DJ Taylor: Blatter's no more than a bench player

Football is bigger than Fifa and its boss. Even on a good day, he has about as much to do with top sport as John Sergeant

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Possibly the oddest thing about last week's Fifa meltdown – the suspension of senior officials on corruption charges, the unopposed re-election of Sepp Blatter and the faint stirrings of sponsor unease – has been the inability of a decent-sized chunk of the populace to see what all the fuss is about.

To the non-soccer fan, the sight of Mr Blatter on every front page and the blanket coverage given to his detractors from the English FA was the equivalent of News at Ten leading with coastal erosion in North Norfolk. "After all," as one friend incredulously put it, "it's only football."

The problem with this approach is that, almost since its inception, and certainly since the mid-Victorian codification of its rules, football has always been more than a sport. In the 1860s it offered the materials for socio-cultural bridge-building with many professional teams originating from working men's societies. Later, football became an integral part of the moral code brought to Victorian public schools – with injunctions to "play the game" and shrug off the "hard knocks" – and an invaluable tool for inculcating these lessons several rungs down the social ladder.

Eighty years later, alas, football has become a different kind of signifier: an example of what happens when the two parallel lines of globalisation and television start to converge, and the huge amounts of money that can be made along the way. Just as the head of an Oxbridge college has nothing to do with education, but spends his (or her) time marshalling the fund-raisers, so Mr Blatter is simply a high-grade business impresario whose activities, on a good day, bear some notional attachment to sport. Meanwhile, is there a recreational activity left beyond marbles and conkers, you wonder, that is "only a game"? Fifa was founded in 1904 by the way, as a means of fostering international co-operation. Don't laugh.

***

My local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Express, was greatly excited by the unveiling of Felbrigg Hall's "talking bench", one of eight recently installed by the National Trust which allows "a cluster of stars" to "share their odes and anecdotes about their favourite Trust properties". Visitors to Felbrigg, near Cromer, who plug in their headphones will hear Stephen Fry remark how "very alive" the place is, and allege that "you can almost hear the rustles of the skirts of the maids as they hurry along with bowls of steaming water". Other notables roped into the scheme include the TV presenter Claudia Winkleman (Quarry Mill Bank, Cheshire) and the BBC's erstwhile political journalist John Sergeant, who does the honours for Petworth House and Park, West Sussex.

The National Trust maintains that the idea sprang from research suggesting that just half of the population takes time to appreciate Britain's natural beauty, and that the scheme aims "to help visitors enjoy the scenery by giving a relaxing, celebrity view of the sights and sounds around them". But what we really have here, it might be argued, is another of those blandly condescending attempts to domesticate the past. In much the same way, visitors to Norwich Castle Museum's Boudicca exhibition are encouraged to watch an audio-visual recreation of the Iceni defending their territory, in which picturesquely clad actresses leap out of hedgerows with yells of "The Romans are coming!" The highlight of trips to the castle when I was a child was an Anglo-Saxon skull cloven nearly in two by an axe. No prizes for guessing which gave a better idea of the realities of pre-Norman Britain.

***

Apparently the Australian state of Victoria, alarmed by the growing use of profanities in its public places, has decided to introduce fines of A$240 (£155) for people who swear "obnoxiously". The move, which has been likened to the establishment of a state-wide swearbox, will allow police to issue on-the-spot rebukes, similar to parking or speeding notices.

Naturally, anyone alarmed by the sheer indecorousness of modern communal life will want to welcome this salutary measure. On the other hand, when it comes to the new law's practical enforcement, there are clear distinctions to be made. When, to take the most obvious one, does swearing become "obnoxious"? Loitering by the rail at Great Yarmouth races on Tuesday night, I couldn't help eavesdropping on the small talk being loudly exchanged by the extended Cockney family in front of me ("Facking hell, Sandra" etc). And yet it was difficult to find anything actively offensive in this banter. It was simply how Mr Tattoo and his soft-voiced missus spoke to each other, and to have reproached them would merely produce a puzzled stare.

Then, of course, there is the problem of humorous swearing. Anthony Burgess used to relate how, while serving in the Second World War, he heard a mechanic's diagnosis of a broken-down engine. "Fuck", in its various declensions, was used successively as an imperative, an adjective, a noun, an adverb and a verb: "Fuck it! The fucking fucker's fucking fucked." This kind of thing, of course, takes genius.

***

To go back to Tuesday's evening meeting at Great Yarmouth, with its Cockney chorus, several commentators have remarked, mostly in relation to yesterday's Derby, on the renewed enthusiasm for horseracing as a spectator sport. The pat explanation for this would be the effect of the recession, and the added incentive for the not terribly well-off to venture a wallet-enhancing flutter. On the other hand, one notes the comparative absence of middle-class people from race tracks. It remains, by and large, either an upper-class or a working-class pursuit.

Presumably this has something to do with residual middle-class Puritanism, that stark horror of "gambling" that, half-a-century ago, affected so many pious lower-bourgeois households. The Taylor family's sole winner at Great Yarmouth turned out to be my 11-year-old son, who, allowed stakes to the value of £20, and amid shrieks of "It's won! My horse has won!", came home with a profit of £12.50.

In a Victorian novel this would naturally be an intensely symbolic moment – the innocent child exposed to his first demoralising influence by a weak-minded Papa, the road to Perdition stretching out inexorably before him. As I pointed out earlier, in connection with Mr Blatter's heroics at the Zurich podium, no sport ever exists on its own terms.

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