Offside, 24 March
Supporting England is like having a relationship with an average-looking woman.
Supporting England, as the Fast Show’s silver-tongued car salesman Swiss Toni might say, is very much like making love to a beautiful woman. Or is it?
Watching a disjointed England team labour to a yawn-inducing goalless draw against Holland in a recent friendly didn’t feel like making love at all. If we have to use a sexual metaphor, then a joyless, perfunctory hand job from a bored hooker would be more apposite.
The football as sex metaphor has been deployed by a number of football managers. Former Chelsea and Newcastle manager Ruud Gullit famously coined the phrase ‘sexy football’ but his teams were more like bragging adolescents – all talk but no sexual conquests. By contrast Arsene Wenger built an Arsenal team that could play sexy football and win domestic silverware. When Alex Ferguson claimed that his Manchester United team were playing more attractive football, Wenger retorted that ‘Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home’.
Last season the shameless coveting of Wenger’s metaphorical wife by a salivating British press pack was a nauseating sight to behold. To coin another sexual metaphor, the lionisation of Arsenal was very much like watching sex-starved middle-aged men slavering over a Kylie Minogue video. But that was last season. How quickly Arsenal’s youthful sexual allure has faded. Last year’s invincible It-Team is now riddled with self-doubt and starting to question whether its bum looks big in football shorts.
If extended sexual metaphors win prizes then the undisputed champion would surely be Queens Park Rangers’ eminently quotable manager Ian Holloway. To use a track-and-field metaphor, the man has quite simply raised the sexual allegory bar. ‘To put it in gentleman’s terms, if you’ve been out for a night and you’re looking for a young lady and you pull one, you’ve done what you set out to do. We didn’t look our best today but we’ve pulled’, explained Holloway after an unconvincing QPR victory against Chesterfield in 2003. ‘Some weeks the lady is good looking and some weeks they’re not. Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi. She may not have been the best looking lady we ended up taking home but it was still very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much and let’s have coffee.’ QPR might be a team of Football League journeymen but Holloway’s metaphorical dexterity is pure Champions League class.
The sign of a good team, to develop Holloway’s analogy, is that they still manage to pull even when they’re not playing particularly well. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea team, for example, have not always been the sexiest team to watch but they’ve consistently managed to pull the metaphorical birds. Arsenal, by contrast, have a tendency to turn their noses up at the plain-looking ladies and chase after unattainable beauties but have time and again come home on a Saturday night with nothing but a greasy kebab for company.
Returning to my original point, what allegory best captures the relationship between England supporters and the national team? It’s tempting to say that it’s been 40 years of hurt but, like all long-term relationships, there have been peaks and troughs. After England’s emotionally draining World Cup defeat against Argentina in 1998 I resolved to emotionally detach myself from the national team. We always go out on penalties so why put myself through it? In between major tournaments it’s quite easy to remain aloof. There are plenty of meaningless friendlies and laboured performances against weaker teams. Far better to ogle at sexy France than watch England humping away prosaically in the missionary position.
But, no matter how much we try to forget, we’re always drawn back to our old flame. All it takes is a few beers and a half-decent performance during a major tournament and suddenly we find ourselves in a passionate clinch with England. We are seduced by Sven’s sweet talk about England’s ‘golden generation’ and are willing to overlook the fact that the phrases ‘golden generation’ and ‘Emile Heskey’ sit uneasily together. Inevitably we always wake up the next day with a sore head and a profound sense of regret. Ronaldinho’s free kick, Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal, Beckham’s skied penalty…same old England, always disappointing.
Supporting England is very much like having a long-term relationship with an unsuitable, average-looking woman. There are long periods of domestic drudgery punctuated by fleeting nights of drunken passion and occasional romantic weekends that invariably end in tears. But even the best sexual metaphors have their limitations. In a real relationship we are ultimately free to run off with our neighbour’s wife. But international adultery simply is not an option in football. So, no matter how crap England are between the sheets, we’d never countenance getting jiggy with France or Germany.
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