A dirty tackle on the working classes
England's appearance in the Rugby World Cup final tomorrow has become another excuse for an outburst of class snobbery against football fans.
All week, I’ve been mulling over what to do on Saturday night. Should I watch a BBC4 documentary on the British Enlightenment or Grand Prix snooker on Beeb 2? Or perhaps I should indulge in a spot of burglary in Twickenham. It’s a tough call – but they can’t be any worse than watching England in the Rugby Union World Cup final.
Okay, so the burglary bit was a joke but the dilemma is genuine. I can’t get that excited about the rugby. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against rugby itself. Given the sorry state of Saturday night TV, I might even end up watching the damn thing – though I’d rather be at home than in a gastropub surrounded by braying toffs in England rugby shirts. Everyone’s entitled to their fun, even posh boys. But what’s really wound me up is the way that, rather than just enjoying the rucking and mauling and leaving the rest of us in peace, the bastards insist on using rugby as a stick with which to beat football.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the amazing zero-to-hero renaissance of the England rugby team is the rekindling of the ‘rugby versus football’ debate that briefly raged in 2003. The Times (London), for example, ran a ‘10 reasons why…’ head-to-head on which of the two sports is better. ‘Is there a more depressing sound in sport than 50,000 glory hunters called Tarquin singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”?’ wrote football journalist Kaveh Solhekol (1). Well, actually there is. It’s the sound of football fans singing the English rugby anthem. Sadly, I witnessed one such shameful incident two weeks ago at Selhurst Park. When the Palace substitutes started warming up, a huge cheer swept round the stadium. Steady on, I thought, we need some fresh legs but there’s nobody on the bench to get that excited about. Then the penny dropped: the fans were cheering the rugby score, which had flashed up on the big screen. England, against all the odds, had beaten Australia. And before you could say Jason Robinson, fans started singing ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’. Jesus wept, what’s wrong with this country?
To be fair, I can understand how people who don’t even understand the laws of the game can contract rugby fever. British sporting success is pretty rare. And an English team sticking it to the Aussies is rarer still. Moreover, in these atomised times, we’ll jump at the chance of a shared national experience whatever the pretext: international sporting event, celebrity funeral, missing children…we’re not that fussy. But football fans really ought to think twice about jumping on the rugby bandwagon. Why? Because, while we’re cheering for ‘our’ rugby boys, the rugby snobs are sneering at us.
You can’t switch on the radio or open a newspaper these days without coming across someone sounding off about how rugby is better than football. Patrick Collins’ tirade in the Mail on Sunday is typical of the genre. ‘The public believes that professional footballers spend too much of their time diving, acting, bickering and bawling abuse at impotent referees’, Collins rails. ‘The public senses that professional football is controlled by mendacious agents, avaricious managers and unprincipled chairmen.’ By contrast, Collins describes a bus journey in which rival rugby fans engaged in good-natured banter. ‘I remember thinking that this was how sport could be, how it ought to be, stripped of cynicism, chauvinism and moronic aggression.’ (2)
On Monday, Radio Five Live hosted a phone-in debate on whether rugby should be our new national sport. The basic argument was that the rugby team are gentlemen plus they’re winning ergo rugby should be our national sport. The snobbery also ran through the light-hearted ‘rugby versus football’ debate in The Times. Patrick Kidd’s case for rugby rested mainly on rugby’s moral superiority: players don’t feign injury, it’s safe for children to attend matches, spectators drink responsibly, and rival supporters don’t have to be segregated (3).
Then there was self-loathing football fan Simon Hattenstone’s account in the Guardian of his ‘anti-epiphany’ when he discovered that rugby is the ‘real game of the people’, a game, moreover, where ‘two opposing sets of rugby fans can sit in a pub and watch a match, chat intelligently, and not pummel each other to death’ (4). Hattenstone bemoans the fact that he never played rugby at school. ‘No, we played football – the game of the people’, writes Hattenstone bitterly. ‘Yes, the same football that now regularly charges punters 40 quid plus per Premier League game and bullies season-ticket holders to watch every crap cup match for the privilege of a season ticket.’ By contrast, Hattenstone points out, ‘you can watch Jonny Wilkinson at Newcastle Falcons for a tenner a head’.
The problem with Hattenstone’s argument is this: if rugby really is the people’s game, if it’s so manifestly superior, how come it’s not very popular? Of course, everyone gets into rugby when England are doing well in the World Cup. But, apart from its traditional Home Counties constituency, nobody cares a jot about rugby union the rest of the time.
As Channel 4 News noted this week: ‘The Guinness Premiership’s best-supported side, Leicester Tigers, had an average crowd of 16,815 last season. But the Tigers’ average crowds are bettered by 32 English football clubs, and many other rugby union clubs struggle to match the attendances of football clubs in English football’s fourth tier, League Two. TV audiences are the same: while 12million watched last Saturday’s gripping England v France semi-final, more than 20million watch a big England football World Cup fixture.’ (5)
There’s probably a nerdy pub discussion to be had about the merits of the respective sports. But the current ‘rugby v football’ debate isn’t about which sport is more skilful or better to watch but which game is more virtuous. Ultimately, comparing rugby to football is like comparing apples with pears. Personally, I prefer football but I’ll concede that rugby has the raw ingredients for great sporting drama too. What I don’t like about the debate is the barely concealed snobbery that runs through it. Elitism is not openly espoused these days. Access and inclusion are the order of the day. Even the toffs are flattening their vowels and glottalising their consonants.
But elitism hasn’t disappeared altogether. It merely expresses itself in a coded form, whether through Little Britain-style chav-baiting or else in the current ‘rugby is better than football’ debate. And when I say ‘coded’, you don’t need to be Roland Barthes to deconstruct it. For football, read uncouth working class scum. And that’s why I’ll choose football, warts and all, any day over rugby union. Football, for all its conspicuous consumption and the gaudy US-style razzmatazz that comes with commercialism, is far preferable to a sport championed by sneering toffs who think they’re better than us.
(1) Ten reasons why football is better than rugby, The Times (London), 15 October 2007
(2) A Dream Ticket? What a pity football can’t see the truth, Mail on Sunday, 14 October 2007
(3) Ten reasons why rugby is better than football, The Times (London), 15 October 2007
(4) Rugby uncovers the awful truth of my wasted life, Guardian, 10 October 2007
(5) More enjoying Pilates than rugby, Channel 4 News, 17 October 2007
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