that any explanation would take us
to a dark interior that we would rather not examine? Beats me.