Truth pays the penalty in a week of mindless verbal hooliganism

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The Independent Culture
"'Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them.' I have a fancy for this saying of Yeats, and football culture does not escape it. English club football, in its organisation and thinking, has found this last two years that it had the strength to reject a great deal which was holding it back."

This statement was written by the football commentator Stratton Smith, and it opens his introduction to a book for boys he edited in 1962 called the International Football Book No 4 - just four years before the "glory days" of 1966. The publisher of the book was a young man called Ernest Hecht, proprietor of the Souvenir Press, who, 34 years on, is still a publisher of football books - and still the fervent Arsenal supporter he was in those years.

Several things are remarkable about Stratton Smith's words: their relative sobriety and academic restraint, for example; and the fact that the opening paragraph of a book aimed at young readers could contain a reference to a bit of interesting speculation about the nature of culture by WB Yeats, Anglo-Ireland's greatest poet. Are there any references to WB Yeats, Wallace Stevens or TS Eliot in football annuals of the past decade?

Another great Irish poet was in my mind during these past two weeks as I read some of the crudely nationalistic rhetoric on display in the headlines of the tabloid press - and especially in the days between the lucky victory over Spain and that final defeat at the feet of Germany. This was Seamus Heaney. Around the time of the publication of Heaney's last book, Seeing Things, I talked to him about the fact that big words such as "soul" and "spirit" had begun to play quite a prominent part in his poetry. Was there a danger in this? Yes, Heaney said, and it was always proper to be cautious. Why? Because in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Ireland there had been a collusion between "high national rhetoric and low, dangerous activities - the IRA and so on". On the other hand, he thought that the appetite for uttering a big truth about, say, religion or the reverence that one might wish to express for life itself shouldn't be rebuked altogether. The question was: how was it to be uttered?

But can football be counted among the Big Truths of our culture? Surely it is a game played by grown men with a ball on a stretch of turf. And to suggest too much otherwise is to toy with dangerously fanciful and rabble-rousing sentiments. To suggest that it is a battle between old enemies, as has been done this week for example, is to draw a dangerous parallel between mutual annihilation and mutual rivalry of an essentially non-violent kind.

And yet this week there was again that same dangerous collusion between high, national rhetoric and big, vapid statements in sections of the tabloid press. Take the headline on the back page of the Daily Express on Wednesday for example, the day that England was defeated by Germany: "James Lawton on the redemption of English football," it said.

Redemption? Redemption! The claim was overblown, tacky with false religiosity. And it was language such as this that helped to shape the events of Wednesday night in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere. The tabloid press played a significant role in raising the public's expectations that England not only could but also deserved to win this competition; and that to do so was a matter of national pride and honour. When the team, in spite of its collective energy courage, talents and commitments failed to meet these expectations, an orgy of frustration and violence was the consequence. The commentators, those irresponsible rabble- rousers, were clearly to blame for some of this. They did not watch their words as a good poet might have done.

The ugly return of football violence leads of course, to a repetition of the old saw that football supporters are, generally speaking, mindless hooligans. In Milton Keynes a policeman spokesman had this to say about the violence: "Neanderthal man is out there in force tonight and we are very stretched in trying to keep up with him." To speak of football supporters in general as Neanderthal man does two quite different things. It quite properly draws our attention to the continuing problem of football violence. But it also stigmatises the sport in a subtler way by taking us back to the days before it came to be regarded as a proper object of serious attention by critics of popular culture in universities from the late 1960s onwards; back, in fact, to the days of the 1940s and 1950s when football was generally regarded as the exclusive pastime of the working classes, and consequently several rungs on the social ladder below tennis, cricket and polo. Some of that has changed - but the old prejudice lingers on.

The great event that turned a whole nation on to the idea of football was, of course, the victory over Germany in 1966. But even the great Hugh McIlvanney, writing it up for the Observer on 31 July 1966, was guilty of an unpardonable excess of nationalistic rhetoric in the closing sentence of his match report: "Maybe those fellows were right," he wrote, "when they said God was an Englishman."