Nobody bothers to say any more that football is the new rock'n'roll. It started off as a clever observation, then it became a truism, not even worth articulating, and now, with the nation agog for the latest news on Wayne Rooney's fourth metatarsal, it has finally become redundant. The health of rock stars does not excite anything like as much interest as that of footballers, indeed yesterday's newspapers offered a direct comparison, Rooney's woes occupying vastly more column inches than the news that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones had been given a brain scan after falling out of a Fijian coconut tree.
No, if footballers are the new anything, they are the new royalty. Or rather, the old royalty. The grave bulletins on Rooney evoke nothing so much as the bulletins that were issued as Queen Victoria lay dying at Osborne House in January 1901.
Then as now, a solemn nation waited with bated breath for regular updates. Then as now, a handful of crazies felt that the power of prayer might restore the invalid's ability to skip daintily up and down the stairs, while more pragmatically-minded optimists suggested that the heavy black cloud might just have a silver lining.
They argued then that with the death of his mother, King Edward VII could seize the opportunity to make the monarchy less formal and sepulchral, more in touch with the new century, just as they argue now that in Rooney's enforced absence Sven Goran Eriksson could beneficially deploy Carrick as a holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Owen operating on his own up front.
But then as now, the overwhelming emotion in the country was one of despondency. The end of a great era with the death of its defining figure; the end of England's hopes of winning the 2006 World Cup with the sidelining of the young man widely expected to win it for us.
When HG Wells wrote that Queen Victoria was like a great paper-weight that for half a century sat upon men's minds, and that "when she was removed their ideas began to blow about all over the place haphazardly," he might have been writing about the strategy for winning the World Cup without Rooney. Crouch up front with Owen? Joe Cole and Stewart Downing joining Owen in a three-man attack? Haphazard barely even begins to describe it.
In fact, the only difference I can think of between then and now is that in 1901, hardly anyone remembered the death of a monarch. Victoria's predecessor, William IV, had passed away in 1837, and 64 years later there was nobody around to advise on matters of protocol. Whereas, by stark contrast, we all remember how the condition of David Beckham's foot became a national obsession in the early summer of 2002. And how the damaged foot of Rooney himself was cited as the principal reason for England's ejection from Euro 2004.
Unlike the flustered courtiers gathered at Osborne House just over a century ago, we know precisely the protocol for worrying about a broken metatarsal.
Diagrams; detailed interviews with orthopaedic surgeons; erudite analysis of whether the lightweight modern boot is to blame; people in pubs earnestly discussing the differences between the first, second, third, fourth and fifth metatarsals like delegates at a medical conference. We can expect it all in the days and weeks to come.
Indeed, when Rooney went to ground on Saturday afternoon, John Motson, commentating for Match of the Day, said: "Having lived through the metatarsal in 2004, when Rooney goes down like that, every England fan shivers." He talked about the metatarsal of 2004 like people talk about the Blitz of 1940, or the flu epidemic of 1918, as a national trauma. And frankly, he was not overstating the case.
Or was he? There are, of course, those who couldn't care a fig for Rooney or his foot, and for them, the media interest in his injury must look worryingly like the first twitch of World Cup madness. I am not one of these people - on the contrary, I confess that I spent much of Sunday frantically twiddling knobs to hear the latest metatarsal update - but I sympathise with them.
After all, I am not into cars myself. As far as I'm concerned, BMW might be about to launch a new coupe with a twin-turbo direct injection engine, or they might be about to launch a new propelling pencil. I don't care. Cars and their engine sizes bore me. So if there was a huge international car festival due to start on 9 June in Germany and finish a month later, occupying hours and hours of BBC and ITV airtime, with the fuel consumption of the Mazda and the suspension of the Lexus elevated to matters of global importance, I would be feeling more than a little gloomy.
And if these few remaining weeks of sanity were threatened because a particular Aston Martin had developed a problem with its gearbox and might or might not be repaired in time to take part, causing immense anxiety in millions of otherwise rational people, I would feel downright depressed. On the other hand, it must be decidedly liberating not to give a toss about Rooney's metatarsal.
It's not sympathy I feel for football-haters, but envy.Reuse content