The modern football conversation is a thing of wonder. People, who often until recently have been strangers, striking up a discussion about the state of their team or teams, and finding an effortless common language…
Impressive too is the sheer thought which goes into it; the easy exchange of hypotheticals, opinion and analysis; if this player hadn’t got injured, if this player had been signed and crucially, if this one had been played more. In the days when social life was still a thing, it was lovely to sit there and hear the sophistication and collegiality of this discourse, which is, of course, always about much more than football. Football is its ostensible subject, but in fact is really only a meeting point where concepts of loyalty, scepticism and passion can be sounded and exchanged. And memories are long.
Yet lately, listening to or participating in this chat, another type of conversation has been coming to mind; that of the political discussions I also overhear on our nations’ streets and airwaves. There, the interlocutors’ knowledge is often paltry or false, the exchange terse, the analysis blunt. People can discuss for some time propositions which are almost entirely untrue, such as coronavirus conspiracy. And whereas earlier the contrast of this with the fluidity of how people discussed football amused me, it has recently begun to unsettle. Crucially, there has started to seem to me that some kind of deep psychic connection between the sophistication of our sporting discourse and the poverty of our political one – as if the latter was some detritus of thought left over from a sport which has been assuming ever more of Britain’s intellectual bandwidth.
Take the most commonly-issued description of our politicians by the not-particularly-engaged observer, ‘they’re all the same.’ At no point in my adult life has the breadth of difference between Britain’s main political parties been greater – in scope if not in quality – and the political stakes higher. And yet still, ‘they’re all the same’, a sentiment which naturally leads to the conclusion ‘which means I don’t need to think about them.’
This nihilistic credo completely refuses the idea that citizens in a democracy may have some responsibility to be basically informed. Now imagine the very same commentator saying it about football. No football fan would ever claim that ‘all football teams are the same’; Merseyside football fans, for example, would tell you in no uncertain terms that there are significant differences between two teams who play in the same city, in the same league, and whose stadiums are located less than a mile apart. The same football fan can elucidate the difference between Dundee and Dundee United, but then claim there is no real difference between politicians with impeccable anti-corruption credentials and those on the corporate take.
Of course, in a world beset by turbulence, the stability of a football club is ever more attractive; your football team, after all, will never leave you – although fans of Bury and Macclesfield might dispute that. And if football does allow us to talk about many things through its prism, one of those things is surely politics. Take the current campaign for safe standing, or the brilliantly-effected 2016 walk-out of Liverpool fans over high ticket prices, which led to the club’s owners scrapping the priciest tickets. Yet in fact, this argument undermines itself, because if football fans prove perfectly capable of acute political analysis in matters relating to football, this surely suggests that a little more of the energy of such fan culture could be diverted into, or at least contextualised within, a wider culture of civic engagement. After all, if you think paying £77 for a match ticket is bad, imagine paying one million quid for a house.
I feel this particularly because my own team, Liverpool, is now so good, and I don’t care. I don’t care about our first league title since 1990 in the context of the homeless people I see when walking to the pub to watch the game; I don’t care how good the bread and circuses are now the suffering they are held to distract from has become too big to ignore. For people like me, children of the 1980s’ middle class, it’s hard to escape the feeling that football, and perhaps competitive sport more generally, has developed into a sort of modern Glass Bead Game. This was, in Herman Hesse’s 1943 novel of the name, a game played by an intellectual elite, a strange hermetic pursuit into which mental energies were absorbed in deliberate ignorance of wider social realities.
Nowadays I think of this when I read some complex piece of football journalism and ask myself if the mind who produced it might not be able to contribute more elsewhere.
All this may strike you as a rather gloomy or spoilsport view. And after all, who am I to tell people what to like, especially in these current difficult times? But I’ve felt it even more since the beginning of the pandemic, when football has been resurrected as a weird, pure-profit spectacle, even more frequent and with fans now cut out entirely. The contrast between the underdevelopment of our political discourse and the disproportion of our footballing obsession has only become more evident. Still, if the Premier League does, as some predict, enter a post-Brexit decline, its diminished pull might see us addressing some of the other problems in our country instead.
I have a feeling I might enjoy football again then too.
Photo credit: Sky Sports