Football – falling out of love with the beautiful game
So I was chatting about football with one of my brothers, who was spending Christmas with us.
We were brought up in Birmingham, but always supported different clubs. My team was, and I suppose still is, Aston Villa, currently languishing at the bottom of the English Premier League. He’s a diehard West Bromwich Albion supporter, and still goes to their matches when he can, despite living a hundred miles away.
His team is unlikely to win the Premier League again, and so is mine. The problem, as he sees it, is the lack of a level playing field. Six or seven teams, bankrolled to the hilt by Russian oligarchs or American sports conglomerates, simply outgun the rest in terms of spending power.
But he’s still an Albion diehard, whereas I couldn’t really care less if Aston Villa are relegated this season, or who ends up at the top of the pile. Why the change of attitude?
I can easily explain. Years of mid-table mediocrity, indifferent managers and owners with limited imagination. Noteworthy this year only for being spectacularly unsuccessful, for the umpteenth sacking of the manager and because of one of their promising young players was photographed paralytic on a pavement during a lads’ holiday in Tenerife. There’s only so much sporting masochism I can take.
I could, of course, start following another team. Arsenal perhaps, or Manchester United. But why would I support them above all others? After all, I have few connections with North London. And Manchester? Well it rains all the time up there, doesn’t it? When I watch football these days, I look for the most interesting team, with no emotional ties beyond a vague preference for one side or the other. I judge the quality of a match by the length of time it takes me to fall asleep in front of the TV.
As for the national team, yes, I still have feelings, but they’re stunted by low expectations. We England fans might hope. We might dream. But very few of us believe.
I was trying to explain to my brother why I’ve had it with football in general, not just Aston Villa, and I struggled, because there’s nothing wrong with the sport in itself.
After all, it hasn’t really changed that much since 1966, when England won the World Cup. It’s still eleven players against eleven. We still have goals, fouls, penalties, offside, referees and linesmen. As a spectacle, it’s much improved. More sophisticated tactics, fitter players, better players, better TV coverage. Better managers? Not sure about that – different challenges, different times.
I vividly remember when the England national team ruled the roost, when foreign players were a rarity, when there were no agents, when butchers, bakers and candlestick makers owned the clubs and when the superstars drove Ford Anglias and opened pubs when they retired. Our national sport was simpler and more innocent then. And so was I.
I’m not nostalgic about those days, though it does leave a sour taste to see modern clubs fielding teams without a single English player – mediocre foreign imports kissing the badge on their shirts and making protestations of loyalty to a club they might not even have heard of a year ago. What message are their employers sending to the kids who support them? That the only way to reach the heights of the game is to have been born in Stuttgart, Senegal or Seville?
No, my problem is with the meta-game. Everything around it and arising out of it.
Corrupt administrators who regard themselves as statesmen. Greedy agents who manipulate their gullible clients into seeking transfers every year or three for no reason other than to get their regular cut. Owners who regard their clubs as just another asset. Egomaniac managers and their endless dog-and-pony shows. Emotionally incontinent players whose every fart is followed on Twitter, and whose commitment depends upon the next pay rise. Billions of hackneyed words spewed out by the media. And the poor fans, paying through the nose for match tickets and shirts for their kids out of a sense of loyalty shared by none of the beneficiaries of their hard-earned cash.
All of these things turn me off the game. But when I reflected on the conversation, I realised that my disillusionment isn’t just that the meta-game is rotten to the core. It’s that I’ve changed.
It should be perfectly possible to ignore all the hoopla and still love the game itself. Which I do, on the odd occasion, such as when Germany destroyed Brazil in the last World Cup. That was sublime drama – technical excellence, joy, grief and the wonder of the unexpected.
But as I get older, I find it harder to identify with any tribe – be it political party, social class, nation or football club. I’ve never been one for crowds, and for the mass emotion they often generate. On New Year’s Eve, you won’t find me linking arms with anybody. These days, whenever I see mass emotion, I see manipulation.
The cold reality is that football clubs – at least at the highest level – are corporations. Just like IBM, General Motors and Apple. Unless I’m an employee of that corporation, why should I feel loyalty towards it? And even if I did work for one, what corporation inspires the emotional attachment, the lifelong commitment, that football clubs do in their supporters?
Football fans, on the other hand, are tribes. Like other types of tribe, they’re bound together by emotion, tradition and history. These are about the only things that the football corporations don’t control. In business terms, you could say that the rituals, the memories and to an extent, the identity of the tribe, are social capital. The other forms of capital – assets and intellectual property – are what the corporations buy and sell. They can create or destroy the social capital though their achievements or mistakes, but they can’t tell the fans what to think and believe.
So basically, as a consumer, I see football as nothing more than a lucrative component in a global entertainment industry. Locations are irrelevant, branding is everything. People in China support Manchester United even though they might know nothing about the city in which the club is based. Just as Indonesians and Canadians love Adele’s music.
And if the parents of young fans are happy for their kids to grow up into preening thugs like Diego Costa, why should I disapprove? After all, thirty-five years ago, another generation took Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten as role models, and the world didn’t end.
It’s just show business, right? Always has been and always will be.
And there is an upside. I’d rather people were passionate about football clubs than declaring allegiance to the Islamic State or wetting themselves with excitement about the latest inspirational speaker or dumb celebrity. And I’d rather they wore a Barcelona shirt than some trite slogan inspired by Donald Trump or by one of our dreary politicians.
At least football fans have dreams whose fulfilment are unlikely to harm others for any length of time. Winning is a one-time ecstasy shot. Sorting your life out, earning a living and saving the world are a tad more complicated, and we all need the occasional escape from that reality.
Am I being condescending towards all the millions for whom the game is a controlling passion, and often the only distraction from lives full of fear and desperation? Not intentionally. As I said, the problem is at my end. I’ve fallen out of love.
Sadly, Aston Villa will never do anything other than remind me that in football as in life there are far more losers than winners. So unless England threaten to win the World Cup again, football for me will never be more than an occasional distraction from the more depressing aspects of daily life.