As the madness of the World Cup draws to a close I’ve been thinking a lot about football (shocker). Why is it so popular? Why do people become violent over it? What is it about this game that makes people cry? Why do so many people around the world have such a visceral and emotional reaction to it? There aren’t answers to all of my questions, but the things I did find out are not pretty, and certainly not beautiful.
Until very recently I never hated football. I didn’t love it. But I didn’t hate it. I was mostly indifferent to it, but occasionally got excited about international games. I have never understood club football – all that swapping teams, buying and selling of players…of people. Like a high class, well payed slave trade. I know they do very well from it financially, but morally I find it dubious. I am not comfortable with the notion that these men are owned by the clubs and they come out to play for our entertainment, disgustingly large sums of money notwithstanding. I vaguely understood enjoying international football because of patriotism or something like that. But now I find that I can’t bring myself to forget what I know about the industry and enjoy the surface of the game.
I posted this on Facebook on the 18th May, regarding the FA cup final between Arsenal and Hull City on 17th May.
“Can someone please explain to me why people become animals regardless of whether they win or lose at sports? I understand people getting into it and caring and getting excited or disappointed. The following things I saw yesterday on my way home from a very long day working in Wales, are examples of things I do not understand:
* why we must feel or be violent or threaten violence towards supporters of another football team. I heard a hull city fan threaten to ram the stick of his flag through the eyes of approaching arsenal fans. I love some theatre companies or films. I really hate others. But I’m not going to consider hurting you if you like the ones I don’t. Even if they beat my favourites to awards.
* why we must take over the entire station. I came back from a Beyoncé concert with thousands of people. We didn’t piss anyone in the stations off by banging on the escalators and singing all her songs (though I do at least see the fun in that). We certainly didn’t chant incoherent noise and bang sticks and hands on anything we could find. Half the time it wasn’t even words. We also did not call ourselves “Bey Army” or scream it at passing strangers. I find it disconcerting that people refer to themselves as an army of fans.
* why we must get so drunk that we lose all control, sit comatose on the tube until we wake up and vomit twice onto the floor. this one was specifically one disgusting human specimen but I don’t know why it is socially acceptable to drink so much that you cannot control the inside of your stomach coming out your mouth and I don’t know why football is apparently an excuse to do this.
I went to the Paralympics with my family. The atmosphere was unreal – supportive and friendly and joyful. We were all better humans watching David Weir and Jonny Peacock and cheering for them as one united stadium. We did not mock or threaten the other people competing. We simply watched, supported and yelled when we weren’t being told to shut up so the race could start. I would like the aftermath and support of more sporting events to be like this and less like the regressing, invasive and disgusting version of humans I experienced yesterday.”
Now obviously, I was angry and upset. I’ve calmed down now…sort of. I didn’t mention that a group of Arsenal fans jumped in front of me in the street and yelled “ARSENAL” so close to me I could feel their breath on my face. Aside from it making me jump from the sheer shock of it, it was an invasion of personal space, it was intimidating and it was unnecessary. Many fans of other teams have said to me “Oh that’s Arsenal fans for you” but it isn’t. It is true of the behaviour of fans of many football teams. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s not always the case that this is the team your parents and grandparents supported. That’s a family connection – I could understand that a bit more. It’s not always true that you support the team that corresponds to the area you’re from. That’s your home, those are your roots. I could understand that a bit more too. It’s not a hard and fast rule that you have a season ticket to games and are therefore financially invested in the sport. It just…is. Why? Just because. That’s the way it is. That’s how it has always been. But that’s not good enough for me. So I’ve done some research.
Did you know that domestic violence increases during big football games?
“The National Centre for Domestic Violence is trying to raise awareness about domestic violence during the World Cup, after it emerged that instances increased by 25% after England Games at the 2010 tournament.”
– The Independent, 19.06.2014
That means that either people who don’t normally beat up their partners decide that when their team loses a game they’ll suddenly batter them, or that the people who have been beating up their partners until this point decide to up the ante and it gets significantly worse. So much worse that the victims actually bother to report it. Then there’s the people who beat up their partners whether they win or lose.
That’s a chilling thought isn’t it? That domestic violence increases significantly with big football games. Why is no one investigating this? Why aren’t there huge “DON’T BEAT UP YOUR PARTNERS WHEN YOU GO HOME!” signs at football games? Probably because they can’t afford to pay thousands or even millions for advertising at pitches. Oh well. That’s a shame then.
