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

Mary Dejevsky@IndyVoices
Friday 10 February 2012 01:00

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.

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