Modern football: think Emma Bovary in a replica shirt

Read books? Visited the Tate? Modern football is just another enriching cultural experience
Click to follow
YOU HAVE held out for years. Your first memory was not sitting on your father's shoulders to watch the game against Preston North End. You were not given a rattle for your 10th birthday. The idea that true emotion can only be understood in the context of watching a game has always seemed idiotic. You are cultured, an intellectual. Football means nothing to you.

But now you can no longer resist the pressure. The game is everywhere. No academic, artist or Cabinet minister can expect to be taken seriously if he does not support a team. Simply to prove that you are not socially inadequate, you need to become a fan.

It is not as difficult as you might imagine. You have been to the National Theatre, haven't you? Read books? Visited the Tate? Well, modern football is just another enriching cultural experience.

The game involves teams. Modern fans choose their teams on the basis of intellectual compatibility. If you enjoy jazzy, self-important glitter - you read Tom Wolfe, you genuinely enjoyed Starlight Express - you will support Chelsea. More introvert and complex fans - Paul Auster, Larry Sanders, Leonard Cohen types - might choose Spurs, while the kind of traditionalist for whom the revival of An Inspector Calls is a great night out might prefer Sheffield Wednesday or Ipswich. For this essential decision, you should invest in The Cultural Guide to English Football Clubs, published jointly by the FA and Prospect magazine.

At the game itself, you will notice an older man on the pitch, who runs backwards in a self-important manner, occasionally waving coloured cards. This is the referee. Until recently, referees used to wear black, but the FA decided that too many were suffering from Hamlet complexes and now put them in a dull, neutral colour. You should regard the referee as an alienated figure, like a sad yet faintly comic Chekhovian scholar: it is his inescapable fate to be part of - yet essentially dislocated from - the drama over which he officiates. He can allow a goal, or disallow it - but he can never actually score it himself. That is the tragedy of his existence.

It is no more necessary to understand tactics, formations or positions of play than it is essential to appreciate the thematic structure of Wagner's Ring cycle in order to enjoy the music. Concentrate on the various actors and archetypes playing their parts in the drama.

Your team may contain a want-away striker. For all his brilliance, beauty and flair, the want-away striker, like Emma Bovary or Nicola Six, has become restlessly aware that his destiny is elsewhere. The playing out of his inner conflict - every goal he scores makes his escape less likely and is, in a very real sense, an own goal - is one of the game's most gripping dramas.

A more homely and recognisable character is your team's resident psycho - a term which only coincidentally has Hitchcockian connotations. The psycho is on the pitch to represent the spiritual bond between players and spectators. As he charges about, swearing at the referee, trying to break the legs of better players, he is a much-loved embodiment - somewhere between a medieval Everyman figure and Shakespearean clown - of the spirit, ambition and futility of the ordinary fan.

In the centre of the drama, you will see a midfield dynamo, who propels the action forward with the driving, slightly dull relentlessness of a Steve Reich symphony, and a playmaker, the team intellectual who, like a Stoppard character, can put his foot on the ball and redefine the essential nature of human experience with a perfectly judged cross-field pass.

Most teams have a doughty veteran, a Polonius figure who, at the end of each game, seems to be flat out behind the arras yet never quite dies. Occasionally, a callow teenager from the youth team might take the field to be described as one for the future, particularly if he has a football brain or a cultured left foot.

Inevitably, the dark side of humanity will be evident in your team's troubled star. Like Jimmy Porter, or a Graham Greene whisky priest, or the minotaur in Maggi Hambling's "Minotaur Surprised while Eating", this character is highly volatile, a prey to inner demons, and more often than not has been to hell and back.

There are attendant sub-plots: the existential agony of the back-me-sack- me manager on the bench, the ever-changing Greek chorus of the crowd and, above all, the subtleties of the post-match interview. To be fair. To be honest. All credit to the lads. Very much so. Soon these words will speak to you with the cutting, understated eloquence of a Harold Pinter play.

Miles Kington is on holiday

Comments