28 June 1996
Every woman in Europe should have watched Euro 96, watched it and wept, not because Germany keeps beating better-looking teams, but because the phenomenon illustrates just what women are up against when they try to mitigate the maleness of the world.
For hour after hour, males all over the country trembled, roared, shouted and stamped their unforced devotion to the god of football; for every man actually at Wembley, there were several hundred in front of television sets replicating his every yell and groan.
In the stadium 70,000 voices were lifted in staggering unison, following no beat but the drumming in their ears. These were men of all kinds, from suits and anoraks to naked savages, bald, shaggy, clipped or moustachioed, purple-faced with frustration or white with tension, tight-lipped and silent, frantic and verbal. The collective energy that they generated burst upon the female viewer like a high-pressure storm system. Anyone who stood there shouting “It’s only a game” would have been inviting a thunderbolt.
There were women at Wembley, sniffing the testosterone-laden air with relish, but, though they were at the event, they were not of it. The male force field lapped briefly round them and surged on towards whatever shared agony or ecstasy lay in store.
When England lost the women wept for the men, not for themselves. The men’s feelings were the opposite of compassion, dwelling in a region of the psyche beyond conscience or consciousness. The Germans could say kindly that the luckiest rather than the best team won, but it didn’t ease the abomination of the desolation that fell upon every man who saw his team lose. In the morning, po-faced television presenters deplored the scenes of shame, the smashed windows, the burnt police cars.
A tidy policeman said: “This has nothing to do with football.” Even he did not want people to get the idea that football is bad for civilisation. I begin to think that football is the necessary antidote to civilisation.
I watched Euro 96 the way some people view Victoria Falls, stricken with awe. Even more than being fascinated by the massive display of animal power in the stands, I was astonished by the strange nobility of the spectacle. The England team was a team as few national sides have ever been; they threw themselves at the implacable Germans as if no man had ever broken a leg on a football field. The instinct for self-preservation was in abeyance, overridden by something more basic and utterly mysterious. The continuous sonic boom from the fans’ throats seemed to reflate tired muscles like a gas. The players ran for hours on end, driving rubbery legs as if they had been steel pistons. On a pitch as hard and hot as flint, they ran and ran, slid and crashed and fell, and got up and ran and crashed and slid some more.
Chief among them and everywhere was Paul Gascoigne, a player I had heard much of, but never seen. I had been informed that he was a liability, past it, should have been dropped; terribly unfit he was, they said. Sports writers made him out to be a kind of elderly brat, emotionally unstable, a prima donna with dodgy tendons and brittle bones. The tabloids bitched him for ignoring his responsibilities as a father and decided without evidence he was the one who smashed up the jet bringing the team home from Hong Kong.
What I saw was a barrel-chested man with unusually long legs and a high-stepping run, and I saw him everywhere, following the ball with the unflagging enthusiasm of a puppy. He flung himself legs first into the most unpromising situations, scissored the ball out from under, and pivoted and swivelled his big body around impossible angles, to play the ball as neatly as a dart.
When he got stepped on or copped an elbow in the throat, or clanged his temple against a German head, he would open his mouth in a soundless bawl before making sure by a shrug or a smile to turn away any wrath caused by his own recklessness. His big chest seemed to hang in the air as his toes probed for the ball, which is odd enough without the extraordinary, the un-English openness of his face. No wonder the Italians adored him, and equally no wonder the English gutter press hates him. I saw George Best play at his best; I have seen Gascoigne play past his best and I think him still the better man, because of the evident generosity of his spirit and his wholesale identification with the team before himself.
In his lumpy long shorts and up-and-down socks he seemed more like a boy than a man, the Just William of the side. In a team full of hard men, he was the lad, the Beniamino as Italians say. He may be an idiot, and a dire disappointment to all the women rash enough to imagine that they can domesticate him, but he is an idiot savant. His genius is for football, and football is an art more central to our culture than anything the Arts Council deigns to recognise.
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