Does the sight of a building garlanded in football colours upset you? Do you change the channel when ads for whatever stupid football competition is on at the moment come on? Do you regard football followers as deluded simpletons or violent thugs?
Yes? Then settle in and listen closely, for I was once you, and I have wisdom to impart. I am burning with the fervour of the convert, and I want to tell you why football should be your religion.
(Technical note: for the purposes of this rant, football refers to any games involving a foot and a ball – but mainly rugby league and soccer)
In the days BF (before fandom), whenever any festival of the boot rolled around, I would be pissed off. “How tedious”, I’d think. With my equally cynical and bored friends, I would mock the sad followers with their pathetic obsession. We would demean the sport and the followers with half-baked, pseudo-intellectual comparisons to religious cults or make snide comments about homo-eroticism, and congratulate ourselves on our greater sophistication and wit.
What nobs we were.
But, lucky for you, I’m here to help! Here’s the five reasons you should be following some football this summer.
There’s no denying that hooliganism is a blight on football. When you are BF, this is the main image you have of football, footballers and their fans. That’s what makes the news. The bad stuff.
But as a fan, I am part of a large, inclusive community that crosses culture, race, geography and language. I’ve seen men with no language in common talk for hours – about football. Following football has taken me to pubs and clubs around the world and I’ve found friendly faces everywhere I’ve been. Even in London, where talking to strangers is generally regarded as a suspicious activity, if you are wearing the colours of your club or country you can expect to get into a friendly chat with a fellow fan.
Once I was shopping in M&S wearing a Liverpool Football Club t-shirt. A man approached me and offered me a ticket to an away game at Chelsea: he was a season ticket holder and would be in Spain for the match. There was no hidden agenda. We had a nice chat, I gave him £20, he gave me the ticket, we never saw or spoke to each other again. Just a small, mutually beneficial exchange between two members of a worldwide community.
Following football means you can shift from being ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’ just about anywhere you go.
Another common complaint about football is the general moral turpitude of the game. Especially capital-F Football aka soccer, with its outrageous salaries, celebrity players and the wags and wannabes. And there’s no denying the money involved has created huge distortions and had some dubious consequences.
But in my experience football fandom is, on the whole, a part of the glue that holds society together. It has family values: not the sort of family values the religious right would promote (or recognise) but go to a game and you will find generations of the same family watching together. Dads and kids. And Nanas, and Mums and Grandads. It’s rowdy, and the language is colourful but at a base level it’s about togetherness and cohesion. There’s many a man who will say that football is the language he uses to communicate with his father.
But it’s not just that the family who plays together stays together. The individual is king is modern, western society, but football promotes the idea that by working together we can achieve more. A famous coaching tale fans like to repeat goes like this: the coach gets a greedy young player to stand on the goal line while the goalie takes a goal kick with the instruction that he’s to try and get the ball. The goalie kicks the ball and the young player takes off at top speed – but he can’t catch the ball. They do it again. Try as he might, the kid can’t beat the ball. When he’s dropped the ground exhausted, the coach tells him, ‘you will never do it. You can never be faster than the ball. But you have ten team mates on the field. Give it to them.’
3. Sheer physicality
For me, my period BF was also before fitness. Around the time I started following football, I also took up regular strength training. I also took up running. I quickly gained an appreciation for the effort and ability required to perform the physical feats that are required of players, game after game.
Football, especially rugby league, has plenty of folklore about players who have returned to the field with broken legs, arms, even necks but I’m not talking about those extremes. Just the discipline in keeping your body fat low, your muscles strong and flexible and your heart and lungs at peak condition now impresses me. But it’s not just about fitness: there’s also an immense amount of skill and intelligence (not book learnin’) involved in playing strategically.
What, in rugby league, looked like a bunch of no neck thugs bashing into one another BF, now looks like a ballet of brute strength. Giants of men, some well over 6 feet tall, weighing over 100 kilos each, thunder down the field at each other, displaying grace and agility as well as raw power. The NZ Warriors are famed for their passing game: they play flamboyantly, tossing the ball back and forth across the field, trying to create a break to run through and score. Others are famed for their running game, their sheer speed on the break. When Gordon Tallis picked up Brett Hodgson in a tackle and, with continuous motion, carried him half way across the field to put him down outside the field of play, it wasn’t just his strength fans admired, it was also the native intelligence it took to turn the tackle into an opportunity for his team to get the ball.
More people appreciate the physicality of soccer players than rubgy league because the players look prettier but when I watch I’m in thrall to their skill on the ball. To the surgical precision of a striker like Fernando Torres, who finds the goal time and again while racing down the field with powerful defenders bearing down on him from all sides. To the intelligence behind the play. I love to watch the patterns on the field: the defenders literally holding a line across the back, triangles forming and reforming as the ball moves around the field.
4. The passion
Being a grown up can be dull. It rankles how much of adult life is spent in calm civility. Exchanging bland remarks about the weather. Politely enquiring about people’s journeys or their holidays or any other safe topic that’s unlikely to cause upset. I love that football gives you a chance to shout and yell and be stupid.
Once, after a particularly horrible day at work, my partner took me to see the Brisbane Broncos playing the Canberra Raiders at ANZ stadium. Spending an hour an half in the midst of thousands of excited fans, stomping my feet on the metal floor every time my team scored and shouting and yelling with the best of them was more cleansing and cathartic than a month in therapy would have been.
You need passion on your life. You need to yell and scream and shout. This is a socially sanctioned place to do it, every week.
5. The fun.
I’ll fess up: when state of origin came around BF, and fans started festooning the town in maroon, I would look down my nose at the activity. Pity those poor fools, so excited about something so meaningless. In hindsight, I was the fool.
Life is short. As you get older that becomes painfully clear. And there’s plenty of stuff in life that’s shitty. Or painful. Or soul-destroying. Being a fan is fun. It’s an excuse to dress up, to join in. To sing songs and get drunk on the noise and the atmosphere – if not the beer. To spend hours chatting to complete strangers as though you’ve known each other for years. To trash talk fans of other teams. To take your mind off your mortgage, your cheating spouse, your miserable boss.
So: bring on State of Origin II. And bring on the World Cup. It’ll be state against state, and mate against mate, but all the fans will there. And I’ll be there, shouting and singing and bullshitting with the best of them. Wanna come?