Just when you think warm days will never cease, football makes its return, greedily elbowing aside the gentle pursuits of summer – cricket, Glyndebourne, the Proms – to remind us of the coming grim endurance test of winter.
It's not the game I mind. In my own unobtrusive way I quite enjoy the game and even, through half-closed eyes, support a team. What I object to is this rude unseasonal awakening, football's refusal to leave us alone for a while, to give us, in the language of a wife who's grown bored with her husband's company, "a little space".
There's something about August. No one will allow us to enjoy it at our own pace. Every year this same rushing us out of the last of summer – if it's not football it's winter fashions, the "New Collections" showing up in shop windows, and any day now Christmas decorations, followed by suggestions for Valentine's Day gifts and Easter eggs, followed by the swimwear we'll be wearing for the summer after the one we're still in – as though there can be no patient enjoyment of now, no patient submission to the rules of time. Instead this constant harrying us out of one month and into another, an unseemly haste we see mirrored in the hurry parents are in to turn their children into grown-ups. Once we went in dread of the hungry generations waiting to tread us down: now we lie in the road and invite them to walk all over us. Why this headlong rush into our own surcease? It will come soon enough, reader, when it's ready.
But if the return of football is always cruel, this year it's even crueller because it never went away. When did the World Cup finish? Last week? Yesterday? The failure of our footballers to give us the success we had no reason to expect has kept them more than ever in the news. Because we can't forgive them we can't forget them. That's to say the newspapers won't forget them for us. Not a day's gone by since South Africa without a picture appearing of one or other of the disgraced England team caught drinking, philandering or urinating (often all three simultaneously) in the alleyway of some Costa of Shame, every moment of pleasure they take in spending the salaries we don't believe they deserve being a further goad to our annoyance. What did we expect? That they would put themselves in monasteries after their exit from the World Cup? That they would say sorry to us by denying themselves the company of escorts with plastic breasts? That they would give their money to the poor?
"Peter Ouch!" The Sun punned pathetically last week, on its front not its back page. Not only must we tolerate the premature return of football, we must endure the premature return of the football pun. Where did this tradition of utterly infelicitous punning originate? Is it meant to be a working-class thing? Are we truly to believe that they laugh over "Peter Ouch" at the bar of the Dog and Whistle in Tower Hamlets? Do they pun about Hamlet in Tower Hamlets? My own suspicion is that puns are like popular television, dreamed up for the proletariat by people with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge where of course you never hear a pun. I assumed the Peter Ouch pun to be a reference to Peter Crouch's having cut his finger on a champagne glass or accidentally urinated on a graze on his ankle picked up while limbo dancing in Naxos, but in fact the "Ouch!" was an expression of moral disapproval of a sort also, I suspect, never heard in Tower Hamlets. Crouch, or so it was alleged, had been sexually misbehaving. In which case wouldn't "Peter Crutch!" have better fitted the bill? No, because The Sun's puns are as prim as they are prodigious. But who cares anyway? Well someone must, because for this minor misdemeanour committed by a player who barely kicked a ball in South Africa, our brief summer holiday from football and footballers has been interrupted.
There's a deep ambivalence at the heart of hero-worship. Those whose photographs we pin up on our walls today are those whose hearts we would tear out tomorrow. Whoever signs autographs has felt that dangerous trembling of the ether at the moment of making contact with a fan – the pen he hands across to sign with could so easily be a dagger. And with sportsmen love will turn to hatred – or, if you like, loyalty will turn to vengeance – much more quickly because the expectation is so much higher. But if it's been vengeance ever since the Germans danced pretty rings around us in Bloemfontein, it's remained an obsessively fascinated vengeance, as witness the orchestrated campaign to get us to go to Wembley the other night to watch our fallen heroes play Hungary and boo them. Does being a football fan get more fatuous than this? To trudge across the least lovely parts of London, part with good money, and hiss at those you've paid to watch?
In fact the booing didn't much materialise, though Rooney, when he was substituted, copped a bit. Are they booing Rooney for being Rooney, the commentators speculated as he left the field, or are they booing Capello for taking him off? We could just as reasonably have wondered if the fans were booing themselves for being such fools as to turn up in the first place. Or booing God for having fashioned man to so trivial an end.
Myself, I've never been to a sporting occasion yet without feeling the ground of meaning give way beneath me halfway through. It's an existential thing. Spectator sports exist to get us through the futility of life, but a little of that original futility always shows through. Do we really care who wins? Does it really matter? Will the rapture we feel when the goal goes in still be with us in the morning, or will that hole at the heart of existence reappear, in need of another goal, another wicket, another grand slam won by a person we couldn't actually give a fig about?
A break is all I ask for. And a break for poor Rooney, too. So much promise of footballing genius in the build-up, so much baffled incomprehension on the day. Sport is the fool of bathos, and the pains of bathos take time to heal. We could all do with a year off football, but they won't even give us the summer. Look away is my suggestion. But even I am already wondering how Manchester United is going to fare.Reuse content