The F Word Part 5: In which I kinda get to where I was always headed

I’ve noticed over the last few days that people will go to all lengths and depths to defend their interest in football. Does this mean that football represents something essential at the core of their identity?

I don’t think it does. I think it shows that there are in the grip of an obsession.

I should say that I don’t really hate football; like ice-hockey or basketball, it can be great fun to play, but for anyone who doesn’t play regularly I think it takes a conscious effort of will to not find it boring to watch a whole game.

I’ve been told repeatedly, as if it was a party line for serious football fans, that it brings joy to millions. It is after all a cheap and unchallenging form of entertainment – cheap, that is, unless you want to see a game live or in the comfort of your own home. Nevertheless, I think the same claim could be made for Formula 1, which is obviously fucking horrible.

What I do resent is its increasing ubiquity over the last few years, and the fact that intelligent and potentially intelligent people – which means everybody – dedicate so much time to thinking and talking about it.

I want to give a couple of examples. In the few years leading up to Euro 2004 in Portugal, anyone arriving in the country by air was greeted by banners proclaiming ‘We Love Football!’ Now this is quite a claim to make on behalf of ten million people. If the same claim was made in the UK on behalf of cricket or rugby, I suspect people would not feel at all comfortable with it. Football, however, has taken on a status which somehow precludes a lack of interest.

For people working in even the most obscure of fields, it has become a quick way to associate their work and themelves with something universally popular, and a lazy metaphor for virtually any collective human activity. In an interview with the rock star-turned antiquarian megalith researcher Julian Cope, he draws the following analogy:

“Look at football worship,” he says. “All those people gathered in an unroofed stadium [is] not unlike what must have gone on in pagan sanctuaries. The goalkeeper is the ultimate shaman, guarding the gates to the underground, wearing the No 1 jersey in a different colour and not seeming to be part of the team. We’ve never lost it.”

That may be true to some extent, but I think it lets football off the hook by repeating the mantra that there is something primal about the sport that goes back to ancient human rituals. It’s a very easy and common claim to make, but that doesn’t make it necessarily true.

Football sells, and the vast majority of claims made for it are spurious. A quite astonishing example was the recent front-page headline of the appalling free Spanish newspaper Que!, which looked at the prospects for Spain and the world for 2006. The economy, it said, would go from bad to worse, salaries would remain low as ever, the cost of living would continue to rise exponentially; but there was hope and joy on the horizon, because in 2006 we will have a football World Cup to look forward to!

Someone somewhere did not think that that was a bit …mucho.

There is something about football that I haven’t mentioned yet, and it is something that these days gets very little attention. It concerns women and football.

Now there are many reasons why lots of women watch football. Some for the same reasons that men do – to see the occasional bit of spectacle that the sport offers, or because watching and following the game is usually a social thing. Some, it has to be said, are Uncle Toms, showing or developing an interest in it in order to please men.

Some women play football too, but like women’s boxing the professional game exists as a side-effect of men’s football. We don’t see it on TV, and it’s no accident that the best known player is the ex-wife of one of football’s leading men. And, like boxing, when it does get some coverage it is often just for the titillation of men. Women footballers, unlike their male counterparts, have no visibility and no power.

The fact remains; football, in terms of the sport we see on TV, the thing that is so often cited as one thing that unites all the people and peoples of the world, does not involve women at any level.

People, as the Ancient Romans understood, love any spectacle that involves competition. Create a pseudo-event to keep people’s minds and their free time occupied, and you can rule however you want. Franco and Salazar understood this perfectly with their promotion of football as the national cause and hobby. Under our present regimes, Berlusconi and the bastards in Beijing understand it too. And as our working lives become more and more competitive and challenging, the relentless promotion of football relates directly to people’s need for a free-time activity which involves no challenge whatsoever.

For all these reasons, people who profess to be football fans are extremely defensive about their beloved sport. Maybe one of the most taboo things that can be written these days is simply:

Fuck football.

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The Three Ts

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