Britain's national passion for a sex substitute

FOOTBALL is popular in Britain not because it is an easy game to play, requiring only a ball and a clearing. Nor does it capture the national psyche because of camaraderie and a collective enjoyment of skilful players. No, it is that it is an exercise in sublimation. At least, that was one theory offered yesterday at a conference on the psychology of the game.

Stamford Bridge, the London home of Chelsea Football Club, was yesterday the scene of an encounter between teams of analysts and academics and players who turned up to discuss the nation's "Football Passions".

The conference's opening theme was football as self-repression; the thesis of Freud's Civilisation - that all culture arises out of frustration of sexual desire - has long been a common place among trainers who veto sex before the big match.

Rogan Taylor, who runs the first MBA in football management at Liverpool University, put the case that the normal tendency when confronted with a ball is either to pick it up or whack it with a stick. The crux of football is that it prohibits the use of the hands (except to goalkeepers). This primary act of self-suppression not only creates a beautiful game, but also explains why hoards of people follow it so passionately: they are all hopelessly self-suppressed, too.

It took a Maradona and his "Hand of God" to transgress this fundamental rule. Masochism is an integral part of football's appeal. Unlike basketball, which is too easy, the football match is an agony in which suffering is the norm and if anything goes right it is a miracle.

Leon Skleimberg started out as a Peruvian schoolboy footballer but took up psychoanalysis after being heinously tackled at the age of 16 when in the midst of an overhead scissors kick. He echoed the earlier argument with a quotation from his first trainer: "Save your hands for your girlfriend, Mr Skleimberg."

He introduced the idea of football as enactment. Within the boundaries of the pitch, it allows you "to be primitive, to regress in a healthy way". He did not believe in prohibiting sex before the game; the whole thrust of football is the realisation of psychoerotic drives. It is above all penetration, scoring, "filling holes" which would otherwise be filled with delinquency or alcohol. Football, in short, is a barely disguised Dionysian fertility cult.

Former England player Trevor Brooking provided a dissenting note. Football, he argued, was not full of dysfunctional misfits. "Ron Greenwood encouraged you to think you have to be able to keep your head when everyone else is losing theirs; sanity gives you an extra second or two," he said.

In this ironic encounter of theoreticians versus practitioners, the analysts favoured Gazza's tears and Cantona's kick and unconscious impulses, whereas Brooking's wholesome slogan was "mind over matter".

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