Only a game
I can’t stand it any more. I must put my indignation on the record. Football is taking over our language, our leisure time and intellectual energy. No one is fighting back. The field is left wide open to the bellowing ranks of sports fans now reinforced by their representatives in the intelligentsia such as yourself.
Professional football at its rare best is artistic and exciting. On average it is tedious and clumsy. There is nothing wrong with that. It applies equally to tennis, gymnastics or chess.
When you and I were schoolboys at Latymer Upper in west London, we and our friends collected cards with pictures of Norman Hunter and Ron “Chopper” Harris. We slagged off a procession of England managers. We cried sometimes when our teams lost.
But we also fought over T-Rex and Slade, and tortured insects with magnifying glasses on sunny days. Some kids tortured each other with magnifying glasses on sunny days. Some liked arts subjects at school and others preferred sciences. But what were important were pop groups, football teams and torture.
That was childhood and now we are grown-ups. My contemporaries now don’t do much tortur-ing, I think. But “Chopper Harris” is an answer on Question of Sport or They Think It’s All Over or one of those other television sports quiz shows (games about games-amazing). And a conversational gambit that proclaims “intelligent” maleness is to talk of the artistry of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham or the management skills of Ruud Gullit and Ars?e Wenger.
Worst of all is the theory that Nick Hornby is the new Shakespeare, or at least the new Wilde. I am sure Hornby is a nice chap. And his book High Fidelity was funny. But Fever Pitch is the chronicle of an emotionally disabled person. The main, male, character finds it easier to relate to his football team than to his girlfriend. His team does not argue; that relationship is under control. The girlfriend has a mind of her own.
It is a bit like girls who are obsessed with their ponies. Such relationships are indulged by parents, but a source of concern if the teenager does not grow out of it. Men who love football are like women who still love their childhood ponies. Fond memories are not enough for them. The childhood crush continues, perhaps as an escape from coping with adults as individuals and equals.
Nick Hornby’s creation is only a hero by popular vote. Young girls might vote Black Beauty the world’s greatest novel, but that does not make it so.
So come on Peter, admit it. This obsession with football, this determination to portray a game as zeitgeist is in reality an illness, a kind of neurotic immaturity, a refusal to grow up.
30th April 1997
Not so fast. If your most vivid memory of our west London childhood is of collecting pictures of those unsavoury artisans, Chopper Harris and Norman Hunter, I think I can understand your disenchantment with football.
But surely you remember those figures from the same period who could enrapture a crowd with a swivel of the hips, a delicately curled chip into the top corner, an indolent dragback amid the quagmires which passed for pitches? I was brought up on Rodney Marsh and Stanley Bowles, so I do not recall those “tedious and clumsy” moments to which you refer (although Queen’s Park Rangers’s season just completed has been uncommonly vexing).
But as you say, we were children then. By your reckoning, we should have passed out of this adolescent phase by now and moved on to higher things like… what, exactly? The theatre? How bland and artificial it seems when you have experienced the passions of football. Do you remember Stuart Pearce converting that penalty in Euro 96, exorcising his World Cup miss in Italia 90? The look on his face? The mass acclaim of the crowd, which instantly understood the poignancy of the occasion? Remember, every kick of the ball carries a piece of drama with it. It is only a game, but it is profoundly real.
As you know, I am half Greek, and it is to the ancient world that I turn for a true understanding of sport. There is a statue of Apollo in Olympia, home of the Olympic Games, standing proud in divine quietude as the forces of conflict uncoil all around him. I always think of that statue when I watch a player about to take a penalty. There is anticipation, hope, fear; it is a study of concentration and nerve, human capabilities on the edge. There is no artistic experience to compare with it-perhaps only an opera singer about to attempt a notoriously difficult aria.
Football is taking over from the Olympic movement as the truly global sport-it is modern footballers who are the new gods, who create the new legends, whether it be the smooth nobility of a Bobby Moore, or the wily Diego Maradona and his hand of God. These are our new archetypes, in an age which is trying to assimilate the deaths of religion, ideology, art and politics. And it is no bad thing.
Just one more point: football, having purged itself of most of its hooligan problems, is the biggest and best party around. Once the action is over, the sight of fans from different nations mingling, swapping shirts and flags, drinking in honour of the game, is inspiring. Never has Beethoven’s Ode to Joy-a hymn composed for universal brotherhood-sounded more resonant as when it was played on the entrance of the two teams on to the pitch during Euro 96. The elites of politics and business have a long tradition of mingling across national boundaries-but this was ordinary people celebrating the twin forces of physical conflict between nations, and its peaceful resolution.
I cannot accept your diagnosis of emotional immaturity. You could spend your life worrying about “adult” things, like a quarter of a percentage point on your mortgage repayment, or buying a new set of curtains. But when that ball hits the net, none of those things matters. Try it and see.
3rd May 1997
Can you really believe that “football is the best party around”? The best parties I ever went to ended with sex. And I do not fancy mingling my bodily fluids with anyone I have seen on a football terrace.
It is true that there is something stirring about 50,000 deliriously happy people. It puts me in mind of David Hume’s notion of sympathy: that I will feel a proportion of happiness felt by other people. Hume may have got the idea from one of your Greek ancestors.
Actually I do agree with you about the frontier-busting nature of football. When I was 18 I visited Italy and made friends with a guy of my age even though the only words we could both understand were “Kevin Keegan” and “Paolo Rossi.” Such communication might reduce the chances of another great war breaking out. Perhaps the Eurovision song contest is a force for peace too.
