Atlas taking a throw-in.
Football has a propensity to talk about itself as a holistic entity, an integer with clearly defined boundaries, and this week’s meeting at Number 10 with various dignitaries and Mark Bright was no exception. Read the words of our own PM just a couple of days ago: “I think the achievement that you all made in getting racism out of football over the last 20 years, I think it’s been a fantastic achievement for Britain,” he flag-waved. “Lots of countries haven’t managed to do it.” Indeed they haven’t. Don’t think I’m being facetious; football has undeniably been “racism-free” for 20 years – just ask Stuart Pearce (… yes, as in England Manager Stuart Pearce).
Which makes it even more baffling how, after such a prolonged absence, racism has managed to rear its ugly head again. We’d taken the necessary injections of goodwill and funding. Britain had been immunised for life, we’d believed. Where now is the evil doer who sought to taint our harmonious game? Was it an inside or outside agent? Was the past 20 years really just delusion – was Suarez vs Evra Britain’s Gatsby moment?
People talk about racism in football in the way others do AIDS in South Africa, or poverty in India – a problem that can be overcome with education and dollars. Football presumes to think that it can tackle racism as though it were beyond external influence. This belief is also perpetrated by Sepp Blatter’s Fifa, currently conducting an investigation into corruption in Fifa… through Fifa; a quite remarkable lack of perspective – if not unashemedly deliberate.
How does one begin to define the ‘Football Community’? Does a long suffering “fan” at Sixfields, who goes to the game every fortnight or so, just “to get out the house for a bit”, constitute a portion of football’s community? He may not even like football, going solely to keep a record of how the cost/ ingredients of a pie has altered over the past thirty years to give his whining an unshakeable foundation in fact, or to spy on which stewards are “ball-watching” as opposed to monitoring the increasingly anaemic crowd. In such a case, were he to be involved in a racist incident at work, would it be an issue for the Football Community? I fear he’d be thanked for his contribution to Northampton’s innumerable relegation-ending seasons, and cut loose.
As to why football would want to think itself apart from the rest of society I’ve no idea. Racism, for example, is an intrinsically human problem, apparent in every society on Earth (oh dear – what a ridiculous statement.) Historians are more or less unified in the belief that it began in 1734 at a pub in Bath – long before the first football match took place at No Man’s Land in 1914. By officially acknowledging this, football could quite easily devolve itself of the blame for racist behaviour amongst those who play and follow it, by accepting the notion that this is a problem that might just, possibly, go “beyond football.” But they can’t, because that would entail humility; an acceptance of limitation. “Beyond football” simply doesn’t exist – for what is the Solar System if not a collection of footballs?
The only alternative to this incessant self-grandeurisation that I can see, stems from a misinterpretation on my part; with what I refer to as ‘football’, in fact being ‘Football’. That’s right: the place. As in: let’s go to Football. It’s sunny all year in Football. My Amazon delivery’s been held up in Football. People clearly don’t play football, they live there. There’s too much evidence: David Cameron went on to refer to “problems that have crept back in” to football – emphasising further the notion of ‘Football the country’ in borrowing from the lexicon of border control. We are now officially at war: Football is being invaded.
“If everyone plays their role, then we can easily crush and deal with this problem,” DC battle-cried from atop his noble steed. “I’ll sit in front of the defence,” he unfortunately didn’t add. With this poorly-conceived idea confirmed in my own mind, I decided to go to Football and see the disrupted tranquillity for myself, to try and gauge whether its empire was indeed entering its inevitable (… or is it?) final phase.
Having initially had little idea of where Football was in the world, I rang up the Foreign Office. They faxed me over some phrases William Hague found useful on his recent trip to promote British-made steel studs there, and directed me to the Ryanair website, who have commendably held firm to their principle that there’s no place on Earth too shaming to fly to. Equipped with a highly-esteemed guide book written by Clarke Carlisle, I departed.
With my pockets full of Ambition (the local currency ; i.e. “I’m leaving the club because of a lack of ambition” is an overtly financial statement of intent), I strolled around aimlessly, casting an inexpert eye over what went before me, in much the same way as I tend to do in Britain.
There’s more than a touch of the ancient world in Football. Gods are not confined to temples, and can be seen milling around with the common man – though as a result tend have a transient value. As it started to rain, a woman ran outside screaming the lyric: “There’s only one Tony Pulis!” Whenever rain falls over Football, the citizens pay homage to this 54 year old God of Rain, who has reportedly achieved great things in adverse weather conditions. I was fortunate enough to bump into a God myself, Paul Merson, whose fortunes have seen him fluctuate regularly between various degrees of divine status – much to his own intense confusion.