I have learned that the reason football is such a popular sport is because it is the game of the everyman. All you need is a ball and a space. Anything can mark out a goal, any flat-ish space can be a pitch of any size. And anyone can play providing you can run or kick or catch or if you’re lucky, all three. I admire and like the fact that it is an easily accessible game. You can be rich or poor, from any country in the world, and understand the basics of football and how it works. I do admit that the complexities are beyond me but I at least understand why it is loved worldwide, why it has more fans than any other sport, why people of all ages, colours, social standings can unite over it. Half the club teams have “united” in the title! But that doesn’t actually happen, does it? People don’t unite over it. People are divided. To me, it seems that there is more hate bred than unity created. Oh I’ve seen the footage of people jumping arm in arm and celebrating, but after that point more alcohol is consumed and the fights break out and it’s not so happy after all. I know that football hooliganism in the stadiums has pretty much been controlled. But I’m not talking about that really. I’m talking about an endemic attitude surrounding the sport. I’m told it’s particular to this country and is heavily linked to the drinking culture and the resulting mob mentality that rears its ugly head in the UK. Sadly, I can believe that. It’s something I feel ashamed to be connected to. I wish it weren’t true. It’s why I want to disconnect myself entirely from the regular excuse we make for it – football.
People memorise the intricacies of matches, scores, player stats and transfers the way that I might memorise the ins and outs of a particularly fantastic piece of theatre or poetry or music. People cry over a game being lost or won, but there are no real consequences to a country’s world standing in football. The thing I love about theatre or poetry or music is that they can all make you reflect on life in new ways. Through fictional portrayals they can change your opinions on reality. I don’t think that’s true of football. It seems fairly meaningless in that respect. I accept that it’s a tactical game so the more you watch it the more you can appreciate it. But I know when I cry at something that moves me it’s because of its meaning. The fans who cry over their teams, who protect the name of their team by fighting…I’m not sure they know why they feel that way. I wouldn’t threaten violence to anyone except if they threatened the people I love. The football players, the managers, the teams…they don’t even know who their fans are. So why are supporters so violently protective?
I have questioned a number of football fans over the last few weeks and not one of them has been able to really answer the question about why they care so much. The closest I got to any kind of answer was from a friend who said it’s the idea that you’re part of something worldwide. That when everyone is watching the world cup final together, you’re united with the world. You’re all watching the same thing at the same time and it’s elation or agony but it’s together. I replied that it sounds like the feeling Jews talk about at Passover. The safety and comfort and joy in the knowledge that Jews all around the world are sitting down to tell the same story and continue the traditions for another year. He told me that being part of the football culture is a lot like religion. And I suppose he’s right. In a world where atheism is fashionable but the human drive to be included has not disappeared, we find our communities where we can. We support our team or our country in football because it’s such an easy thing to belong to. We do this without questioning what goes on underneath. We are happy to defend our teams or our countries. For nationalists it’s on the battle field and for others, the football field. And who am I to criticise that? For is there any religion or country truly without corruption?
Speaking of corruption, let’s look at the business side of the industry. Because for all the manifestations of religious belief it engenders, football is indeed an industry. The scandal of Qatar hosting the world cup in 2022 and the paying off and corruption that has come to light is sickening. A country that has working conditions so terrible it amounts to slavery (actual slavery, not the kind of footballer buying and selling owning humans slavery I mused about earlier), that has no previously documented interest in football, that makes no sense as a host for the world cup is doing it anyway. And despite complaints about votes being bought, despite the hundreds of immigrants dying while the country builds itself up (quite literally) for 2022, despite the dire conditions that people are living and working in, FIFA refuse to change the decision. FIFA say it’s not their problem. FIFA give no shits because they have their money. Have a look at the quote from this article from The Guardian to see an estimate of how many people are dying in preparation for the Qatar world cup:
Not only do we not know how many migrant workers have died from those other countries, too little is known about how those from Nepal and India were killed.”
Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I’m too optimistic about people. But that’s not good enough for me. I think FIFA has a responsibility as a Western organisation to not condone the actions of a country that treats people so appallingly and shows little to no remorse for it. FIFA, it is your problem. Give the money back, vote again, give it to the second place contenders. I think FIFA has a duty to crack down on everything that is bad about the culture surrounding football, whether it’s the corruption or thuggish, loutish behaviour that has come with football for too long. I think footballers themselves need to start acknowledging the people that elevate them in this country and they need to be the ones to say that beating each other up is not good enough. I think a game that claims to unite people is not enough of a pay off for the greed-fuelled underbelly of the industry.
I mentioned earlier that many of my complaints to do with the attitude of fans is particular to the UK. That it’s not so much about football but more about Friday night down at the pub. But why do we make such a cultural allowance for this through football? Why don’t we put some of that FIFA money or a percentage of the astronomical footballer’s salaries into educating people about not hating and not beating the shit out of each other? Why do we think it’s more OK because there’s a match on?
I don’t have answers to my big questions yet. I don’t think I’ll get them either. But I know that I can’t watch a game knowing that there is such corruption underneath. I can’t enjoy the surface of football, knowing how much greed and hate there is surrounding it. I can’t pretend that it’s OK, that it means enough to make it worth it. I don’t want to be part of what I see as a very ugly game.