What is Football?

Football is a beautiful game, both balletic and combative, calling on the very highest levels of physical awareness, quick thinking, intelligence, courage and guile.

Paul Scholes epitomized everything that is best about it in turning around Manchester United’s match against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday. Afterwards, Mark Hughes said of him:

In those situations he has a very cool head and great technical ability and awareness.

Somehow, don’t ask me how, football has become mixed up with other things. In Britain, it’s something of a proxy for civil war, and the local team (to say nothing of the national team) are the “champions” of their area, taking on opponents on behalf of the fans. Alongside that, groups of fans use their team as a standard to raise above them as they take on other teams’ fans in streetfighting and, still, the occasional stadium battle.

These other things have thoroughly confused the common British idea of how football is best played. The most valued qualities in footballers in Britain have relatively little to do with sport. They are: loyalty to the cause, wearing that loyalty on the sleeve, physical courage, a never-say-die attitude, and unbreakable geographical ties, a sense of belonging. Excellent qualities in a local militia in the medieval Welsh Marches or the borders in Tudor England or post-Merovingian France, of course. But short of some of the things that help win matches.

These qualities are all indirect equivalents of sporting ones which our culture has given the same names to – for want of imagination as much as anything.

Take courage, for example. I’ll draw a veil over the name of the English batsman who, heavily and worthily decorated in the Great War, was seen shaking with fear before taking to the crease against Warwick Armstrong’s Australians in 1920.

George Macdonald Fraser understood the difference, and put it into his anti-hero’s mouth in “Flashman’s Lady”: the difference between going into battle and going into sport is that, in sport, you know you are going to survive. You are definitely going to face your own headlines.

Fans don’t face headlines, however. Anyone who says that they are “West Ham till they die” and regards that as in some way a moral statement is guilty of cant more than loyalty. Depression at bad results is as bad as it gets. Beyond that, absolutely nothing is at stake. Real risk would empty stadia instantly. People go to football – I go to football – to be entertained and to feel part of something, but aside from the cost of travel and the ticket, those things have to come easy.

I keep reading comments by former players from earlier generations to the effect that modern players don’t have to “fight for it” in the way they had to in their day. And I keep reading biographies of former players from earlier generations and they are chock-full of anecdotes about drinking, womanising, clubbing, fashion and the Kings Road. Professional footballers have always been wealthier than their peers, and have always had too much time on their hands, and have been prone, some of them, to abusing it.

Football is a sport – the most glorious, spectacular, exciting sport ever devised. In Britain, it’s still treated as proxy civil war, and the players as are our champions, cut to shreds if they let us down. It’s the wrong metaphor – at least if you want your team to be successful. The players of the season have been quiet, publicity-shy Scholes, and cunning, skillful Ronaldo. It hasn’t been a year for eleven roaring lions, but that’s because this isn’t a game for roaring lions. It’s a game needing skill, quick thinking, cleverness, imagination, teamwork and knowledge. (I dealt with the “wanting to win” aspect last week). Developing good players for it is a long-term project, one we keep postponing.

I suspect we keep postponing it because, underneath it all, we like it as it is. We’d enjoy watching a subtle, intelligent, coolheaded England team win tournaments, but there’d be a yearning for the old values. Look at what people think the likes of John Terry and Stuart Pearce are, and then look at what they really are. Not the ferocious bulldogs of legend. And, recent experience shows, not the “inspirational leaders” of legend either. Excellent players, yes, Good with people, yes, good with players, yes (Pearce gets strong reviews from the Under-21 squad) – but that’s not enough for us – they can’t just be what they are: they have to live up to this daft British soccer mythology.

Football is a game needing skill, quick thinking, cleverness, imagination, teamwork and knowledge. And we think the Americans don’t get it. Honestly.

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6 responses to “What is Football?

  1. in sport, you know you are going to survive

    Not necessarily.

  2. “It’s a game needing skill, quick thinking, cleverness, imagination, teamwork and knowledge.”

    I imagine those are helpful at war, as well.

  3. In Britain, it’s something of a proxy for civil war, and the local team (to say nothing of the national team) are the “champions” of their area, taking on opponents on behalf of the fans. Alongside that, groups of fans use their team as a standard to raise above them as they take on other teams’ fans in streetfighting and, still, the occasional stadium battle.

    I don’t think this is just British football, James. Think Lazio and Roma. Think Ajax and Feyenoord. In Budapest it is MTK and Ferencváros. Go back to the Romans: the Blues and the Greens. In fact that is what sport has always been: the beauty of war and the skills of war – as Harry says above – without (usually) the fatalities.

    Some wonderful clips yesterday. Thanks.

  4. Harry: these are also useful attributes in successful middle distance running, but the absence of a crossover from war in that context is obvious.

    George: I think I address that point in the post. That it’s about what the British fan – who has never been to war – thinks war is about. Thus Flashman etc. There’s another tale to tell there, about changes in the culture of the fan, especially the stark changes, long forgotten by this generation, between 1914 and 1920.

  5. I agree with George. Plus everything is mixed up with everything is another way of looking at it.

  6. In Britain, it’s something of a proxy for civil war, and the local team (to say nothing of the national team) are the “champions” of their area, taking on opponents on behalf of the fans. Alongside that, groups of fans use their team as a standard to raise above them as they take on other teams’ fans in streetfighting and, still, the occasional stadium battle.

    Surely this is because this is what football historically always was? Other countries got the game introduced to them in its codified form as the sport of Association Football; the UK is the home of the ur-football game from which the various other codes sprung, and historic football was, quite specifically, exactly the kind of parochial streetfight that you describe.