Rugger buggers vs 90-minute bigots

Rugby snobs who denounce 'soccer' for its rowdy fans and shocking chants are missing the point: football is theatre.

Patrick West
Columnist

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There are few things more tiresome in sport than rugby union fans boasting that their pursuit, as a spectacle and in its ethics, is superior to what they refer to as ‘soccer’. (OK, perhaps there are more annoying observations that are constantly regurgitated: that we ‘now have the technology’ to implement video refereeing in football; that the grunting by female competitors at Wimbledon is unladylike and that the price of strawberries and cream has become exorbitant; or that – and I cannot believe I actually heard someone make this point on BBC Radio Five Live the other day – American wrestling is fixed.)

Still it is annoying, and with the onset of the World Cup I guess you can imagine what the rugger buggers have been saying in the media, comparing their sport favourably to that ghastly game for proletariat ruffians. ‘Isn’t it great to have a World Cup where the shops aren’t full of plastic St George bowlers, St George flags and other cheap tat’, remarked one reader in the London Times this week. ‘And a World Cup where the police don’t have to issue 3,600 banning orders to fans to prevent them travelling overseas. No “WAGs”. No eight hours of build-up to a group match on Five Live. No hype about Wayne Rooney. And no endless “spooky parallels with 1966” – meaning finding the most tenuous connection with 1966 as evidence that this is the year England will win the World Cup.’ (1)

In the Daily Telegraph, the journalist Alison Kervin stated: ‘I have been involved in rugby union at the highest levels for 15 years and as a female never once felt threatened at a match. I have never felt unwelcome, scared, or intimidated.’ (2) In the same newspaper Michael Henderson, speaking of the forthcoming World Cup, reflected contrastingly that ‘football is the only sport in the world where spectators have to be separated…before, during and after each and every game. Without segregation, rigidly imposed by hundreds of police officers and stewards.’ (3) This followed the observations of Theodore Dalrymple, who described once going to a match in an English city, in which the fans ‘had to be separated by hundreds of policemen, disposed in military fashion. The police allowed no contact whatever between the opposing factions, shepherding or corralling the visiting fans into their own area of the stadium, with more security precautions than the most dangerous of criminals ever faces.’ (4)

Rugger types who make such pronouncements show that they either haven’t been to many football games, or that they don’t understand football, or both.

One can only presume Theodore Dalrymple went to Leeds v Manchester United, or saw West Ham play Millwall, as his portrayal of such enforced segregation is very much the exception in football. For instance, as Brentford was playing up in Lancashire last Saturday, I took myself to watch Queen’s Park Rangers play Southampton, where both sets of supporters mingled before and after the game without any trouble. This is the norm on Saturday afternoons throughout the country.

Yes, for 90 minutes both sets of fans heaped abuse at each other and exchanged offensive (and, take note rugby people, amusing) chants, but this is the whole point: at football games most of us become 90-minute bigots, and then forget about it. Believe it or not, we even share drinks with each other after the encounter and chat to strangers in opposing colours. We do so because we recognise that football is not quite real life. It is a ritual that occupies the no-man’s land between reality and fiction. It is theatre without a script.

This is what exasperates me about literal-minded rugby people who bemoan the air of antagonism at football matches. They don’t seem to realise that it’s only a show. Compare it to cinema, for instance. You might as well complain that Polanski’s Macbeth was too violent, that Schindler’s List was just depressing or that nothing really happens in Withnail & I. Yes, the spectacle of football fans crying, having witnessed their team relegated, might, on the surface, appear pathetic. But Casablanca and The Sound of Music reduce me to a blubbering idiot. Am I, and the millions of others who have done likewise, being stupid here?

As for Michael Henderson’s assertion that football is the only sport where spectators are separated, clearly he hasn’t been to a rugby league game, where this is also practised (albeit, usually voluntarily). Perhaps this oversight owes to the fact that mostly only working-class northerners go to rugby league matches.

The letter-writer in The Times is correct, of course, to point out the obvious reality that hooliganism in rugby union is practically unknown (aside from the behaviour of the Welsh fans in the 1970s), and he is spot on regarding television commentators’ profoundly irritating propensity to make allusions to 1966 (I’m talking to you, Motty), something that irks not only the Scots but plenty of people south of the border.

Yet, the idea that the television coverage of the forthcoming ‘World Cup’ (a competition for a sport taken seriously in only seven English-speaking countries, Paris and in the South West of France) has been free of hype and speculation is transparently untrue. ‘2003’ has become a millstone for English rugby union much in the same way ‘1966’ has long been that for English football. World Cup 2006 may have been all about Wayne Rooney’s metatarsals (previously known to sporting pundits as ‘toes’), but television build-up to World Cup 2007 is comparably obsessed with Jonny Wilkinson’s strained anterior talofibular ligament (previously ‘a sprained ankle’). Those who speak with authority about rugby are just as guilty as their soccer counterparts of having become aspiring expert osteologists.

Those, like myself, who love football and like rugby union (when its enthusiasts aren’t being condescending or contemptuous), face a dilemma tomorrow (Saturday). England’s opening match of the ‘World Cup’ against that titan of rugby, the United States of America, kicks off at exactly the same time as England v Israel. ITV, which paid £40million for the rights to the rugby, is said to be livid that the BBC and the Football Association has scheduled the soccer game for a 5pm kick-off, precisely the same time England begin their defence of the World Cup.

ITV lobbied unsuccessfully to have the football moved, but the FA feared a later kick-off would lead to greater drunkenness, while the Israel players refused to play earlier than 4.30pm, when the Jewish Sabbath ends. So once again, rugby and soccer will up the ante this weekend in one of the world’s greatest sporting rivalries, and were I sufficiently versed in the political opinions of John Pilger or Robert Fisk, I would conclude that yet again this needless conflict is all Israel’s fault.

Patrick West is author of Beating Them At Their Own Game, How the Irish Conquered English Soccer (Liberties Press, 2006). Read his blog here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Different ballgame, The Times, 5 September 2007

(2) The spirit of rugby is as strong as ever, Daily Telegraph, 29 August 2007

(3) Rugby is the more beautiful game, Daily Telegraph, 1 September 2007

(4) See Rugby is the more beautiful game, Daily Telegraph, 1 September 2007

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

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