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June 09, 2006

The Enemies of Football are the Enemies of Life - Lincoln Allison responds to Theodore Dalrymple and argues that football is much better than art, religion or politics

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Theodore Dalrymple argues that it is the inescapable duty of every decent citizen to express no interest in or enthusiasm for football and the World Cup. Nonsense, says University of Warwick politics academic Lincoln Allison - football is much better than art, religion or politics.

I had been wavering on the question of the World Cup: too much coverage, taken too seriously, too pathetic a need to win etc. But Theodore Dalrymple has done it for me with his claim that "decent citizens" have a duty to eschew the event and the game in general. (Don't know about you, mate, but I'm a subject of Her Majesty and no more decent than I ought to be.) My faith is restored. Whatever else you might want to say about football, if it gets up the noses of "decent citizens" then I'm all for it. Engerland! Engerland! Engerland!

TD seems much exercised by the expressed enthusiasm for football on the part of members of the government when they ought to be enthusing about other (higher?, better?) things. At one point he uses the words "vulgar" and "vulgarity" ten times in as many sentences, offering us a passable imitation of the late Barbara Cartland. I'm not sure I like his tone. Vulgar? Moi?

I'll admit that football is vulgar in a trivial and technical sense. When the FA "touched pitch" and permitted professionalism in 1885 it set off on a route to becoming a predominantly working class game leaving space for Rugby Union as the "game for thugs played by gentlemen". Over the next fifty years the vast majority of schools with aspirations changed to rugby. I'm not complaining about this: I attended such a school (which made the transition in 1921) and I loved playing rugby. In fact, I still regard it as the better game to play whereas football is the better game to watch.

But vulgar in the serious sense, no. Religion is vulgar. Come with me, if you will, to the "Religious Goods Department" on the third floor of Cleary's Department Store in Dublin. Now, that's vulgar. Or to the "public papal audience" which I attended in Rome two weeks ago with il Papa trundling round in his popemobile, the German high schools and the American colleges screaming when their names were read out and the Italian primary schools pushing in from the back. That's vulgar. And don't go telling me that they aren't truly representative experiences of religion, because you jolly well know that I will reply that your limited, weird and set-up experiences of football aren't much to do with the case.

Or art! Joan Miro; Tracy Emin; that bloke who did the Sistine Chapel, interior decorating's answer to the third floor in Cleary's. That's vulgar! And I'll give you that American sport is extremely vulgar: all that razzmatazz, cheerleaders, endless scoring and false euphoria, the smell of popcorn. But Turf Moor, Burnley, on a Saturday afternoon in November has no razzmatazz and very little scoring. There's a smell of beer and just a frisson of hatred to make it part of life. Genuinely good taste; almost ascetic.

Football as TD describes it bears very little resemblance to the game I have watched for 53 years. I haven't seen much violence and none at all for some years. What I like in principle about football – why it's much better than art, religion or politics, for instance – is two things. First, there is no ideology. You hate your enemy not because he's "infidel" or "bourgeois" (or vulgar) but because he's from Blackburn. Second, because it's honest. That is to say it's totally dishonest, but it's still a deal more honest than art, religion and so on. You win, you lose, you take it. There's no pretence that we're all equal or all worthwhile or all have human rights. Actually, my favourite chant/song, belted out by Burnley fans when 0-4 down away from home goes:

We're shit and we know we are.
Can you imagine how liberating that is?

As a football fan I loathe pretty well all other football fans. I loathe the Hornbyesque supporters of Arsenal from places like Maidenhead. I loathe the people who watch football on television but not in real life and the ones who weren't interested in the 1980s when it wasn't fashionable and the ones who think England is more important than their local team. And, of course, government ministers who jump on the football bandwagon. It takes an enemy of Dalrymplish proportions to oblige me to defend them.

Most of TD's attack on football consists of setting up straw men who might be thought to defend the game. No, it's not a fricking art form: it's much, much better than that. If it were the case that it acted as a safety valve for the violent emotions in our society then I would be against it because I would wish to see those emotions directed towards ransacking shopping centres and overturning four wheel drive vehicles.

Nor is it an excusable outlet for the lower classes. They ceased to be able to afford to go years ago: in 40 years the price of admission to a football ground has gone up 140 times, compared with 20 times for the price of a pint of bitter.

It doesn't need any of these justifications. It's a very good game, basically simple, but with some very complex dimensions. It is often won by people who lack articulate intelligence, but who can do unexpected, visionary things: Paul Gascoigne was a classic case.

What I mean by honesty is that you can't fudge or hide in front of a football crowd and as a consequence, for example, I watched the habitual racism of Burnley fans being eroded in the 1980s by the sheer character of two black players. It can, very occasionally, lead to explosions of collective joy. There will be one if England win the World Cup, but it won't compare with the one when Burnley beat Leyton Orient 2-1 in 1987 to survive in the Football League.

When a man is tired of football (as of London, sex, and conversation) he should shuffle off this planet and make room for somebody who will actually like it down here. Being against the game or against the England team puts you in pretty bad company which includes feminists, Guardianish worriers about patriotism, members of the mingy little nations who haven't made it. And – this seems to be TD's case – the prissy pseudo-gentry. The real gentry, in my experience, love horses, tarts, football and a good punch-up, but there has long been a class of intellectuals who ape the style of the gentry to hide the morals and politics of the Puritans. Their patron saint is Matthew Arnold, surely the most odious figure in the history of English letters, who talked of the "hideousness and vice" to be seen at Epsom on Derby Day and called the real gentry "Barbarians". This class became very powerful in Victorian times and after, though for the moment we've got them on the run as we had them in the eighteenth century. But nothing good lasts forever.

Yet, strangely enough, I will be acting as if I am obeying TD's injunction to ignore the World Cup and I will not be watching England's games against Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago. It's the cricket season and I shall be playing cricket on both of those days. Although I think football is better than art, politics and religion there are at least three human activities which rank above it in the hierarchy: they are sex, philosophy and cricket – though not necessarily in that order.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001).


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In my household, it’s not the World Cup itself, but the threat of too much telly that gets me. As C.S.Lewis said in one of his Letters to an American Lady, “You won’t find leprechauns in Eire any more. The radio has driven them all away”.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 9, 2006 09:46 PM
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This "University of Warwick" is a drinking establishment of some manner, I presume?

Posted by: Pekka Peitsi at June 10, 2006 10:23 PM
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Lincoln Allison just proves Dalrymple's point. Why would anyone even bother to write such driviel?

Posted by: Jennifer Kerns at March 30, 2007 11:02 PM
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