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.