Maddened by the football-crazy media

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The Independent Online
WHILE the newscaster Martyn Lewis is creating waves with his pleas to adjust news values towards more uplifting items, I'd like to make another heartfelt plea for a rethink. Why do newspapers and broadcasters give such prominent coverage to the game of football? Don't they realise that half the population, certainly most women and a minority of men, are either indifferent or positively hostile to the game?

Not one member of my household or immediate family, or anyone close to me, cares who wins the forthcoming FA Cup. Nor were we on the edge of our seats when Graham Taylor's boys met the Netherlands at Wembley. The worst thing about the World Cup is that football seems capable of expanding into an around-the-year sport. Will we never get a break?

This sense of living in an alien soccer-crazed world hit home powerfully this week with the coverage of Brian Clough's departure from Nottingham Forest. I expect football to be confined to the sports pages, so I can avoid it. But when it invades the front page and takes over general features space, I object. Where was the epic quality in Clough's retirement?

Here was a man of 58, looking the worse for wear, at the end of an extremely lucrative career. 'It's just like the eternal flame flickering out at the Olympics,' said John McGovern, one of his former players, in the Daily Mail. Really? Surely Clough's tale is a simple illustration of the cycle of life, showing how talented people rise and fall assisted by their personal qualities and flaws. No more, no less. No one goes on for ever, especially in the competitive and youthful world of sport.

One of the best things to come from multi-channel television has been Rupert Murdoch's decision to throw millions of pounds at cornering exclusive live coverage of the Premier League matches for pay-television audiences. I'm all for it. Pubs advertise the service and draw in lots of keen young men. Mr Murdoch has performed a great public service by freeing up airtime on the main channels. How much better to have football and its supporters corralled into a minority niche.

It also means that the BBC's Match of the Day runs only edited matches so that football doesn't overrun and spoil, for example, the start time of films. It would also be nice if this allowed a wider variety of sports to be shown: if only we could be freed from the traditional stranglehold of football, boxing and snooker. Personally, I feel admitted to sports pages and programmes only during Wimbledon, though I enjoy and follow show jumping, cross-country and skating as well.

But why is it so many women say openly that they hate football - for hate is the word they reach for? Examining my prejudices, as I watched this week's England versus the Netherlands match, I'd say that while the game may be skilful, the whole package is off-putting. I loathe the way the lads embrace on the field after goals, and the whole spectacle of men chasing a ball in garish sports kit over a green field leaves me cold. And when it is accompanied by the huge chanting, singing and roaring crowd I find the whole spectacle intimidating. I also hate the on-pitch thuggery - the fouls when players deliberately trip each other up and inflict deliberate injuries.

Then there is the macho chumminess, apparent from John Major and David Mellor downwards, in which football club allegiances somehow work to exclude women. There is something primitive about the tribal identification of supporters with clubs and colours.

When Channel 4 screened its football drama, The Manageress, a few years ago, the actress Cherie Lunghi made a credible stab at depicting a woman's success in the world of soccer. But I wasn't fooled. The culture of football seems to produce stereotypical working-class heroes, and status is measured by money, flashy cars and women. One of the landmarks of Clough's rise from Middlesbrough obscurity was his signing of the first million-pound player, Trevor Francis. As a cub reporter in Birmingham I was sent several times, believe it or not, to interview football stars. They lived in tasteless houses with dolly-bird wives, and were always willing to press their phone numbers into your hand. While athletics and cricketing stars often seem to go on to distinguished careers, the Gary Linekers and Bobby Moores produced by football seem few and far between.

So every time male television and newspaper executives meet to consider coming sports coverage, they should remember that if they go over the top in pandering to their own boyish enthusiasm, they risk alienating half their audience.

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