Down with soccerism

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on why football is not a role model for real life.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Fouled by drug scandals, dust-ups, gang rape allegations and racist outbursts, the English football season is ending not with a roar so much as a sigh of relief. After a season when even St David of Beckham’s halo (if not his hairband) slipped, many observers may sympathise with the broadsheet sports journalist who has announced that, after 15 years of writing about the former beautiful game, he now ‘hates football’.

What some of us have come to hate, however, is not football, but the overblown approach to it by such commentators that we might call soccerism.

The soccerists believe that football can serve as a metaphor for society as a whole, or a self- propelled vehicle for a moral message. They imagine that this simple sport can somehow provide the solution to complex social problems, such as racism or the loss of community. And they throw their padded football rattle out of the pram when it fails to live up to their inflated expectations.

As with socialism, there are various strains. There is state soccerism – the government-backed, corporate-sponsored attempt to use football as the focus for a rare shared national experience. In the absence of anything more substantial, football has been signed up to promote a shallow sort of ersatz patriotism. Witness those credit card adverts linked to the Euro 2004 championship, where Sir Bobby Charlton enthuses about ‘England United – priceless’ amid a carefully cast multiracial crowd of actors plastered with the Cross of St George.

Where state socialists believed in the social engineering of Fabianism, the state soccerists have pioneered FA-bianism in a desperate attempt to connect with ‘ordinary people’. It was as predictable as another Arsenal win that Tony Blair, when asked about his problems last week, would liken being Prime Minister to the ups and downs of a Premiership manager. It’s the only language they think we understand.

Then there is municipal soccerism, the belief that supporting a local football club can somehow substitute for any deeper sense of community. Municipal soccerists sing about how they ‘support our local team’ as if they deserve a medal for it, and regard somebody like me – a lifelong Manchester United supporter born in Surrey – as a cosmopolitan mercenary.

Their moral sermonising sometimes verges on fundamentalism. A leading football columnist announced that his son had ‘proved his worth’ by supporting his local Cambridge United instead of selling his soul to that Other United. Presumably a child who opted for the Manchester over the Cambridge version (perhaps on the ground of ‘better Red than dead’), should be cast out as worthless.

These fashionable ideas are underpinned by a powerful strain of Utopian soccerism. Like Utopian socialism, it seeks to project a romantic view of the past into the future. Utopian soccerists insist that football used to be played and watched by decent salt-of-the-earth types, before television money and moral decay turned the game into what one writer calls ‘a playground for monsters, bullies and morons’.

For many, this alleged corruption is symbolised by the decline of the FA Cup, once the holy grail of supposedly Hovis-eating non-hooligan supporters, now relegated far below the glitz of the Premiership.

The soccerists are living in a fantasy-football world. Their attitudes reveal rather less about the realities of the game and those who watch it than their own morbid hang-ups about society and human behaviour.

Thus they view the approach of Euro 2004 with great uncertainty, caught between the dream of England-triumph-starts-national-renewal and the nightmare of England-triumph-or-defeat-kicks-off-hooligan-holocaust. Meanwhile, many of us are simply looking forward to watching England and Europe’s best footballers kick the ball around.

Contrary to what soccerism preaches, football is not a morality play or a role model for real life. It is only a game, albeit the greatest game on Earth. Far from being burdened with these heavy responsibilities, it ought to be treated as light relief from the serious business of everyday life, where people can be irrational and emotional for 90 minutes without it mattering too much.

It is hard to see how a thinking sports fan could suddenly decide that they ‘hate football’. Let us kick all this self-loathing, sanctimony, snobbishness and pseudology into touch before it manages to make Euro 2004 seem about as exciting as the Euro elections. Love football, loath soccerism. And Arsenal, of course.

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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