Offside, 15 June
'I don't consider myself to be a football addict, just somebody who likes to watch, play, discuss, read and write about football. I'm in control. Honest.'
‘Can you live without football?’
Channel 4 persuaded Keith, a Leeds United fan, to abstain from football for two weeks. While Leeds were playing Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League, Keith was forced to watch Westlife in concert with his kids. Poor Keith, a 40-hours-a-week man, found the whole experiment very distressing.
I wonder what I would have done in Keith’s situation. I imagine it’s a bit like spending two weeks in France. I don’t consider myself to be a football addict, just somebody who likes to watch, play, discuss, read and write about football. Not addicted you see – just an enthusiast. I’m in control. Honest.
If you thought that the summer was football-free you would be wrong. The season may be over, but there’s still plenty of scraps for us (non-addicted) football enthusiasts to feed off. Firstly, there is the close-season transfer speculation. Forget the cabinet reshuffle, the first thing I did this morning was to check the newspaper to see which players were on the move. Is it Lampard for Chelsea, Veron for United, or more importantly, Campbell for Palace? (Andy that is, not Sol.) And it doesn’t stop with the papers – there are the football websites (only at lunchtime, you understand), discussion boards, email alerts and Ceefax.
If you’re not sated with transfer gossip there are the meaningless close-season tournaments. Imagine my surprise (and my girlfriend’s dismay) when, channel-surfing on Sunday morning, I discovered Channel 5 was showing France v Japan in the Confederations Cup (watched by a handful of Japanese schoolchildren and a million football-starved blokes in the UK). Sadly, I had tuned in with only two minutes to go. Later, due to a disastrous oversight on my part, I also missed Football Italia. I was inconsolable.
If there is no live action from the Peruvian Second Division on Channel 5, there are plenty of football documentaries. This week the series Football Stories told the rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags tale of Scottish striker Frank McAvennie. He had the world at his feet but blew it on champagne, page-three ‘stunners’ and cocaine. Yawn – tell us something we don’t know. None of the talking heads made the obvious point that Frank’s footballing powers deserted him Samson-like when he cut off his mullet. Since I started writing this column I’ve been able to justify watching rubbish like this on the flimsy grounds that I’m doing research.
In two weeks’ time the new season’s fixture list will be published. And before you know it, we will have officially entered the ‘pre-season’. The players will return to training. There will be friendly games, triangular tournaments, and the first rounds of the Intertoto Cup. Finally, in August, the phoney-football season ends and the shooting war commences.
Could I live without football? It’s an interesting question. I managed quite well on a low-football diet for much of the 1980s. And I was not alone. Football crowds, having been in decline since the early 1950s, hit a postwar low in the 1985/86 season. Football’s traditional working-class supporters had found more interesting things to do with their leisure time.
The resurgence of football’s popularity in the 1990s, and the widening of its appeal to the middle classes, is symptomatic of what was going on – or rather what was not going on – in the rest of society. In these atomised times, football is a uniquely collective experience. Of course, it is sad if football becomes a substitute for having a life. But unless you support Wimbledon, it’s the thrill of being part of a tumultuous mass of humanity that we can’t live without.
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