I HAVE a son, just turned nine, whose only interest is football, who plays, watches, talks and thinks it every waking and dreaming hour. I have another son whose chief interest it is but who, being 16 and in the middle of GCSEs, occasionally turns his mind to other subjects, or affects to. Then there's the boys' father who, truth to tell, does not expect the next few weeks to be the most prolific period of his working life. We have it bad, the males in my family. But it's the nine-year-old who has it worst.
Each morning, in his England home-strip pyjamas, he reads the back page of the Independent and the Guardian for match reports, transfer gossip, and news of injuries. Once he's dressed (in the black Robbie Fowler T- shirt, or the stripey Del Piero jersey, or the just acquired France 98 sweatshirt), he eats his Strike ("the only cereal endorsed by the FA Premier league") or his Nesquik ("the official France 98 breakfast cereal"), then walks with a friend round to primary school, a green-and-red striped Liverpool FC rucksack on his back. Inside the rucksack is a packed lunch, including Salt and Lineker crisps, and a plastic drinks container in team colours.
Rumour suggests there are occasional lessons at school but, by his own account, they don't interfere with the serious business of swapping World Cup coins. After school, if he's not round at a friend's, he plays computer games (International Superstar Soccer is his favourite), or watches a video (Hope & Glory, You'll Never Walk Alone or High, Wide and Hansen: no prizes for guessing what they're about), or employs a tennis ball to remove the last traces of paint from the hallway skirting-board (the coat cupboard is one goal, the kitchen door-frame the other), or reinvents himself as Michael Owen down the garden, from where we hear John Motson's exultant commentary each time the ball is buried in our neighbour's fence.
At some distant point after supper, humming "Three Lions on a Shirt", he's dispatched to bed - to curl up with Gary Lineker's Football Stories beneath the scarves and posters adorning his walls. Often, dreamily philosophical or needing gen about the facts of life, he'll ask me a difficult question as he's tucked up: "Was Bill Shankly really Liverpool's best manager, Dad?" or "Was Bobby Charlton stronger with his left foot or his right?"
Weekends provide a break from the relentless quotidian routine. He has football training on Saturday morning, and will sometimes talk me into seeing nearby Charlton Athletic play in the afternoon - I restricted him to four or five games last season but what chance of such stinginess next, now Charlton have been promoted to the Premiership? On Sundays, his own team plays: about one game in three, this means me running the line and, as supportive fathers are supposed to, raising the flag whenever faintly plausible to catch opposing forwards offside. With luck, we avoid McDonald's on the way home, though it's harder now that scratch cards posing questions about World Cup years are given out with every meal. Was Telstar launched the year Bobby Moore lifted the trophy, or the tournament before, or the one after? He can tell you.
Then there's television. After years of valiant resistance, and having first extracted promises of tidy bedrooms, promptly completed homework and unquestioning obedience for perpetuity, I recently gave in, and we have the Sky sports channels - the non-sports channels, too, but they don't get a look in. Preventing exposure to the Division One games on Friday nights hasn't so far proved unduly difficult, but the 4pm Sunday premiership match, the Monday-night game, the live evening coverage of mid-week European cup action ("mid-week" meaning Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) - these are tempting, even to me. Occasionally, I threaten to get the Sky people to come and run away with the dish, but after a game like last Monday's play-off between Sunderland and Charlton (4-4, Clive Mendonca hat trick, 7-6 penalty shoot-out, the best match from Wembley for years), even I know I must be joking. My wife and daughter are less amused: seemingly unaware that football these days is supposed to be a girl thing too, they watch us watching telly with bafflement, derision, irritation and (increasingly) rage. If one or other of them hasn't walked out by 12 July, it will be a miracle.
Where did we go wrong? Where did I go wrong? Oh I know, I've not been tough enough, I've indulged my sons (especially the younger one), I've failed to provide appropriate role models to counteract gender-stereotypical social behaviour. But how do you stop a nine-year-old being obsessed by what he's obsessed by, when the whole culture encourages that obsession? It's not as if you can beat it by going elsewhere. One current World Cup advert (I forget which: every advert is a World Cup advert, now) shows the rights and wrongs of Gascoigne's inclusion in the England squad being debated by Eskimos and Bushmen.
Taking heart, I tell myself I've not gone wrong, and that it's good my son has learned the global language of football. He has learned other things, too. Reading match reports has helped his literacy skills. Fantasy football has improved his sums: if you have pounds 36m to buy a manager and 11 players, what's the average you can spend? His geography came on enormously thanks to Euro 96. Being told about the Munich air crash of 1958, and the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters of the 1980s, has given him a sense of history, of how catastrophe is followed by reform. I doubt if he'd be learning French so happily if the French weren't hosting the World Cup - but they are and he is.
I'm pleased for him. Boys of my generation didn't have such easy access to football. We didn't even have access to footballs: the genuine leather article was prohibitively expensive, and only nobs owned one. Once a week, on Saturday night, there'd be Match of the Day, but there was none of the media coverage football gets now - the sports supplements, game shows, fanzines, teamtalk, information lines, etc. There weren't the FA- or council- run coaching courses, either, or the five-a-side competitions during the "close season" (itself now a misnomer). Often, I envy my son: why couldn't I have had all this, too?
But his obsessiveness also alarms me. Though in my day it was thought good for boys to "have an interest" (whether model-making, stamp-collecting, train-spotting or football), if you pursued it too feverishly you'd be discouraged by your parents and teased by your mates. These days, obsession denotes normality. Ever since Fever Pitch, things have changed: the compulsive fandom that Nick Hornby presented as slightly sad and nerdish is now seen as healthy and creative.
And, surely, it can't be. Something old-fashioned in me, or maybe just the fact of being a parent, thinks it right for children to have a range of interests rather than the one; wonders what happens to their intellectual faculties when a culture finds some opiate to numb and dumb them down; and frets when the only time they come across a word like "magic" is in reference to Ronaldo and Michael Owen. At present, boys are falling behind girls academically: isn't monomania part of the problem? I worry what it will do to my son - and has already done to me.
How the family copes with the World Cup, if we still exist as a family a month hence, I'm not sure. With up to four matches televised every day, there'll have to be some rationing. But I don't kid myself there's any escape. Last week, to broaden his horizons, we took my son out to fly a kite, the one a friend gave him for his birthday. He wasn't keen until he opened the package and saw what the fabric of the kite consisted of: a replica of Alan Shearer's no 9 England shirt.
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