MY 50 YEAR WAR WITH FOOTBALL: HALF A CENTURY OF SOCCER LOVE/HATE
Watching this summer’s European Championships managed to rekindle acutely my festering love/hate problem with association football, or, to give it its English diminutive, soccer.
I’ve lived in England for 44 years and I’ve admired football in many ways: indeed, when I was sports editor at the television news agency UPITN I spent an inordinate amount of time covering the sport and editing match highlights into 1:15 news clips. This never was enough to convert me into a total fan, and certainly not an England supporter.
The European final at Wembley Stadium in July 2021 reminded me exactly of why that was. I was even inclined to support England: this team was admirable in many ways, especially off the field where manager Gareth Southgate and his players had stood tall in support of racial justice in a nation whose leaders had declared Britain officially free of racism only weeks before. Those same leaders castigated England’s players for taking a knee before matches, but then, as the team advanced to the final, threw on football jerseys and magically became supporters. I was also inclined to back England because they were playing Italy, whose pervasive cynical cheating and Opera Buffo acting have for decades seemed to me the worst part of the game itself, and certainly not something (as die-hard football fans always insist) outweighed by the occasional moments of poetry in their play. This cynical mayhem on the pitch reached its apotheosis late in the game when Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini pulled England’s Bukayo Saka down from behind with a horse-collar tackle, attracting what, in the circumstances, was a minimal penalty, or what we used to call a “professional foul”.
Meanwhile, outside the stadium, waves of drunken England supporters had been assaulting the gates and anyone who stood in their way, especially if those anyones happened to be ‘less’ than white. I always remind people that when I arrived in England to stay, in 1977, no one, and I mean no one, called soccer ‘the Beautiful Game’, except perhaps Brian Glanville who wrought poetical about it in the Sunday Times, which otherwise relegated the sport to a place behind rugby football or cricket. In the late Seventies, soccer was an ugly game ruled by ‘hard men’ whose hardness involved mostly kicking you from behind or tugging at your shirts or shorts, and you might be taking your life in your hands if you went to watch them. Thank Nick Hornby and Fever Pitch for creating a…