Can we have our ball back please?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the middle-class soccerati.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

All together now, you chaps with the prawn sandwiches in the executive boxes: ‘Sit down, if one hates soccer/ Sit down, if one hates soccer …’ After boring on about their new-found devotion to the ‘beautiful game’, the middle-class soccerati are now venting their spleens against the sport’s ‘ugly faces’. Apparently football would be super, if we could only get rid of those ghastly footballers and fans.

Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, once famously said that football was not a matter of life and death, it was far more important than that. But even he would probably have agreed that there is far too much about football in the news today. Especially as much of it is not actually about the game at all.

Shankly, of course, was joking. Over the past fortnight, however, serious minded people have decided that football-related scandals really are more important than political life at the party conferences or a remembrance service for the dead of the Iraq war. The biggest headlines have been about two alleged sexual assaults involving footballers, some loutish behaviour on and off the pitch, and one missed drugs test. The football-crazy fortnight ended with the England team’s ‘triumphant’ nil-nil draw in Turkey being talked about in tones rarely heard since the relief of Mafeking.

How has Planet Football come to colonise the real world? In recent years football has increasingly been deployed as a substitute for our badly-crocked public life.

Everybody, from the Prime Minister downwards, has brought it on centre-field in a desperate attempt to fill the gap where popular interest in politics, religion, or community ought to be. It is not simply that David Beckham’s latest hairstyle can push health service reforms off the front pages, or that political news is now reported in back-page argot (‘Blair one – Brown nil’). Some have tried to turn the game itself into a political football, hoping to exploit its fashionableness as a vehicle for trendy ideas.

Last year the IPPR, the leading new Labour think-tank, proposed using the football-based popularity of the Cross of St George, and the game’s new multicultural image, to promote a softer, more ‘feminine’ national identity. On the eve of the 2002 World Cup, David Lammy, MP, rising Blairite star, called football ‘a wonderful means of educating and increasing awareness of different cultures and backgrounds, and of promoting tolerance’. And everybody has banged on about the importance of young footballers as ‘role models’, apparently in the hope that overgrown schoolboys could somehow provide moral guidance for a generation that won’t listen to its elders.

Nobody cheered louder for the new image of football than the literary middle classes. In the dark days of the Eighties, when one newspaper called football a slum sport watched in slum stadiums by slum people, such sophisticates would not have been seen dead at a football match. But as the game became safer and more sanitised, with all-seater stadiums and strict sit-down-and-shut-up codes of conduct, they leapt aboard the bandwagon.

Now some converts who have embraced a fantasy-version football as something ‘authentic’ in a phoney world find that they are less keen on the real thing.

Hence the cri de coeur of the petit-bourgeois ‘soccer’ supporter: if only football could be played and watched by nice people like us! Give those oikish overpaid players some citizenship classes and anger management therapy! Make the vile supporters stay home and watch it on TV, preferably wearing electronic tags!

Behind the headlines about ‘loaded and loathsome’ players, the behaviour of a few young footballers with ‘too much’ money seems to have been turned into a metaphor for rampant consumerism, sexual license, social breakdown or anything else that any snob or social worker wants to moan about in modern life.

Some fair-weather fans are even hoping to reinvent rugby as ‘the new football’, to serve the same purpose of promoting an ersatz national unity and some wholesome role models to the young. Frankly, that seems a tall order for a dull minority sport of which it was once said that a bomb under the West car park at Twickenham on a Test match day could set back the cause of fascism in England for a generation.

The outbreak of articles announcing that ‘the game is dying’ might be no bad thing, if it really signals the end of the soccerati’s flirtation with football.

Leave it to those of us who never saw football as anything more than a game, albeit the greatest game on Earth, and never imagined that Wayne Rooney could be any more of a role model than George Best. So please mister, can we have our ball back now?

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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