Of all the sports people have concocted, football by far exceeds all others in inspiring enthusiasm. And by enthusiasm, I refer to the cult. Hooliganism, religious zealotry, club supporters. And no country suffers from a football fandom greater than England. So as someone who does not particularly care for spherical shapes, over-priced polyester shirts, or watching men on tv heavily analyse the exact vector of a kick, I was a little out of place. Football is as integral to British society, as tea, the medical application of a cold tap, yorkshire puddings, binge drinking, pub quizzes, stand up comedy and complaining about pretty much everything. People are proud of it, aggressively announce their favourite teams and avidly defend it against pagans like myself (and America, who have managed to confuse the sport with body armour and brain damage). But my descent into blasphemy was not a sudden drop. It took a great many years strolling down a disappointing slope before I realised that perhaps, contrary to British dogma, that football isn’t the greatest thing in the world.
On the big, small and out reach screen
Have you seen a football game on TV? I mean your average game between two local teams. Do you know that excitement when your team edge closer to the goal, or when that star player you love leads the charge? The anticipation of a penalty shot that could change everything in a single strike, or the dive of the goalie as he plunges out to save his team. Do you know how great that feels? If so, could you explain it me? If I go to hell in the event of my death, there’s a strong chance I’ll spend an eternity being forced to watch football games. There’s not much else that can feel me with as much dread as the painful slog of time while I sit trapped in front of the world’s most elaborate game of pong, seeing a white ball whizz from left to right. Sometimes right again if it gets even more exciting.
Beyond the sheer boredom of watching the game, there’s also the close ups of insanity. When a goal is scored and players suddenly feel this is the perfect time to strip their clothes off in celebration. Not out of victory, no no. Out of a single goal. They may yet still lose the game, but why wait to celebrate if your idea of a good time is streaking in front of a few million viewers. Other symptoms might include screaming, jumping and most dangerous, being crushed under the weight of your own team members as they pile on top of you. Just to be clear, if I win at any sport, please do not express your happiness and pride, by puncturing my lungs with my own rib cage. It’ll make continuing the rest of the game a tad more difficult.
To be clear, I specify watching football is a torture I wouldn’t inflict on anyone. Playing myself isn’t such a pain. Not my favourite sport, but I don’t mind kicking a ball into a net for ten minutes. It’s hard to feel bored if you’re engaged.
Join the cult
But I often avoid playing too, although that has nothing to do with the sport itself. Alas it is the people who love football that I am wary of. Specifically British fans (I couldn’t speak of its reception in other countries). Take the rite of passage experienced by almost every child at school; who do you support? What team, what country. Draw the line on the playground and prepare to do battle with the opposition. There is no casual acceptance. Oh you support guys in red shirts? Me, I’m more partial to blue ones myself. Oh no. You have to know their name, you have to spit venom in the face of anyone who dares tell you they can’t play. That polyester shirt is the sigil of your family and you wear it with pride. And so, the playground is divided as much as the football stadium is, with people who are not content to just love a team, but instead love them enough to hate another.
I had a small issue with this because I had no team to support. I didn’t know the teams, or the names of the players, or where they came from, or how competitions worked. It was certainly everywhere around me, and I could have learnt all of it very quickly had I cared to. Except I didn’t care to. I developed a natural aversion to it, and my repulsion increased every time I was expected to join in the jabs at friends for admiring a certain player or team, or country and judge them for their preferences. Instead I became something rarer altogether. On days when the school let you come in with your own clothes instead of a school uniform, you’d find a sea of football shirts, and then me, poking out in my flowery top. Looking damn snazzy too.
You have to see it live
I have been to a single live match, and not of my own choosing. It was a friend’s fifteenth birthday and he wanted to go see football at the stadium. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but what’s one day in the year for a friend. Besides, the fresh experience of it all might stave off the boredom of watching long enough to keep me awake by the end. Like at a concert, they say seeing it live brings the magic out. Nothing quite like it until you see and hear it straight. And they are definitely right. How could I think I might fall asleep at a live match. I must have been crazy. You have to stay alert in case a fan tries to attack you. The away-team fans hurl abuse from their seats, and the home-team fans return fire. Bottles and food are thrown. Threats are issued. The frenzy builds and the only thing stopping the boil from tipping over is when the goal is scored and all eyes suddenly refocus on the sport.
During the match, one of the players crashed to the floor after a bad tackle and curled up in agony. A paramedic grabbed his kit and sped across the pitch to give him medical attention. It was at this point that the nine year old boy sitting to my left jumped up onto his seat and screamed frantically at the paramedic.
“No, don’t help him! Just let him die!!!”. Had the game not continued shortly after, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this kid had jumped onto the pitch and tried to finish him off himself.
