Offside, 26 May
Kick joyless health zealots out of football!
Watching Channel 4’s documentary on the 1985 Heysel disaster this week I was reminded of the utter contempt in which football was once held by the British political class. Football hooligans were – alongside Irish republicans and striking miners – regarded by Margaret Thatcher as the ‘enemy within’ (note to younger readers: think Taliban with mullets). After Heysel, The Sunday Times described football as a ‘slum sport watched by slum people in slum stadiums’.
How times change! Politicians today flaunt their club allegiances as badges of authenticity and ordinary blokishness. Tony Blair claims to be a Newcastle fan – even going so far as manufacturing a fake memory of watching Jackie Milburn from the Gallowgate end – while Michael Howard uses the lingua franca of football to defend the Tory’s poor showing in the opinion polls. ‘I am a football fan’, he said. ‘You often find if you are a football fan there is a team that might be two goals down at half-time but they win the game.’ The Tories, however, were mullered on polling day and the gaffer did a ‘Kevin Keegan’. Howard’s team Liverpool fared better this week, and won the Champions League final despite being 3-nil down at half-time. But then, football and politics are different sports.
Because football, following its post-Hornby renaissance in the 1990s, is a genuinely popular cultural institution, politicians somehow imagine that it can therefore be used to solve all manner of social ills. The latest batty offering from the Ministry of Silly Social Engineering Schemes is a new guide called Football and Health, which advocates football as an instrument of public health (1). The guide suggests that the ‘mass appeal’ of football ‘can be utilised to reinforce health messages and build upon football’s track record of involvement in promoting healthy lifestyles’.
There is, of course, nothing particularly new about football being actively promoted by the elite as a tool for moral and physical improvement. Churches were early adopters of the kicking game because they saw football as an ideal vehicle for promoting ‘muscular Christianity’. David Winner, in his book Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football, argues that football was invented by Victorian public school masters to stop schoolboys masturbating.
Today’s public health campaigns are presented in an entirely secular language but their content is just as joyless and puritanical as their Victorian antecedents. For example the Football and Health guide claims that ‘Encouraging participation in football, whatever a player’s ability, is a way of contributing towards health improvement to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and can have a positive effect on mental health by boosting self-esteem’. It sounds like it was written by a computer program. Just type in a few key words – health, self-esteem, football, participation – and the PC claptrapometer will generate a suitable worthy and vacuous statement.
Who exactly needs encouragement to kick a football? As a kid, I played football because it was fun not because some health promotion official scared me into it with shocking statistics about coronary heart disease. Some kids simply don’t want to play football – the weedy kids, the fat kids (apart from the more agile porkers who played in goal), and the nerdy unsporty boffins – and I suspect that the health zealots have their sights set on them. But what is the point of cajoling such people into doing something they don’t enjoy? If they don’t want to play football leave them alone. If everyone enjoyed football there would be no nerds left to design computers programs or invent new gadgets.
When the health evangelists aren’t frogmarching the Nintendo generation on to football pitches they are targeting football grounds as prime sites for new public health campaigns. Department of Health officials are obsessed with new ways of getting public health messages across to working-class men. Since men won’t go to their GP, then the NHS, it seems, will come to them. Football and Health says there is ‘the potential for football clubs to work with their NHS trusts to develop joint facilities at football grounds and attract people who may not otherwise access local services.’ I can only assume that whoever wrote this nonsense has never been to a football match because, if they had, they’d know that it’s hard enough to beat the half-time rush to order a beer or buy a burger let alone find time to get your blood pressure checked.
And who wants a medical examination at a football match anyway? Going to the football is pleasurable precisely because it provides a brief but welcome respite from the daily grind. A football stadium is a place we can go to drink too much beer, eat junk food, shout ourselves hoarse, and generally behave irresponsibly for a couple of hours. We’re continuously bombarded with public health propaganda throughout the week so the last thing we want when we go through the turnstiles is to be harangued by health zealots who want us to self-examine our testicles or reduce our alcohol units. Or to put in terrace parlance: You can stick your public health messages up your arse.
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