Tuesday, 29 September 2009

An Important Game

I regularly find myself arguing one particular point with my non-football friends. I like to think I keep fairly intelligent company – and this often includes those who feel that football is a frivolous, pointless activity.

It’s not so much that they feel that they’re above it in a high art/low art sense, but more that they feel that to be interested in it is to be wasting one’s time – that watching it or reading about it or listening to radio programmes and podcasts about it is as time wasting a distraction from real life as any other form of mere entertainment.

I tell some of my more intellectual friends that parts of my weekend will involve watching Football Focus, listening to Fighting Talk and the (wonderful) Football Ramble podcast, reading Four Four Two magazine, being sure to get home from the pub in time for Match of the Day and then, during the week, filling any spare moments checking out the BBC’s excellent football blogs and – my favourite lunchtime tradition – the tabloid nonsense digest that is their Gossip Column transfer news roundup, and they might well scoff. They might roll their eyes, or profess a complete lack of sympathy. Others have their own nerdy passions that they see more in than others do. Their argument, however, generally comes down to the same standpoint: It’s just a game. I’ve touched on this before, but I know that this isn’t true. Football is important.

Now I’m not quite the football geek the last sentence might suggest – I’m not the grown man with the replica shirt, duvet cover and collection of programmes, and, as I’ve mentioned in past posts, I certainly don’t go to very many actual football games – but I’m genuinely fascinated by the cultural and political power, significance and sheer scale of football. By its science, its language and its grammar. By the controversy, its sickening corruptions, its compelling and unifying tragedies – and the staggering amount of blood that’s been spilled it its name.

The clichés are already in place – it’s the Beautiful Game, it’s the People’s Game, it’s the Global Game – but I think it’s actually at its most potent and interesting when you shed the ‘game’ part. Football is significant not because of the 22 men competing on any one field, but rather because of the thousands watching them live, the small groups of millions watching them remotely – and often in bafflingly remote locations – and for the many more millions discussing the game and its finer points in the days, weeks, months and years surrounding each match. It’s significant because with this many people involved in so many countries so much of the time, all talking about and participating in versions of the same thing, well, it’d struggle not to be.

A couple of examples spring to mind. Most recently, and on a touchingly domestic, near-grassroots level, Paul Fletcher’s BBC blog last week brought to my attention the plight of Accrington Stanley – the League Two side made famous in an ancient milk advert and re-established in the public consciousness when they scrambled back into league football in 2006.

Stanley are currently facing a £300,000+ tax bill and a serious fight to survive. Recent years have seen a few clubs in England and Scotland go into administration, suffer cruel FA points deductions and, in the memorable case of Gretna, disappear into oblivion. There is, of course, an argument to suggest that there is little to mourn about an unsuccessful lower league team vanishing from the football map – they are, after all, a failing business with too few committed fans to keep their match day takings respectable – and yet there are enough people in this country who see the demise of such a vital part of a community as the local football team as a genuinely sad loss.

To this end, the club’s chief executive, Rob Heys, arranged a friendly against high-flying nearby club Burnley – where 5,000 people paid £10 a head to attend, and at the following fixture against Darlington, an unusually high turnout adorned the stands with replica shirts from teams all over the country. Football matters at this level – and completely outwith the intricacies of the game itself.

This example of the ‘importance’ of football is possibly a little sweet and nostalgic – not to mention domestic – but there are myriad examples of football having made a genuine, frightening political impact on whole nations and whole populations, to the extent that I find it very difficult to pick a perfectly pertinent one (the best thing to do is try and convince them to read Simon Kuper’s seminal Football Against the Enemy).

There’s the story of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 – when public dismay at the Communist regime’s treatment of the once-glorious national team helped to foment unrest and drive students and workers to protest in the streets to revolt against the Stalinist leadership. There’s the infamous ‘Football War’ between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 – when rioting between fans of the two nations during a 1970 World Cup Qualifier escalated into a full-blown military incident, which, while it only lasted 100 hours, proved that if anything was going to unite the people of one nation against the other, putting aside any differences between themselves, it was the abstract nature of football rivalry. There’s also Argentina’s hosting of the World Cup in 1978 – when the military regime found itself in the global spotlight and erected giant barriers along the roadside to block the tourists’ and foreign journalists’ view of the horrendous slum conditions faced by millions of inhabitants of its cities.

Football is absolutely important – and absolutely a game. But I think what amazes me most is that it represents probably my best chance of communicating with any person from any other nation – even if it’s just listing our nations’ great players, or kicking a ball around. I’m off to Bulgaria this weekend, my first visit to a former-Soviet nation, and I’m naturally very excited. I’m having problems learning the Cyrillic alphabet and I’m terrified that I won’t be able to understand any signs or menus, but I know that when I’m in the football stadium I’ll understand exactly what’s going on – and share something genuine with every other person there.

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