Monday, December 11, 2006

Falling out of love with football

In the days to call, which we have left behind,
Our boyhood’s glorious game,
And our youthful vigour has declined
With its mirth and its lonesome end;
You will think of the time, the happy time,
Its memories fond recall
When in the bloom of our youthful prime
We’ve kept upon the ball

(from On the ball, City)

An affair isn't finished until the moment the thought of your partner evokes nothing but blank indifference. So at six o'clock on Saturday, realising I had forgotten even to look for the Norwich result (as it turns out, they lost two-one at home to Sheffield Wednesday), it was time to admit the weary truth: that I don't love football any more.

Actually, I don't even like it.

It all started aged four with the strange colours of the 1970 World Cup. Maybe it was just our early television set, but there was a surreal, unearthly brightness to that Mexican sunlight. It was the last time that England's team could be said to be the best in the world. We had Gordon Banks, Bobby Charlton and Geoff Hurst and, most of all, we had Bobby Moore, who sounds like a comic book hero and who, all granite jaw and flaming blond hair, looked the part. In the words of Serious Drinking's seminal Bobby Moore was innocent,

Lost three-two we know for sure
You can't blame it on Bobby Moore

So I was hooked, and stayed hooked through the seventies (straggly hair, brutal defenders), eighties (perms, tight trousers, extreme hooliganism) and nineties (pathetic sentimental revival led by unfunny comedians). I confess as a child I supported my father's team, Newcastle United, but at the age where friends become more important than parents, I started going to Carrow Road to watch Norwich City.

We had a few great years around then. Impossibly great years, it seems now. But it is not Norwich's decline, though disheartening, which has split me from football.

Even before this year's World Cup, England's current national football team were an unlovable bunch, consisting in the main of drugs cheats, sexual bullies and terminally-greedy loudmouths. And their attitude was foul: anointing themselves the Golden Generation and playing with Sunday-League-clogger dexterity, they relied on a pathetically easy draw to get through to the quarter finals where they succumbed to an equally-vile Portuguese team.

Normally, I would have been upset. This time I was relieved.

OK, so it was a bad World Cup. Football doesn't sleep for long and soon England were playing again, and I realised, to my shock, that I was still disgusted with them. I didn't want to watch, and didn't care whether they won. I had stopped being a supporter.

And it was so easy to stop watching, because moving advertising hoardings have ruined the game anyway. A football is an object thirty centimetres across. It is entirely lost in front of a backdrop of metre high luminous boards aglow with every flashing gimmick the advertising industry can concoct. And although I tried to concentrate on the play, it's just not possible to shut out the intrusion. Modern football is the sporting equivalent of huge animated gifs on a website. They've made the game literally unwatchable.

But, much worse, they've stopped it being a competition. I used to think that the biggest clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool) would eventually leave the English domestic competition to set up a European League with their Spanish and Italian pals, but I was wrong. The English Premiership and the European Champions League are two equally lucrative honeypots. They'll never leave the Premiership. But getting into the Champions League is contingent on doing well in the Premiership. They, along with Chelsea (a smaller club with an obscenely wealthy oligarch owner), have to finish in the top four every single year. Without a salary cap, their European and domestic television money, merchandising and gate receipts mean they can build squads vastly superior to the remainder of the English game. Chelsea spent - I don't know exactly - 150 or 200 million on players. Norwich's squad cost 7 or 8. Chelsea fans like to boast how much better they are than the rest of us. That's right, you are. We haven't got a hope in hell against you. Happy now?

So you have this situation where the top four have to be the top four every year, but you can't have a League with just four teams, so there have to be others. They can't allow us to compete but they still have to play us. We are patsies. Fall guys. Someone to turn up and get hammered by our superiors. Remember Orwell's vision of the future being a boot permanently stamping on someone's face? That's what football is now.

Norwich spent one season in the Premiership a couple of years ago, and it was simply embarrassing. Even the worst Premiership teams are light-years ahead of newly promoted ones. We almost survived, thanks to a stupendously under-performing Southampton team, but we would have almost certainly gone down the next season. The promoted teams which do survive are invariably those with cash-stuffed chairmen. Obscure teams like Wigan, Reading and Fulham whose success is a function of finance, not a reflection of their support.

Now there's the American expression "on any given Sunday", meaning that an unfancied team can sometimes beat a better one. On balance, this is just an illusion which spices up an individual game but conceals the wider truth. On nineteen out of twenty given Saturdays, the likes of Norwich will get slaughtered by the likes of Chelsea.

The days when middle-ranking clubs like Derby, Nottingham Forest or (though I hesitate to admit it) Ipswich could build a great team and win the title are gone forever. Under current financial conditions, I doubt that an outsider could do it even once in two hundred years.

And it's this absence of hope which kills you. It's not that my team will win the title, but simply that they might. I follow the perenially-wretched Cleveland Browns, but given a couple of favourable drafts and decent coaching, they could be play-off contenders in a couple of years. Norwich never will be. The only chance you have is if an idiotic billionaire takes a shine to your club (why do they do it, these rich fools? they don't even support the clubs who benefit from their largesse). But that's not sport. It's just greed.

All of which only leaves going to live football for the entertainment. But Norwich are ahead of me here. Twenty-five pounds to watch Norwich scrape a one-all draw with Colchester? That's fifty US dollars to watch two Second Division, third-rate teams. The last time I tried to get tickets, as I was held in a queue, a recorded message told me that I would need my Customer Number ready and that only customers in the Norwich City Database would be served. What Customer Number? What Database? Do I need to buy some shitty club merchandise before you'll even allow me to go to a game? What self-respecting retailer treats its customers like this? If I'm now a customer, and not a supporter, then a customer I shall be: this product is over-priced and mediocre, and your customer service is abysmal.

So, since I don't watch it on television and I don't go to live games, I suppose that's the end for me and football. Maybe if Norwich have a good season my interest will pick up again, but something inside me has changed. And poor, doomed Bobby is just a memory of some other time long over.



Post a Comment

<< Home