Now, there’s a headline that some of you may not have been expecting, but allow me to explain. Sometimes, it can start to feel as if “football” has gained powers of sentience. This game, this sport, this business needs an easy tag-line so that we can quantify it, but really, there is no such thing as “football.” There are thousands of clubs, millions of players and, occasionally, billions of spectators, but the idea that they could, would or even should be united into one homogenous lump is as perverse as it is unrealistic and reasonable.
This, of course, doesn’t stop the occasional columnist from stepping up and telling “football” that it is bad or has been behaving badly. Go and sit in the corner, football, and wear a dunce’s cap while you’re about it. This morning’s entrant for the role of chastising somebody for something, of course, was claimed by Suzanne Moore of The Guardian. In her comment piece published this morning (sorry, but you’ll have to go Google it yourself if you want to read it in full), she chose to pick a few familiar canards to hit us over the head with. Paolo Di Canio is a fascist? Football’s fault, apparently, rather than anything relating to his upbringing or any other considerations which might have played a part in moulding his political views. Paul Gascoigne hitting his wife? Football’s fault again, rather than the corrosive effects of alcohol, abuse of power, learned behaviour or whatever the hell else it was that caused him to act so despicably.
But here’s the thing. WE KNOW. We know that these things happen, and we suspect that we might know some of the reasons behind why this might be. We understand that there are toxic side-effects to the money that now sluices through the game. We understand that there are a good number of arrogant, venal, badly-behaved people involved in it – on the pitch, in the boardrooms and watching from the side-lines – and that they get away with whatever it is that they get up to, for the most part. We also know that we shouldn’t walk away from our game because of this. We know that we shouldn’t because if those of us that do care about such things do, then all that’s left will be the dregs and the runts of the game’s litter. We also know that walking away from this game won’t make this sort of behaviour go away because this sort of behaviour happens all over society. Rather than being something separate, something other, something that can be comfortably compartmentalised as being “that thing which is bad,” this game is merely a reflection of the society from which it comes.
Furthermore, there isn’t even anything new about this sort of ill-informed generalising. Conservative MPs and their attack dogs in the press laid it on with a trowel throughout the 1980s and all of that lazy stereotyping led to a culture in which football supporters didn’t matter and safety was compromised in the name of containment, which resulted in the culture that produced the – all too literal – death-trap pens of the Leppings Lane terrace at Hillsborough. And as if that wasn’t enough, as if the death of ninety-six people attending a sporting event wasn’t enough of both a tragedy and an insult, a sophisticated cover-up between members of parliament, the press, the police and others involved that day sought to blame the deaths of those innocent people on the people those very people themselves. It took almost a quarter of a century for the full extent of this cover-up to be revealed in its full, horrifying inglory.
In the grim aftermath of the Heysel Stadium riot of 1985, when it actually felt as if there was a chance that professional football might just be banned outright altogether, the executives of the Football Association were summoned to Downing Street to be read the riot act, but their secretary Ted Croker simultaneously struck a raw nerve and touched upon a fundamental truth when he told Margaret Thatcher that, “We don’t want this made public, but these people are society’s problems and we don’t want your hooligans in our sport, prime minister.” He subsequently became the first secretary of the FA to not receive a knighthood upon his retirement from the position. It is very convenient – very convenient indeed – for politicians to reinforce this unfounded and nonsensical idea that we are somehow “other” and using selective evidence to back this worldview up.
All of that was many years ago and times have changed, but still the sniping continues. The cherry-picking of the absolute worst stories mixed in with along unsubstantiated dog whistling (“certain fans recruited into the EDL” claims Moore, without offering any evidence for this) along with a wearying trope that seems likely to be its true legacy: The Olympic comparison. “The Olympics showed us a different model,” writes Moore, “superfit, lowlier but disciplined sports people whom I very much doubt were not at it day and night after competing, ” because, of course, the Olympic Games have never been tainted by excesses of money, cheating or claimed by politicians after a quick burst of opinion poll endorphins. And all of this operates from the apparent starting assumption that “football” is some sort of parallel universe that doesn’t exist in the same time and space as the rest of the universe. But it does, and to this extent, there is no such thing as “football.”
If there is no such thing as “football,” though, what is there? Well, the answer should be screamingly obvious. There are individuals, some reprehensible arseholes, others who you would trust with your life. There are clubs, some big, many small. There are the institutions that hold it together, some of whom, such as the Football Association, which are sometimes wrong and often pilloried but do occasionally show glimpses of getting things right. There are players, some of whom are boozehounds who earn obscene amounts of money, but the vast majority of whom are are just normal people with abilities that the rest of us do not have which they get paid for, in an incredibly insecure profession which has a retirement age of around thirty-five, if they’re lucky. Then there are supporters. Some are idiots, weasels, violent thugs and people with whose politics you wouldn’t wipe your backside. They, however, are thankfully a minority. The majority of us are the people you see at work, on the train, or walking up the high street. And commentators from the outside taking the opportunity to stick the boot in are best reminded that although they might to think that we are not of their world, they can rest heartily assured that we are.
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