I was playing football in Iran the other day. Before the match, the coach of the opposition chanted a verse from the Koran. As the sound drifted around the Martyr Commanders' Football Centre in the hills of northern Tehran I looked around the small crowd. No heads were bowed and no one was listening: the young men in the small crowd carried on joshing each other and chatting about the game. In the battle between sport and religion, football (to borrow a phrase you may hear at lot) was the winner. We discovered over the next few days that Iran isn't an especially religious country. In the cities, the mosques are three-quarters empty at prayer time. Ordinary Iranians seem more interested in shopping, picnics - and football. "Beckham" is not an easy word for Farsi speakers, but everyone had a go. Wherever we've ventured - Syria, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba - say "Beckham" and you get the local equivalent of a thumbs-up and a big smile. "Beck-am. Goooooood player, yes?!!"
The man himself is cheerfully resigned to his ubiquity. This month he told a magazine that there's now no country where he can walk unchaperoned. Even the Americans have succumbed to the universal language of football. Maybe that's why Bush made last week's conciliatory gesture towards Iran. Iran is in the World Cup, and he needed a grand gesture ahead of this great festival of international brotherhood.
Ubiquity isn't the point, though. If the universal language of football is no more than the swapping of players' surnames, then what an impoverished language it must be. But it's more than that: football gives people a rich means of expression.
I don't mean people: I mean men.
People who don't understand football insist it's a not very sublimated expression of violence and tribalism. They see the St George cross on a white van and conjure up modern-day crusaders raping and pillaging across continents, trampling over more sophisticated cultures in their bloody drive towards their Jerusalem - the World Cup final.
I don't mean people: I mean women. Most women don't understand football - or to be precise, the emotions football stirs in men. They think they do. They've seen the fights; they know about Charleroi in 2000 and Heysel in 1985, and can be forgiven for concluding that football-supporting is a hard drug made from the most dangerous chemical known to man - testosterone.
So why do men call it the Beautiful Game? Because all proper football fans are aesthetes. They don't dream of flailing fists. They dream of Van Basten's impossible volley, Gascoigne's virtuoso run against Scotland. D H Lawrence once wrote abut his emotion on seeing an old miner hear his daughter play the piano, witnessing his yearning for beauty, difference. That's what we're like: white collar, blue collar and sans chemises alike, we all look to football for those moments of transcendence.
Football makes men articulate. Lawrence was moved by his old miner. I'm moved by the football phone-ins. You know the blokes who ring in can barely string together three coherent sentences from Monday to Friday. Then, on Saturday evening, give them the topic of Rooney's foot or Sven's Christmas Tree and suddenly they're Cicero.
Football gives another form of universal male expression: the wind-up. When Chile play Bolivia the Chilean fans sing "Vamos a la playa" ("Let's go to the beach") - a reference to the 1879-83 war when Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile. Arsenal sing "We pay your ben-e-fits" to the tune of "La donna è mobile" to Liverpool fans. Workplaces on Monday morning are a sea of individual jousts and tussles as you try to put one over on the Manc next door or the Tractor Boy at the other end of the email. It's not big, or edifying and it's not good for productivity. But it is clever, and it does give us something to look forward to in our emotionally-crippled male lives.
Auberon Waugh once commented on a report alleging that alcohol was responsible for some 200,000 people being certified a year. That, said Waugh, was but a tiny fraction of those whom alcohol keeps sane. The same goes for football. It drives you mad - but you'd rather be mad and scream at the match than be sane and go to B&Q on a Saturday.
Mark Jones is editorial director of 'High Life' and plays for an ageing south London football teamReuse content