“I was a God at Arsenal, but then became an alcoholic and cocaine addict. I was sent to rehab, and had my God status temporarily suspended. I got it back at Villa, only to lose it again when I back to rehab for my gambling addiction. But then I got it back again – my work on Sky Sports propelling me back into fans’ hearts. But then I lost it again; after a drink-driving ban. But then I got it bac… Actually, did I? I can’t really remember where I am now to be honest. Pub?”
It would be remiss of me not to recount some of the unsavoury sights I saw; for while Football is undeniably the modern day Olympus, it is fundamentally still on Earth. Every building in Football is built in the style of what we know to be a stadium; “I’m having supper at Joe’s stadium, mum,” etc. Whilst perusing a dodgy neighbourhood, I learnt that due to war between Liverpool and Everton in the 1980s, several stadia had had to be re-erected overnight, with a capacity unfit for purpose in many cases. Jerzy Dudek, who used to work as goalkeeper (all the men in his family had done since time began) in the part of the country called Liverpool (yes, after our very own), said that things were so bad in his, that some of his children had to share seats, and there was only enough underground heating for one penalty box – and even then, that only lasted 45 minutes. “When a player knows he is a slave, he’ll never give his employer his heart,” he reflected solemnly (actually true.) Crime is a concern, and the prisons are bursting at the seams. There’s a huge problem with diving (25 years), accidental diving (15 yrs) and not leaving everything out there (at the judge’s discretion – often the fan mob.)
On the plus side, racism doesn’t exist in Football. “It’s like the falling tree in the rain forest,” said Liverpool’s Kenny Dalglish. “If no one talks about it, did it actually happen? Haven’t you asked me this before?” What we may perceive as racism in the UK is referred to as ‘banter’ in Football. It’s a telling sign of the country and its citizen’s integral honesty in the face of the media, that no one has ever really come out and said that “there might be an issue with racism in football”; such loyal inhabitants are but a dream in the UK. As the octogenarian Jimmy Hill himself said, amidst all the righteous hysteria of the Ron Atkinson ‘scandal’ (another UK-only phenomenon that doesn’t even have a corresponding word in Football Talk, or FT):
“What about jokes about my long chin? I mean, nigger is black – so we have jokes where we call them niggers because they’re black. Why should that be any more of an offence than someone calling me chinny?” (Yep, verbatim.) Such considered reasoning has propelled Hill to ‘National Treasure’ status, alongside the Carling Cup and Robbie Fowler’s nasal strips. Similarly, Football is lucky enough to have no concerns with homophobia; a prejudice the kids haven’t even heard of, by virtue of there being no homosexuals in Football. None… zero… zilch.
Physical abuse is also easily negated. The problematic issue in the UK of geezers seeking excitement on Saturday nights through fighting can’t occur here. As one sage told me, what looks like fighting is in fact a series of ‘challenges.’ He advised me: “When you see two people that you think are fighting, ask yourself this question: Is he that sort of player? Invariably you’ll find that he isn’t, by virtue of no one in history ever having being publicly labelled ‘that type of player’, ever. Football is one of the most socially progressive countries in the world – and if it’s not top of the league, it’s certainly in the play-offs.”
Education does follow a similar subject model to the UK. I jollied round a school for a day at the Headmaster’s invitation. A history test was a chronological quiz of various battles, much like our own.
“In what year did Benfica defeat Manchester United in the European Cup?” parped Mr Tyldelsey.
“1968,” offered one eager student of the game.
“Wrong. It was another one of my trick questions – Manchester United won. Obviously. Stay behind after training and write out ‘That Night in Barcelona’ till you feel like you were there.”
Just as I was becoming fully convinced in my own mind as to Football’s enduring stability, its never ending empire, I popped into a Maths class, where the hugely respected Mr Motson was demanding nothing but the best from his attentive charges.
“If I score two goals away from home, and the opposition score five, what is the minimum number of goals I need to score at home to guarantee progress through to the next round?”
“But sir, can you guarantee anything in football?” one girl asked.
“Aha! And therein lies the beauty of Maths, my dear,” Mr Motson beamed, gazing whimsically out the window. “Nothing is ever certain.”