A New Meaning To Injury Time
Modern professional football carries and stores too many of the things the world just does not need any more.
Specifically, football is the lingering of the kind of masculinity we had before deodorants became common bathroom furniture. The culture of fandom is one of organised and resentful victimhood, an emotionally sterile and therefore occasionally vicious tribalism, an arena in which even the most mild-mannered folks feel justified in screaming and whooping like outraged dervishes. Once upon a time, all this damned blokey-ness might have been understandable; back in the day, there was little else to do on Winter Saturdays; Wednesday matches divided the working week into two more bearable halves; there was comedy and singalong in the crowds, excitement stirred and drenched in adrenaline. Fans turned their faces to the sunrise of promotion and/or the dark of relegation, knew Greek tragedy and French farce and good v. evil all packed into the ninety minutes of fifty games, shared the liveried solidarity of stripey scarves and jackhammered forearms all waved – usually in incantated anger – at the venal clots in the directors’ pen or the pantomime villain in the black uniform.
It used to be argued (in the 60s and 70s) that this whole culture, troubled as it may have been (to police, to transport operators, to families…) allowed a massive and countrywide release of manly steam. Once the football was out of the provincial system once more, the nation could go back to work on Monday morning. Her Majesty was in Buckingham Palace, the PM was in Downing Street and the pub debates about 4-2-4 over 4-4-2 could, soon enough, resume once again. A Dubbin-coated stability reigned. The game was the place where men could go to let rip and thus the working week was kept free of emotional excess.
Of course, it’s all better now in many senses. The grubbiest of the stadiums have gone and, at the cost of too many disasters, spectator safety is recognised as a permanent priority. Footballers are better fed and better paid. The worst of uninhibitedly loud-mouthed racism has gone. And, of course, the game and all the competitions which constitute each season remains very popular. The whole thing means a lot to millions of people. It’s escape, it’s glamour, it’s theatre. By mid-decade, the average age of the Premier League spectator was 41, same as the average Brit; a quarter of the stadium audience was female; some 25% of all adults had a favourite PL team. (Source: The Premier League Review). Football has truly become the way we live now, not as grim as it used to be.
But. Much stinks.
Unscoring In Stoppard Time
For one thing, the game – as in, the match – remains impossible to regulate effectively. This is firstly and partly for technical reasons : it can be genuinely tough to make an offside decision or judge whether a ball has been handled accidentally or purposively. And as a result every red player and every red spectator thinks they can do it better than their blue counterparts (and indeed the professional officials) on the day, incident by incident. Supporting your side can too easily mean brazenly contesting objectivity : it’s the paying supporter’s right and privilege. Well, is it really? How did that happen?
But secondly and more tellingly, football simply has grown weak morals.
In the late 1970s, Tom Stoppard wrote a TV drama called Professional Foul. The play suggested that while Association Football has a perfectly good rule-book those who play the game often have respect only for winning-by-any-means, happy to twist the rules in sometimes thuggish and sometimes merely opportunistic ways, secretly policing their own advantage in open (not entirely the right word) play. Stoppard also talks about the anthropological oddity of greeting goals scored “with paroxysms of childish glee, whooping, dancing and embracing in an ecstasy of crowing self-congratulation in the very midst of their disconsolate fellows”.
One wonders just how much things have improved over the years.
Why do strikers driving towards goal simply never, ever do any deceit-diving along the way? Why do coaches not spend their post-match interviews upbraiding their own players for their vicious behaviours or cheap, blind-the-ref manipulations? Why do studio experts detect condonable virtue in fierce tackles of borderline legality?
Why? Because the game has a dark side as big as the moon’s. Football has had no Mandela. No Bad Godesberg. No Good Friday Agreement. No serious and sustained reconciliation with a past tainted with social irresponsibility, a past that somehow bestowed on the game the permission to live outside the normal codes. (Ever stood as a touchline visitor to an inter-school match? Heard the otherwise perfectly nice teachers and parents shout at the referee?). In football’s hall of fame, there are too many ghastly brutalists; where Hollywood has pavement hand-prints for its stars football has stud-prints, too many of them.
Not Singing All Of The Time
For another thing, fan loyalty never achieves any stability of joshing jocularity. Rivalries (in Liverpool, Glasgow, London…) should be casual but are often instead very aggressively expressed. There is nothing new in this – but that is the whole point : the fanaticism of the partisan should have been long since fanned out of the whole sport. However, as many have noted before, clubs exult in the perma-presence of die-hard loyalists, the very paying punters for whom football cannot really be described as pure, liberating fun. Football as a matter of life and death? No, it’s much too neurotic for that. If football is a narcotic, the highs are too high and the lows too low : classic Class A syndrome. Now:
No adult and certainly no child should ever walk away from a football match in tears or in a temper or in a tantrum; if they do, it’s not understandable passion at work it’s a perversion of the meaning of sport and an invitation to behave under destructive emotional exaggeration.
