The Tyranny Of Football

By on Jul 14, 2008 in Latest, Opinion | 7 comments

A curious article appeared in “The Guardian” on Saturday, in which the actor, writer and comedian David Mitchell tried to sum up his dislike for football. Reading it back this morning, one cannot help but be struck by the overwhelming impression that he is somehow holding back the worst of his ire – that he would like to unleash a torrent of abuse in our general direction, but has been advised by the newspaper’s editorial team that this might not be the most advisable thing that he could do. As with most people that try to tackle this sort of issue, he betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the game. The comment, “they randomly kick it around and, very occasionally, with little or no warning, a goal happens” is typical of the sort of comment that emanates from people that don’t understand football. It assumes that the fact that he doesn’t understand it is somehow not his fault but, if we are to equate football in this context with anything, it would probably be fair to compare it with a foreign language. Would he make the same criticism of, say, Italy if he found himself there and unable to understand what the people there were saying?

Minor quibbles aside, it was a balanced and well-written article, and the depressing nature of the comments below it (an all too familiar feature of The Guardian Sports Blog section these days) is more a refelction on the people making those comments than it is on Mitchell himself. Even those of us whose interest in the game borders on the obsessive have had moments when we have questioned our devotion to the game. Who amongst us hasn’t, at least once, been standing on an open terrace on a freezing cold November afternoon in the pouring rain watching twenty-two incompetents exerting too much energy for too little end result and wondered, “What the hell am I doing here? I should be at home with a mug of cocoa, watching a good film”? It’s a harsh truth, but a truth nonetheless.

The Tyranny Of Football is easy to explain. As football has become more and more popular, people have developed an unquenchable desire for information about the game. This has manifested itself most noticeably in two ways. Firstly, in sites such as this one, which tries to examine the minutae of the game that isn’t covered elsewhere. The second manifestation of this is the one that Mitchell refers to in his article – the endless obsessive speculation, gossip and rumours. This never used to exist. During my childhood, newspapers would simply not mention football during the summer months, choosing to write expansive articles on the county cricket championship and Wimbledon. Then, at the start of August, the game would start to creak back to life. It was a laborious process, and early-season matches would carry an air about them of it still being the summer holidays. The season proper didn’t really start until the nights were drawing in and matches finished under floodlighting.

Now, though, things are all different. Football dominates the sporting agenda in a way in which it never used to before. Every day, every single newspaper runs a round-up of transfer rumours of varying degrees of truthfulness and the somewhat more mundane business of which players actually have been transferred. Frequently, the transfer rumours page gives the impression of being completely and utterly random – it’s as if the sports editor sits with two top hats, one containing the names of fifty players, and one containing the names of fifty of Europe’s top clubs. With a flourish, he pulls out one player’s name and one club’s name, and the story is seventy-five per cent written. Naturally, everyone within the game has learnt how to play this system. Players keen for a move but unable to publicly say so, lest nothing materialises and they are still at the same club at the start of the following season, contact the media and leak stories. Agents looking to unsettle players plant stories in the media suggesting that a player’s move from club A to club B is a foregone conclusion, even though nothing has been agreed. Everyone manipulates the press for their own aims, and acres of newspaper space are filled with it all. It’s not difficult to see how this mindless “speculation” could affect someone whose feelings for the game had been lukewarm to start with.

The curiosity of football’s appeal is that it gets the balance of things on the pitch just right. It’s not like basketball, in which hundreds of points are scored in each match, and the impression is left (however incorrectly) that only last thirty seconds of each match actually count. It’s a sport that, unlike, say rugby, you don’t have to be something approaching a physical freak to be good at. Players of the varying heights and weights of Jan Molby, Peter Beardsley, Garrincha and Tony Cascarino have had successful playing careers, and this gives football a more inclusive feel than many other sports. It also rations out the excitement in a way that very few other sports does. Mitchell criticises football for having ” just over two goals per Premier League match”, but criticism is misguided. Goals in football have a rarity value that is unparalleled elsewhere and the viewer, at the start of a match, has no idea of whether a match will feature eight or nine of them, or none whatsoever. The remainder of the game is an extended game of cat and mouse, of teams trying to strategically out-think each other.