I concede that football is a good thing. But it is not a great thing, and your arguments underline the nature of the disease afflicting those who believe it is. Football is about heroes and therefore about adulation and worship. Footballers’ humanity is abolished in favour of “legends.” We could argue for hours over whether Maradona is a greater figure than Schwarzenegger, Einstein or Blair. Each has affected our lives. But to turn them into legends is to deny their humanity. In reality they are human beings like you and me, more or less. Those who suffer in this arrangement are the self-deluding fans. They believe in legends, things that are not true.
This is not a joke. People who live in a world of make-believe where conflicts are black and white, heroes triumph and baddies live to fight another day are dangerous. They are anti-understanding. They vote for easy answers and slick presentation. Their demands in a free market economy fill the high streets and the airwaves with junk.
It may be too late for psychiatric treatment. Perhaps sports fanatics should be encouraged to live in sports ghettos near football grounds along with those who think the characters in Coronation Street are real.
5th May 1997
Disease, psychiatric treatment… you really have it in for us, don’t you? Do I detect a note of snobbery in there? People who watch Coronation Street and football cannot distinguish the real world from their fantasies, and are crippled by self-delusion; while, by contrast, those who swoon over the Marriage of Figaro are laudably transported by the transcendence of the moment. If you cry at football, you are retarded; if you are moved by a snatch of violins, you are sensitive, cultured, sophisticated.
I think people are pretty good at telling apart their dreams from their lives, actually. They make legends out of footballers because they recognise the heroic qualities needed to become the best: dedication, courage (try imagining 50,000 people giving instant judgement on your professional work), artistry, strength and wit.
As for the black-and-white nature of footballing conflict, you have clearly never suffered watching a team you love dominate a game and then go on to lose it. Football is full of “if onlys”-counterfactuals, as intellectuals like to call them. That clever historian Niall Ferguson has just written a book all about it. Football fans face every new season knowing for certain that they will experience moments of giddy joy, absolute boredom and shattering defeat. The resolve and sense of irony needed to deal with these swings (and they can occur within minutes of each other, think of the Middlesbrough fans) is ideal equipment to cope with the vicissitudes of life.
Of course football does not matter, in the cosmic sense, but then neither do a lot of the things which elate or depress us. Football fans have to invest an occasion with true passion, knowing there is no guarantee of a favourable result. That is not a bad lesson to learn. It contrasts sharply with “high” art, which in aspiring to the sublime really can make us lose our sense of humanity (recall George Steiner’s observa-tion that the officers at Auschwitz spent their evenings listening to Schubert).
Give me the football stadium-bawdy, bustling, passionate, fraternal-over the cadaverous sanity (if I may play Nietzsche to your Hume) of the concert hall any time.
7th May 1997
Weeping at a sad passage of music is not necessarily more laudable than sobbing at a missed penalty. It would be a poor argument which asserts that opera is better than football because it is enjoyed by a better class of person.
Fortunately, that is not what I am saying. Let me introduce another philosopher. Jeremy Bentham tried to construct a moral philosophy that showed poetry to be superior to shove ha’penny. He wanted to show that the pursuits of the educated were better than those of the poor. That argument always left me rather uncomfortable and football provides the refutation: even Bentham would have agreed that Johan Cruyff dribbling was physical poetry.
My quarrel is not with the artists in football but with the mediocrities. There are plenty of them, as in any walk of life. Unfortunately that does not stop football fans’ exclusive, childish and socially dangerous obsession with “their” club. It is all so unreasonable.
I am still surprised that the absurdity of it all is not obvious to you. But perhaps there is some room for compromise. Like you, I am a fan of (and, whenever possible, participant in) passion. It is marvellous to be swept up in the drama of a great sporting event. So let us go to a great soccer match, an international perhaps in France next year at the world cup finals.
In the meantime, though, let us not go to ordinary football matches, not spend hours debating the relative merits of the England players, and not read any sporting autobiographies. Let us consign football to an entertaining but only occasionally visited corner of our lives, and spend the rest of the time consumed by everything else humanity has to offer.
12th May 1997
I would be delighted to watch a World Cup game in France with you; but beware: yet another of football’s lessons is that you cannot choose only to watch the great games. It is the hours spent in windswept stadia, watching the average players in honest toil, which makes it so special suddenly to come across a Pel?Cruyff or Maradona. “Ordinary” matches are like ordinary life; quotidian banalities have to be experienced in order to embrace greatness.
In fact, the probability is that you would find a top class international match rather boring. They can be cagey, calculated affairs, over-dependent on the merest subtlety to swing one way or the other. No doubt you would find the mass adulation of the fans even more puzzling to fathom. But to lost causes such as myself, every kick, every nuance has meaning. And we need to talk about it among ourselves, whether it is in a bar or the pages of an intellectual magazine.
I did not expect you to understand. And I do agree that the abundance of books and analysis that have proliferated over the past few years is a little bewildering. But look around you. The ties that bind us-family, religious, political-are loosening all the time. The idea of loyalty to an employer is out of date. So let us be a little tribal for the odd 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, let us cast rationality aside and scream and shout in a place where nothing really matters.
The most comforting thing about a football match even if you are trounced in the most emphatic manner, is that there is another one coming up next week. A corner of our lives, maybe, but how it casts light on all the rest.