There are plenty of scholarly papers addressing the connection between big-match disappointment and domestic violence, a phenomenon of such scale that it should be at least a national debate if not a national scandal. But football runs through our lives with a special dispensation, the right to be moronic because we lost 3-0 at home and the ref gave all the 50-50 decisions to all those dirty bastards in the opposition. Boo comprendre, c’est boo pardonner? Apparently.
Meanwhile, there some 2,000 football banning orders in force; these are sentences imposed by the courts on individuals after serious misbehaviour in the precincts of a match. Around 500 fresh orders are imposed every year. Now, one can notice that these figures (from HMG sources) are declining over time. But the incidence of outstandingly bad conduct at games is, even by the current reckoning, still seriously high. And let’s remember it was once felt necessary to put a law through Parliament to create an offence (with its own tariff of penalties) specific to football. There are no Theatre Banning Orders, No Nightclub Banning Orders, No Badminton Horse Trials Banning Orders.
Football is, once again and not in a good way, a special case.
Verbal Bovril, Catering For Banality
Furthermore, is it not so significant just how the game talks about itself? The language remains a tense cup-tie of robotically repeated cliché. It took a deflection into the side-netting. There’s the equaliser. Cleared off the line. Into the channels. Created lots of chances. Sent to the stands. Heading into injury time. Should have got something out of the game. Hospital pass. Coming from behind. That football is a world of hackneyed language has been, ever since a famous Monty Python sketch, well established as something of a national joke. But this weakness of self-description, the morphological paralysis, symbolises a structural malaise.
It is no accident that broadcast football commentaries come heavy with inner-referencing statistics, eg That is Snodgrass’s 7th goal in open play this season; this is his best tally since he joined United in 2014. That makes him the third top-scoring wing-back in the League. He has of course converted every penalty he has taken since last February when he hit the post in the cup-replay against his old club; that game was incidentally the last time he was substituted (for only the second time in his career). Such drivel persists precisely because football is a culture content with non-renewal, a conversation that does not feel under an obligation to provide new colours or tastes, a sitcom so long running that it believes it can generate ever more affection for itself just by beginning a new series every Autumn.
There is much to love about football, love – if this makes sense – in principle. Those who see the beautiful Euclidean geometry of interlocking passes know that there is much to admire. The agility of the players, the cleverness of the strategies, the sweep of the goalie’s dive, the ball that is struck fifty metres and lands as intended on a colleague’s toe, the shot that curls impossibly around a human barrier… the aesthetic potential inhabiting every soccer skill is obvious and profound.
But the price is too high and the ticket too dirty.
If you think this is harsh, then ask yourself how you feel the next time you read of a new raid on a global/European football authority by police services or a fresh and undoubtedly justified investigation into corruption or doping or match-fixing … or even just a manager being given a red card for swearing like a pyscho at the referee or a drunk “fan” running across the pitch waving a corner flag in the air.
Maybe it will be the sight of weeping children terrorised by the violent coin-throwing mayhem around them at a derby game… maybe it will be the sound of obscene or just plain old sectarian chanting, cruelly extending the life of medieval bigotries… Maybe you will watch a televised match and see a millionaire sportsman push the ball into the opposition net with his hand and fail to acknowledge this – as a view-blocked referee signals that a goal has been legitimately scored. Maybe you will be less surprised than you thought you would be when your favourite team starts the season in strips now bearing the logo of a loan shark. Maybe you will find that that club is now owned by a regime for which the term human rights has never been anything more than an ironic expression. Maybe you will wince when a football commentator during a tense and tight World Cup encounter foams with chauvinistic happiness because a star player on the other side has just been dismissed from play, the incident somehow compensating for so many misfortunes and unfairnesses inflicted on the nation in the past.
We can all surely be certain that such incidences will be appearing soon. Football too naturally defaults into ethical under-performance. Is the human spirit to be really enhanced anywhere by the extreme competitiveness in which the game is universally set? Has any nation ever really drawn closer to another because eleven men with one language play eleven speaking another? Can we all break from the cultural hypnosis that Match of the Day is basically good karma?
Those under 30 may have no folk memory of how long such casual depravities have been happening. They might be forgiven for thinking that they are in essence temporary, treatable by better sport bureaucracy and regulation. But the over-60s in our midst have no such excuse. Football is the god to whom we should not pray any more – at least not in its current form. In the absence of a global constitutional convention organised with the purpose of redefining, rebooting and relaunching the game in a more adult, de-obsessionalised and 21st century direction, the older citizen should decline any request to take a grandchild to a professional match involving male players.
It’s the oldies – those who still check the results at 4.40 each Saturday to see if the boyhood team has won this day – who need to think and act this way. No studs should be allowed to run over the wizened heart strings. We all know of players who have in their careers never been cautioned for violent or unfair play; we all know of clubs who take seriously their responsibilities to their local community; we all seen fans – fans with no darkness in their heart – weep with joy at some fabulous moment of goal-scoring ballet…. These are the very people who deserve better, a football in which the red card is a rare as a redpoll, in which coaches do not try (as proof of their pre-match dedication) to intimidate the referee, in which winning ugly is no longer regarded as winning at all.
We should all activate on their behalf, no?