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The meaning of football

In the run-up to next week’s spiked-debate on the World Cup, we muse over soccerism, Wayne’s toe, and how the Fall of Public Man has been offset by the Rise of Soccer Bloke.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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What does football mean to me? That is the question that will be posed at a free public debate I’m chairing on Wednesday next week, organised by spiked with Believe and the Vibe Bar and taking place in London (see below for full details). When every news bulletin carries an update on Wayne Rooney’s broken metatarsal it seems to vindicate Bill Shankly’s famous dictum. ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death’, said the legendary Liverpool manager. ‘I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’.

For me football is only a game. Or at least that’s how it ought to be regarded. However, over the past two decades, the sport has undergone an improbable cultural renaissance in Britain. The shifting establishment attitudes towards the kicking game are a measure of just how much has changed. Twenty years ago Margaret Thatcher regarded football hooligans as the ‘enemy within’, while The Sunday Times described the game as a ‘slum sport watched by slum people in slum stadiums’. Then came Gazza’s tears, Nick Hornby, the Sky TV money and Euro ’96 and football was reborn.

There is still considerable unease that the ‘slum people’ haven’t been entirely purged from the terraces, as illustrated by this week’s news that over 3,000 ‘registered’ hooligans have been ordered to surrender their passports to the police. But, despite their ill-concealed contempt for drunken white males, the rich and powerful now want a piece of the football action. Witness the cringe-inducing spectacle of Tony Blair on the Football Focus couch singing the praises of Wigan’s Arjan de Zeeuw or Tory leader David Cameron blagging a ticket to the Beckhams’ glitzy World Cup party.

The problem is not so much the influx of terrace toffs – annoying though that sometimes is – but that football has been over-inflated to bursting point with social significance. Take, for example, the debate about role models. Every time a footballer behaves badly on or off the pitch there is a cacophonous clamour for players to set an example to young children. When we’re not praying for Wayne’s toe to heal, we’re fretting about him effing and blinding at referees. Last year the Secondary Heads Association union called on TV companies to stop showing footballers mouthing obscenities before the 9pm watershed.

The argument goes that children slavishly copy their football heroes. Sports minister Richard Caborn, who will be speaking at next week’s debate, has argued: ‘I always say that what happens on the park on the Saturday happens in the playground on the Monday.’ Is it really the case that footballers are responsible for the behaviour of the nation’s youngsters? Wayne Rooney’s job is to score goals not to teach children how to behave; it’s our job as parents to do that. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the erosion of adult authority that footballers are expected to compensate for the failure of parents and teachers to control children.

The role model debate perfectly illustrates football’s mutation from leisure pursuit into the sporting wing of government social policy. Football – which, let’s not forget, is a fairly simple game in which 22 men try to kick a ball into a net – is now regarded as a means of solving all kinds of social problems. Football clubs are expected to play their part in crusading against such social and medical ills as racism, homophobia, testicular cancer, truancy and childhood obesity.

But the problem is wider than sport’s co-option as an instrument for social engineering. Football has come to fill a gap in our lives where once there was engagement with the public sphere. The Fall of Public Man has been offset by the Rise of Soccer Bloke. The contemporary appeal of football is that it generates a sense of belonging, collectivity and identity that moribund institutions such as political parties, trade unions or churches no longer provide. If England do well in the World Cup you will see an outpouring of flag-waving euphoria that more traditional vehicles for nationalistic sentiment, such as military interventions, are simply incapable of creating. It is easy to mistake the proliferation of St George flags for patriotism but, in reality, it is a rather shallow and meaningless commonality that can evaporate in the time it takes to lose a penalty shoot-out.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with necking a few beers and getting caught up in the buzz of the World Cup. Over the next month I’ll be eating football, sleeping football, and drinking football to excess. If you took a urine sample from me you’d find high levels of unadulterated football in my bloodstream. But, when all is said and done, football is still only a game; a temporary respite from the trials and tribulations of daily life but never a substitute for having a life. It can be a gloriously enthralling, passionate, unpredictable and utterly intoxicating game, but a game of two halves is all it can ever be.

And that’s why you won’t find me wearing one of those Philosophy Football t-shirts bearing a slogan from Machiavelli or Sartre. Albert Camus, who was quite a handy goalkeeper in his day, once said: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.’ I can’t honestly say that football has taught me anything so profound. Don’t drink the tea, don’t eat the pies, and don’t wear a jester’s hat – that is what three decades of watching football at Selhurst Park has taught me. Somehow, I don’t think those pearls of wisdom will find their way on to a t-shirt.

spiked-debate: What does football mean to me? Duleep Allirajah, spiked‘s football columnist, will be chairing a free public debate about the World Cup next Wednesday evening, 7 June, at the Vibe Bar in London. The speakers will be Richard Caborn, minister for sport; Mick Hume, editor of spiked and a columnist for The Times (London); Matt Garrahan of the Financial Times; and Spoony, dj and presenter on BBC Five Live’s 606. The debate kicks off at 7pm in the Football Arena, adjacent to the Vibe Bar at 91-95 Brick Lane in London E1. For more information and a street map click here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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