Why I always get caught up in crowd trouble

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The Independent Football

Watched a football match, live, last week. Not an unprecedented event. Three or four times a year, when he has a spare ticket, a friend takes me. I don't know why, in that case, every match always feels like the first, but it does. The way sex is supposed to feel. So I shouldn't complain. Is not the gift of being able to renew one's virginity the secret of innocence? The trouble is, I'm a bit old for innocence. It compromises my maleness.

Watched a football match, live, last week. Not an unprecedented event. Three or four times a year, when he has a spare ticket, a friend takes me. I don't know why, in that case, every match always feels like the first, but it does. The way sex is supposed to feel. So I shouldn't complain. Is not the gift of being able to renew one's virginity the secret of innocence? The trouble is, I'm a bit old for innocence. It compromises my maleness.

"Fancy coming to the game?" my friend rings to ask, and immediately I go girlish. It's as though I've been sent red roses. After which all I can think about is what I am going to wear.

What does one wear, at my age, for football? A team strip is out of the question, not least as I can never remember what team it is. Or the names of the players. Or that you don't jump up and down with excitement when the other side scores. Such forgetfulness is not commensurate with being a supporter. Besides which I am ideologically opposed to uniforms – uniform is servitude, I say. But without the standby of a red shirt with some Frenchman's name and number on it, I am reduced to trying on everything in my wardrobe before I leave the house – soft linen suits, academic corduroys, blazers with nautical buttons, opera scarves. Two years ago I bought an ankle-length anorak with a fur hood to watch football in, but this looks right only in a blizzard on Everest, and last week we were enjoying an Indian summer.

Although she has on several occasions seen me getting ready to go to a football match, my partner also behaves as though every time is the first. It's not what she supposed men did before a sporting event – pulling out every garment they own and then flouncing out of the house in despair of their appearance. "If this is what you're like for football," she tells me, "I think I'd know if you were having an affair." "Having an affair is a piece of cake," I tell her, discarding a floral waistcoat. "You don't have to worry what you wear for an affair."

As a rule I meet my friend who has the tickets outside the ground. This gives me time to get my voice down a register, though it's usually still falsetto when I'm asking which part of the booklet I'm meant to hand the person behind the grille and then start pushing at the turnstile in a panic before he has released it. Do I go helpless on purpose? Is there something about being taken to a match that resembles being on a date? Am I having an affair after all, as it were with football? Can't be, can it – I am not in love with football. Unless it's a sado-masochistic affair. Do I go to watch football to be humiliated in the soul of my masculinity?

In the ground itself I suddenly don't know what to do with my hands. I can do the introductory backslapping part. I have been here often enough for people to know me by now, and I like the conviviality of greeting and being greeted by them. But no sooner does the game get under way than my arms start to flop about. I try folding them but that feels too studious. Ditto resting my elbow on my knee and my chin on my fist. Putting my hands behind my head looks bored and anyway irritates the person behind. If only I could punch the air the way other men do. Or slap it, actually slap at space as you are meant to when a linesman makes a patently bad decision. Half rising from your seat in expectation, then falling back with a groan of disappointment and burying your head in your open palms I can almost do, though on me it comes out rabbinical. "If I were a rich man," people think I'm going to start singing.

All this is as nothing, though, compared to the agonies of having to make football conversation. In fact I am not as ignorant about football as I pretend. I'm lying when I say I don't know the players' names. At the end of any season I know who's won what and even who the Premier League's leading goalscorer is. When I'm sitting at home watching football on television, I scream and shout like everybody else, explaining to my partner why Alex Ferguson isn't half the manager he is cracked up to be. But that's home, where I have only a woman with no interest in football to impress. At the game itself, among men, I feel a fraud the minute I open my mouth. "Dennis," I heard myself saying the other night. Dennis, I called him, as though I were an intimate of his, or an intimate of his game. In truth, I was calling him Dennis only because I couldn't trust myself with Bergkamp, having forgotten whether or not the "g" is silent.

But must all ordinary human vocabulary flee my brain when I try talking football to a man? Did I have to discourse on Dennis's "imperious lightsomeness of mind no less than of body" when the person to my left made the mistake of engaging me in conversation?

In the taxi back – and that gets something doesn't it: the taxi back – the driver says: "I heard you won tonight."

I try to release the tightness in my throat. "Yeah, we did," I say. "Though it should have been by a bigger margin."

He nods. "Well, the thing with you," he says, "is that you've got that confidence. You always know you can score when you need to."

I'm enjoying this now. I like being called "you". There's a caress in it. "Exactly," I say. "We know we can turn to Thierry or Dennis when we're in trouble."

"You've got a strong team," he agrees.

"Were not just strong," I say. "There's an imperious lightsomeness about us."

Don't know why, but he goes quiet after that.

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