Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Football’s haters just don’t get it
Football has come in for a lot of stick of late. Successive racism scandals, followed by a harrowing documentary reminding us that only one professional footballer has ever come out as gay have, to cut a long story short, dragged the game’s reputation through the mud somewhat.
Not that football set any kind of gold moral standard to begin with or anything. Were you to ask the sort of person who avoids the pub like the plague on match day to sum up their attitude towards the game, they would probably characterise it as 22 overpaid and preening primadonnas who believe underhandedness to be the ultimate virtue – so long of course, as the end result is in favour of one’s own side.
This perception is compounded by the attitude of the fans, who regularly defend the sporting equivalent of two plus two equals five. More often than not, not only will they firmly insist that two plus two equals five, but they will genuinely believe it with every fibre of their being.
Getting the unconverted to comprehend this catalogue of devotion, hatred and ill-will, then, is always going to be something of an uphill struggle. I will endear to give it my best shot, all the same.
In order to understand football it is, first of all I think, necessary to recognise the tedium and uniformity of modern life for a large proportion of people. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to listen to someone from a well-to-do background lambast those who, in their view, live through the exhilarating exploits of others – be that on the football pitch or in the glossy pages of Heat magazine. It may be a surprise for those people to hear this, but many if not most people spend the vast majority of their time doing routine jobs they would chuck-in in an instant were their lottery numbers to come in on a Saturday night. Should you ever feel tempted to speak disparagingly of a fan’s “irrational concerns,” it is worth taking this into consideration.
Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that a system which pays bankers more than nurses, teachers and fire-fighters is fairly irrational to begin with. Is it really such a great surprise to find lots of people engaging in a bit of escapism at the weekend? No, it really isn’t.
The apparent “irrationality” of football is a particular bugbear amongst haters of the game. “It’s just a piece of leather they’re kicking around,” they will smugly tell you as if they’ve just discovered the molecular structure of DNA. These are the people who can never understand the games’ reluctance to add technology to the proceedings. I must admit, introducing a degree of certainty to a game littered with the glaring mistakes of officialdom does seem, at first, like a no-brainer. Isn’t Match of the Day, the weekly highlight of the television schedule for those of us who cannot afford Sky Sports, characterised by bitter complaints about allegedly incompetent refereeing?
Again, I will be the first to admit that this is all quite true. No argument to be had here. What I would say, though, is that it misses the point entirely. The sheer sense of being robbed when a result doesn’t go a particular way is, counterintuitive as it may seem, an intrinsic part of football’s unique appeal. It is the back and forth of emotions that fans crave, not one emotion in particular. Is that irrational? Of course. But so are lots of things like, I don’t know, falling in love, or complaining about other people’s enjoyment of sports you are not yourself forced to watch.
Why, though, I am often asked, does there exist such passionate hatred of the other team? And in particular, the followers of the other team?
To put it succinctly, in an age of individuality and autonomy football gives its followers a sense of belonging and identity. All of us, whether we like it or not, have an identity we adhere to – a picture in our heads of who we are and where we belong (even those apparently too “civilised” for competitive sport often cling to an identity which sets them apart from fans; usually that of the cultured “highbrow”). There is no doubt of course that identity can, at times, be problematic, and can be harnessed to contrast one’s own imagined virtues with the negative qualities of the “other”. But it is also something people find it rather difficult to do without, as time spent in the company of teenagers, music fans and even those with a slight interest in politics will attest.
Football has a special appeal for so many because it is war-like. It involves strategy and the exertion of herculean energy to accomplish a common goal: the figurative grinding into dust of an opponent, bound up in the notion of the local club. One’s team does whatever it can to win; and to achieve its goal it must break the rules when necessary. Victory is rarely final, either, and there is always the possibility of redemption at some date in the not-too-distant future.
George Orwell, who once dismissed football as “a continuation of war by other means” – which, as I said, it is - hit the nail on the head when he said, speaking in a quite different context, that “on the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good and not quite all the time.”
I am as unhappy as the next lefty about racism and homophobia in the game. I am also aware that football does not matter one jot in the grand scheme of things. I will still be at the bar on the weekend, though, getting genuinely angry at a television screen for no other reason than I took a liking to a particular club when I was about five years old. Irrational and pointless? You bet. I am human though. And in the end, that is what football is.