After the game has ended, thats when you really need to watch yourself. There’s always one side that walks away unhappy from a match, and they don’t feel all that much better seeing the opposing fans, after hearing their insults for the last two hours, strolling home in laughter. Add a pinch more alcohol into the mix and you have a great little scrap on your hands. But even when you don’t, there’s little more eerie than walking through the streets as a crowd, taking roads hostage in silence as everyone gradually disperses.
When the adrenaline’s pumping
Ok, so people suck. At least in the UK they do. Many enforce their children to support the same team as them, wear the same shirts, even make them watch games join the tv. There are even cases of parents that have named their child ‘Manchester United’ (I wish that was sarcasm). Then there’s the death threats, the binge drinking, the fighting and hate. But what if you could get rid of all that. Play a game with people who don’t feel a desire to go to war. That’d be nice. So that’s what I tried to aim for whenever the opportunity arose. What could go wrong?
Take one game I played in my local park with my friends. A couple of jumpers on the grass the mark the goal posts, one ratty ball and there you go. the friends in question wanted to win but not so much that they’d try to break my ankles for it, and nobody really cared about dividing us up by affiliation. Unfortunately the game was still not much of a success because we lost the ball. Well, rather it was stolen. By a dog. Mid way through a game, I had an opening and I took the shot at the goal. My aim was perfect. Power on point. The goalie misjudged the angle and it was destined to go in. Right until this golden retriever flew across and caught the ball between his teeth and continued sprinting through the park. It was one of the happiest dogs I’ve ever seen. I stopped and stared dumbly as he blurred away and the friend who owned the ball, suddenly came to his senses and sped off after him. He returned twenty minutes later with a punctured ball, the proudest golden retriever you’ll ever lay eyes on, and his very apologetic owner.
Or another game at school, more than forty kids racing across the gravel to have their moment on the ball. Teacher supervision so no hate rallies involved. But its difficult trying to play football with forty kids. That’s a lot, and not all of them get to touch the ball. I was not the fastest, and by far the least skilled, so I rarely touched the ball and nobody considered me a viable option for passing. It was the goal for me; best to let better players race off. So I meekly hovered in the goal and waited for the ball to come my way, hoping someone would try to shoot. But yet again, that’s hard to do with forty kids in a playground. It did roll near though. So I dutifully leant down to snatch it up and perform my best boot back. That was until somebody tried to kick it away before I got it and booted my arm instead. Almost broke it (but pagans are made of strong stuff). My arm turned bright purple, my wrist was sprained and any movement at all sent bolts of agony through me. I was benched, and yeah that sounded cool to say. At home my father wrapped it up in tissue paper and sellotape so that I couldn’t accidentally move it. And so that I had a nice cast to show off (because when you get injured you want something in return for the pain. You can’t tell people you’re tough and not have the bandages or scars to prove it).
But what about the world?
This goes beyond my grievances with England. The world cup is something altogether different, and although I don’t see why it’s all that more special than any other international sport contest, I do like to know who wins. However, thanks to a childhood of disliking British football culture, I now have a definitive opinion on support. I am happy every time any country that isn’t England wins the world cup. Any country at all. The lower England is on the league tables, the happier I am. I consider it poetic justice, a sport-like karma, that the country who claims to love football the most, that spends the most money and worship on it, that resort to violence and insults when they lose, is also the same country that is mediocre at it. Mediocre. It’s worse than saying than they’re bad at football. Englishmen teeming with arrogance that they’re the best at football struggle to tolerate that realisation, and every time it’s proven in the world cup, it make me smile. Because that’s when they all look at each other and wonder ‘hmm, maybe we should treat this whole football thing a bit differently’.
That being said, I still find watching football games boring on tv, even world cup ones. I’m quite satisfied to hear who won afterwards, who is doing well. I don’t need to see it happening so badly. This became an issue only once when my parents were in Spain (the same time Spain won the world cup. Apparently it was a memorable evening when that happened…), and my grandparents were watching over me and my sister. My grandfather loves his sports, and being Spanish himself, he was glued to the tv. My grandmother was washing dishes because she didn’t care. My sister was on the phone talking to her boyfriend because that was more important. And I was watching a film in the room next door, which is far more appealing. That evening I heard my grandfather scream. In English, in Spanish. Screaming goal, screaming for Spain. And he thundered through the house yelling at the top of this voice. To the kitchen where he cried to my grandmother in that Spain had won the world cup. She smiled and nodded and went back to cleaning. So he gave up and rushed upstairs to my sister. But she was still on the phone and didn’t have excitement to spare. So he rushed back down to me and I paused the film so I could face him.
‘James, Spain won the world cup!’. At which point I turned around and said:
My grandfather in a moment of panic realised there was nobody in the house that he could share his excitement with. He spun about, and at last retreated back to the tv where he continued to scream, as his only means of releasing all the happiness and excitement that had welled up in him.