Mary Dejevsky: The cult of football is a blight on our national life

The pre-eminence of football in England is both distorting and debasing

Share

Fabio Capello's "shock" resignation as England football manager unleashed the inevitable orgy of introspection about the wretched state of "the national game". From the moment the news broke, the talk was of nothing else, on new media and old. Whether it was the supposed drama of the Italian's departure, the need for the next manager to be English, or the finer points of management decorum, everyone had a view. Even the Prime Minister weighed in, saying he was sorry to see "Fabio" go, but thought he had been "wrong about the John Terry issue". No more was needed. Everyone knew what "the John Terry issue" was.

Just as everyone knows – or so it seems from the repetitiveness of the comments over the past 48 hours – what is wrong with "our national game". Indeed, even those of us who abandon BBC Radio 5 Live for whole weekends at a stretch – for not being able to guarantee a two-minute general news bulletin on time – have a pretty good idea.

English football is as much about entertainment as sport. Its stars are paid even more than bankers and may be fatally distracted by WAGs. The recruitment of foreign players stifles the development of home-grown "talent", so restricting the pool for national selection. And, of that pool, quite a number end up in a perennial tug-of-love between their loyalty to club and country – always assuming they are not injured.

Given that all this is known, is it not time to stop asking what is wrong with English football and ask instead what is wrong with England? How come football came to occupy such a central place in English life that the departure of the England manager is treated as high national drama and does not even need an explicit reference to football? How come anyone who does not follow "the game" risks exclusion from what passes for the national conversation, not least by the office water cooler on a Monday? How come even very junior youth matches have become mini-battlegrounds between parents?

The charge sheet goes on. When did cheating – as in "diving", or writhing around feigning injury – become endemic in football, before spreading into other sports and other walks of life? Come to that, when did the first meaning of diving become "diving", rather than the legitimate sport?

When did spitting suddenly become acceptable, and not just acceptable but worthy of imitation? When did the price of Premier League season tickets run into four figures, without conspicuously thinning out the all-seater stands?

How come people who complain they can barely afford a crust for their family decide to shell out more than £40 a month to see live football on satellite television? And when did a vast football stadium, with expensive franchised eateries, become the must-have facility for any self-respecting locale – an edifice it will go to great lengths to solicit finance for, even as it baulks at funding social housing?

Some of the blame can be laid squarely at the door of a certain section of the modern urban middle class, who liked to channel the grittiness of the football crowd once or twice a week, without having to share it the rest of the time. The Nick Hornby tendency, as it might be called, made football a particular cultural fetish, and allowed the top clubs to charge the ticket prices they did. Thus did football rise out of its working origins to claim its classless accolade as "the national game".

At very least, it might be said in its defence, it kept a – mostly male – part of the population off the streets for a couple of hours a week. Until its following became such as to require intensive policing, elaborate traffic diversions and special licensing hours, the balance might be said to have been positive. After all, the football season had a definite beginning and an end, and there was always cricket and tennis to look forward to in the summer.

In recent years, however, football has steamrollered almost all other sports, thanks in some degree to satellite television. This has not happened to the same extent in Continental Europe, where even top clubs remain close to their roots. And the pre-eminence of football in England – with its status, its vulgarity and its money – has distorted and debased national life no less insidiously than did the general obeisance to wealth on the never-never over the same time.

One effect of the dominance enjoyed by this one very rich and pampered sport has been to give even very young children the idea that football is the most reliable route to wealth and fame. They believe this, to the exclusion not just of other studies, but of other sports. Such monopoly appeal cannot be healthy.

What do you think when you see leading footballers emerge from the tunnel on a weekend afternoon hand in hand with small children? Do you think: how sweet and wholesome? Or do you think: how long did those children nag? How much did their parents pay? What did the replica strips cost – available only through certain stockists at fixed prices? And what unedifying boasting and envy will there be in the school playground, where personal kudos is measured by proximity to football?

The London Olympics offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to reverse this. A much wider variety of sports than is usually aired will be shown on television, while ticket sales suggest that many more people than would usually attend a non-football sports event will be attracted to go. Just as it has been recognised in the wake of the financial crisis that the British economy needs to be "rebalanced" to scale back the dominance of the financial sector, so sport in England needs to be re-balanced away from the diktat of football.

In that event, there would be several happy consequences. The England manager would be able to focus more on his team than on cutting a figure as an international celebrity and his departure would cease to be a national drama. Everyone, not just children, would have access to a broader choice of sports, as money and expertise was spread more widely. And – not to be sneezed at – there would be more conversations, by the water cooler or in the playground, that more people could join on a Monday morning.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman runs down the street  

Should wolf-whistling be reported to the Police? If you're Poppy Smart, then yes

Jane Merrick
 

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence