Our national religion is in crisis. The Holy Church of the Terraces is in disarray, as several Premiership footballers face rape allegations and Rio Ferdinand's failure to turn up to a drug test threatens his career. Even Wayne Rooney, the 17 year-old great hope of English football, has taken to howling at referees.
The young men who are worshipped across this country as gods seem to be acting rather less like Catholic saints and more like the Hindu deities, who were fond of descending to earth and trashing the place for a few centuries. Two questions arise from this: what is causing this rash of football rage; and, is it indicative of a wider - and disturbing - cultural malaise among our age group?
The clique of mega-rich, sexually avaricious footballers facing rape allegations has been created by a toxic collision of cultural forces. Attitudes towards celebrity and women have coalesced to create a gang of men whose behaviour illustrates some of the most dysfunctional aspects of our culture. The price of celebrity in our Heat-magazine culture is largely paid by the people on its pages. Premiership footballers are elevated from obscurity in their teenage years, when all men are at their most narcissistic, unpleasant and confused. They are treated like masters of the world. Being surrounded by sycophants constantly from youth would warp all but the most grounded personalities. Having women throw themselves forward constantly would challenge the attitude towards women of even the most progressive-minded man. Top footballers live on such an island of flattery that they really do begin to believe they are superhuman, and don't have to follow the same rules as everybody else.
This is compounded by the way footballers are sent contradictory messages. They are athletes who are told by their clubs to achieve physical perfection, yet their fans love the fact that superstar footballers live the life that ordinary people can't: squiring models, endless drinking and group sex. The tension is too great: for many footballers, life in the celebrity bubble interferes with their ability to be effective athletes.
The most worrying aspect of this footballers' culture, however, is its regressive attitude towards women. It has been claimed that young football players often practice "roasting", where they will all have sex with the same groupie. There is nothing wrong with consensual group sex, and much of the lascivious reporting of this issue has been tainted with prudery. Yet it appears to reveal a troubling underlying attitude which is also apparent in internet porn, which is overwhelmingly aggressive and based on degrading women. (You have to spend far longer on the internet looking into this subject than I am inclined to if you want to find happy, healthy women enjoying sex.)
Mainstream football is one of the last remaining spheres sealed off from women's participation (and success). For a few hours a week, male fans can unashamedly revel in masculinity in all its glory. They can bathe in testosterone, howl at The Enemy (the other side), and see women solely as worshippers of men who enjoy a good roasting. Rio Ferdinand, at the centre of the latest tempest, is fond of strip clubs (he even broke a curfew before England's World Cup qualifying match with Greece to go to one) and the women he meets there. Roasting is part of a culture, which wants to put women "in their place". (Type "roasting" into Google and check out the raw, woman-hating websites you discover).
It is certainly not about giving the woman pleasure. As working-class men from a culture where fathers are increasingly irrelevant and most people are raised by their mothers alone, they long not for strong women but for weak, passive females through whom they can bond with other men; blank depositories for shared semen. Roasting is a display of both brute masculine power and primal male bonding from a class of men disorientated by greater gender equality.
In this respect, such behaviour represents the wider culture. Several of my male friends admit (when drunk) that they find the idea of "roasting" and even rape fantasies appealing. There is an undercurrent of anger at women's liberation that is much stronger (and more frightening) than most people realise. Interestingly though, if you relied solely on the newspapers, you would assume that this behaviour was a problem only for the "underclass", the poor kids who get plucked from Peckham to be footballers.
Yet at Cambridge University, I knew packs of public schoolboys who behaved in exactly the same way: coke-snorting piss-heads who aggressively harassed women, upturned dustbins, intimidated local residents and generally acted like imbeciles. I once met a posh boy who boasted that he was part of a drinking society called "the Wild Stallions". I laughed and asked him, "Why don't you just go the whole hog and rename yourselves the Mindless Misogynists?"
Yet nobody thinks of these groups as harbingers of a cultural apocalypse. This is simply because they are rich, and most opinion-formers can relate to them ("We were all a bit wild in our Oxbridge days," they chuckle). The bad behaviour of the middle class is written off as teething troubles; we never give even an inch of that leeway to the poor. The unruliness of footballers is exaggerated by their celebrity and the extreme egotism it induces, but their antisocial behaviour is indicative of a wider trend towards social anarchy and the breakdown of unwritten rules of behaviour.
The Labour MP Frank Field documents, in his new book Neighbours From Hell: the Politics of Behaviour, how in his constituency, Birkenhead, there had been a vast increase in antisocial behaviour by a hardcore of offenders since he was elected in 1979. It is tempting to say - as Field does - that the solution is an aggressive reassertion of authority. He argues in defence of Social Exclusion Orders, where the police can ban persistent offenders from an area, and says they should also have the power to act as "surrogate parents", disciplining children whose parents refuse to.
Football clubs could easily do the same for the vulnerable players in their care. They need to impose tighter contracts on them, requiring good behaviour in return for their Ferraris. Like the young men creating chaos on so many of our streets, football players need to be told that they exist in a wider social context.
Huge issues about celebrity, gender and an alcohol-obsessed culture cannot be addressed by the Football Association or the Home Office, but we must begin somewhere. Football is a communal activity that magnifies the problems of British society. By all means, throw the book at Rio Ferdinand or at any players who degrade and abuse women. But let's not be too smug about this: we need to look also at the council estates and, yes, the Cambridge colleges.Reuse content