Saturday, 19 June 2010

Football and what it says about who we are.

We’re football crazy, we’re football mad, at the risk of being branded a heretic I’d like to admit to being less than impressed by the World Cup and the tournament is only a week old.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a despatch from the cultural high ground, far from it; I count myself as being a lapsed football fan. Like anyone who has ever called themselves a lapsed anything I may no longer fully believe, in my case in the doctrine that my club or country really is by far the greatest the world has ever seen, but I’ve no desire to abandon the faith entirely.

It’s just that certain things about the World Cup and football in general get under my skin and it’s probably cathartic to write them down.

For a start I dislike the way football colonises the media every time there is a major tournament, this would just about make sense if England actually won trophies now and again but they don’t, in fact not winning is what defines them as a team. The sports where we do regularly come away with the honours, think swimming at the last Olympics for a start, are usually all but invisible when it comes to television coverage.

There is also the small matter of the extent to which football is taken, and takes itself, seriously. Early last week I heard a normally sensible presenter on Radio 5 asking if following his schoolboy error goalkeeper Robert Green could ever be forgiven. I’d like to pretend there was a hint of redeeming irony in the question; but there wasn’t.

Then there are the songs, ok so we’ve finally evolved out of the stage where it was thought acceptable for out of tune footballers to release a record before the tournament, but we are plagued instead by endless ‘unofficial’ World Cup songs, each one more tuneless than the last. Even these though are musical masterworks compared to the two football related songs that have become alternate national anthems, I mean, of course ‘World in Motion’ and ‘Three Lions’, respectively crimes against music committed by New Order and The Lightening Seeds.

Both songs pretend to be inspiring recognition of past mistakes and a determination to make sure things are different this time in team and listeners alike. In truth they do nothing of the sort; they are, instead, hymns of praise to the dull stasis of being mediocre.

It would be impossible for me to write another word about the present World Cup without mentioning the ultimate achievement of human evil that is the vuvuzela. An instrument that looks like a coaching horn moulded out of day-glow plastic and when played en masse produces the sort of sound you would expect to hear were a riot to break out in a beehive. If the ninth circle of hell has a house band it has a large and noisy vuvuzela section.

Having said all the above this tournament and football in general has the ability to tell us much that is worth knowing about the sort of country we live, although like most things that are worth knowing they tend not to make you feel all that comfortable once you know them.

Despite the hype and the flag waving two poor games have shown the golden generation of England players up to be needy, complacent and guilty of the sin of mistaking being busy for being efficient and taken by surprise when other countries don’t follow suit. It’s a mistake you can see being made over and over again in the economic history of Britain since the war, we didn’t believe people on the other side of the world could make goods that were cheap and of good quality, until they did and our manufacturing sector went down the tubes.

There is nothing like a World Cup for highlighting the smallness of the current crop of politicians. If you don’t believe me try the following thought experiment, try to think of a prime minister before John Major who was in the habit of sending messages of support to England’s football teams, or any other sports team for that matter. I can’t, but every one since has all but addressed the nation wearing a replica top and clutching a can of beer in a desperate attempt to show they’re in touch with we ordinary folk.

It’s a myth of course, in truth football makes the political classes nervous because it is the one mass movement they have failed to infiltrate and make passive with fines and endless petty regulations. Look at a football crowd and you can still see king mob on the march and that has always scared people in positions of authority.

They look at the flags of St George being carried by football supporters or flying from windows and cars and, because they inhabit a cosy gated community of the mind, have no way of telling where an expression of national identity ends and bigotry begins. As a result they fall back on the knee jerk reaction of seeing every flag as being attached to a bigot.

While it would be naive not to recognise the way the far right has appropriated the flag ordinary people who are often far less prejudiced that the metropolitan who write for broad sheet papers have done much to wrest it back from the thugs in recent years. Putting out more flags though is only a baby step towards defining what it really means to be English at the dawn of the twenty first century.

To do that we have to recognise that real patriotism is reflective rather than reactive, meaning understanding what unites us instead of just what makes us different from everyone else. At a time when looming public spending cuts could further fracture our atomised society achieving that may prove to be a more important prize than winning the world cup.

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