Supporters' club

Janie Lawrence finds soccer arouses strong emotions even in the likes of Jane Austen's Messrs Darcy and Knightley
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When Mark Strong found out that he was going to be playing Colin Firth's best friend in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, some intense off-screen boy-bonding was called for. Naturally, there was only one thing for this pair of modern middle-class thirtysomethings to do. Best known as the two Jane Austen heroes from the television productions of Emma and Pride and Prejudice, Messrs Knightley and Darcy hot-footed it to a soccer match.

Surely it was just the usual spot ofmethod for two actors required to portray Arsenal fanatics? Not a bit of it. Mark Strong was already an ardent Arsenal fan and, in a classic case of life imitating art, he now regularly faxes match reports to an enthusiastic Firth, who lives in Italy. What is going on? Nothing short of the gentrification of our national game. The new football aficionados - including David Baddiel, David Mellor, Michael Nyman and Tony Blair - increasingly speak with middle- class accents.

Gone is any lingering embarrassment for a love that once dared not speak its name around middle-class dinner tables. Middle-class men are now tumbling out of the closet in their haste to declare club allegiance. Cynics may call it a pathetic attempt to adopt bogus working-class credentials, but it is the "must have" social accessory. As if he were not hero enough already for The English Patient, we now learn that director Anthony Minghella is the ultimate Nineties man: he's a football fan too. According to his parents, he was as concerned about the fate of his local team, Portsmouth, as to whether he would win a statuette.

Mark Strong, 33, is also typical of this new breed. A bilingual graduate, he's probably best known for his role as Tosker in the critically acclaimed drama Our Friends in the North. Currently playing Biff in Death of a Salesman at the National Theatre, he's just as eloquent discussing the contemporary relevance of Arthur Miller as he is talking game tactics. For him, the role of Steve in Fever Pitch was a plum part. "It was my ideal job. I was born in north London and Arsenal were the first team I ever went to see. When I went for the audition I told them I was an Arsenal fan and I could see them nodding. But I wasn't sure whether they believed me because everybody who went said they were."

On the day we meet, Strong is agonising over Arsenal's two recent losses at home. "All that Nick Hornby writes about is true. Your spirit does rise and fall with your team. I know it seems absurd, but it's a fact. It can do that to you. Have you ever been to a football match?"

No, never, I reply. Possibly I remain the sole person in Britain resolutely unmoved by the Saturday spectacle. Admittedly the disappearance of those dodgy footballer perms is all to the good but what is it about this sport in particular that generates such passionate emotions?

"It's like a brilliant board-game," replies Strong, eyes lighting up. "There are so many facets - injuries, buying and selling players, the fantasy football. There's also the Desmond Morris line - that it's our surrogate hunting instinct and it's gladiatorial."

Could it also be that men who are so poor at communicating - with each other and, of course, with women - find refuge in discussing something safe? "Yes, it is a way in," Strong concedes. "Although that's not necessarily a bad thing - if you get men talking to each other at all, it's good. Football doesn't just cross class - it crosses race, religion, everything."

If Strong is a keen fan, 36-year-old Mark-Anthony Turnage is happy to describe himself as obsessed. Currently Composer in Association at the ENO, his new works, Twice Through the Heart and The Country of the Blind, will have their world premieres at the 50th Aldeburgh Festival in June. Another Arsenal fan, Turnage has moved house, along with his wife and baby son, so that he can live just 100 yards from the Highbury ground. "Football is central to my life," explains the composer. "The adrenalin you get from it. If you really believe in a team, you get a sense of belonging, of community. Arsenal commissioning me to write a piece of music would be better than a commission from the New York Met. I worship Ian Wright - I'd much rather meet him than Placido Domingo."

The film of Fever Pitch culminates in Arsenal clinching the 1989 Football League championship with a winning goal from one Michael Thomas. What does he remember of it? "My wife will kill me, but that was the best moment of my life - well, second to the birth of my son, but better than getting married."

Does the fanatical devotion of a composer really indicate that football has been gentrified? Julie Welch, the first female football reporter, began working on The Observer in 1973. She disputes the use of the term. "Where football always seeded itself in the working class, it's now seeded itself in a wider group because society has changed. There are many more middle-class people than there were. So I prefer to call it the `rockisation' of football. Like the rock industry, there are high-profile shortlife players and lots of people making money in the background."

For the likes of me, unable to recognise anyone other than Cantona, Eurostar philosopher, and Gazza, part-time wife-beater, there is bad news. "It's now such an important part of the fabric, if you're intelligent and wish to take part in the national debate you have to have a position on football," says Welch.

Indeed, more women are getting in on the act. Sara Cox, presenter of the Girlie Show, and Sporty Spice Girl Mel C are high-profile football supporters. Eleanor Oldroyd, a Radio 5 sports presenter, estimates that about 10 per cent of spectators at matches are women. "You can start off fancying Steve McManaman and you can end up appreciating Peter Beardsley, even though he's no oil painting."

Is there no escape? Mark Strong, still on a wave after an hour, says: "It's like anything - the minute you understand the rules, it sucks you in. My girlfriend knows as much about it as I do. Come to a match with us." Oh dear, I think I may have said yes.

`Fever Pitch' opens on Friday