The irony of much of Mitchell’s criticism is that many of those of us that love the game feel the same level of frustration about football’s global domination of the media as he does. We are tired of the global domination of the game and of the 24 hour news culture that requires a constant stream of information being disseminated towards us, regardless of the quality of that information or whether it’s even true or not. Ironically, Mitchell has been responsible for two of the most accurate satires of this culture of recent years – the now-famous mocking of Sky Sports’ ultimately self-preservational hyping up of every single match as the most important thing to ever have happened, and this brilliantly-observed sketch about the strange over-identification that some fans feel towards their clubs. Too many of us that live and breathe football never seem to identify the ridiculousness of our own obsession, and it is beautifully ironic that it takes someone with no interest in the game whatsoever to be able to peer through the fog of our obsession and point out the idiocy of it all. Most notably, those of us that seek to criticise his observations without having thought it through are completely missing the point of what he’s saying in the first place.

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    7 Comments

  1. Regarding the 24 hour media coverage, there was a very long and very good Guardian blog (written by Andy Bull) published on a similar theme just a couple of months ago. Well worth reading and dovetails nicely with the points made here….. as usual, a fair number of sports blog mentalists attempt to wreck the debate below the line.

    http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/sport/2008/05/13/quote_early_quote_often_sells.html

    Pete Brooksbank

    July 14, 2008

  2. I thought that Mitchells column was actually quite good. I remember being there in the 1980′s thinking how useless football was (bearing in mind how much of a religion, literally, football is in west central Scotland. What changed my mind was the 1986 World Cup. So yes, i can see where Mitchell is coming from, especially with regards the hyperbole surrounding the English Premiership.

    One thing that i did notice that was missing from your piece was that Football fans have changed. You used to get 100 different opinions from 1001 fans about a game. Now either a game is rubbish or not, for example i listened to 606 on the way up to my partners after the European Cup final, and every caller said that the game was a classic, a great advert for the English Premiership. My opinion of the game was that it was an OK game, but nothing really to write home about. But what struck me was the unanimous nature of the comments. Either I’m wrong (an for that matter my dad, who had a similar opinion) and everyone else is right, or there is an element of bandwagon jumping going on.

    Allan Moore

    July 14, 2008

  3. He sounds like a typical American, I’d know….I deal with them all the time.
    Frankly outside the ethnic latino and european papers you hardly get any news in any of the papers. You have to go to large bookstores to get football specific papers, luckily we have the internet and satellite tv.
    A friend asked me “Hey, when does soccer end?” I answered “Never, especially in the US since we have a summer league. That ends in November and that’s when the European leagues heat up”

    “This is s***, bring back Russel Brand.” – this comment made my day.

    Alejandro Ruiz

    July 15, 2008

  4. Great piece, and I’m glad that somebody else is bored and fed-up with the endless stream of transfer news and gossip that permeates the close season in Europe.

    Michael Oliver

    July 15, 2008

  5. I have to confess to being one of those “football illiterates” until about 15 months ago. What I found out as I explored the world of the game I detested though was that it is so much more than a sport. It’s a business. It’s a religion. It’s a great topic on which to connect with so many people. And above all it’s a soap opera. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is debatable. But it does at least give those of us who have set ourselves the task of writing something about it every day is something to talk about!

    Great post as ever.

    Georgina Best

    July 15, 2008

  6. I was scanning something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your position on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read to begin with. I am still reflecting over the various points of view, but I’m leaning heavily toward yours. And regardless, that’s what is so super about modern democracy and the marketplace of thoughts on-line.

    Anonymous

    January 28, 2010

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