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June 20, 2006

The paranoid inescapability of the Footie…

Posted by Peter Mullen

Rev'd Peter Mullen - Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange - considers our new secular religion, football.

The way we are being plagued and terrorised by coverage of the football is…well, it's not cricket. Every newspaper and magazine – even the high culture journals such as Phenomenology Today are offering commentaries:

The existential commitment of the players, what is it except the deconstruction of the religious instinct for ecclesial participation…
What is it indeed! TV and radio stations wall to wall. If I take (as I am apt to do) the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the lavatory, there also is the footie burbling out of the little wireless I keep there for the news headlines.

In the good old days, TV producers were merciful and when it was the Cup Final or some such interminably tedious commentators' talk-fest, they would put a really good film on the other channel – Gone With The Wind or The Longest Day. But now it's the World Cup and every day is the longest day. Now what's the alternative? Only Big Brother and other celeb trash, nuts 'n sluts soft porn. And fifth-rate films that are meant to beguile those of us who don't want to hear another discussion about "4-3-3" or "the striker hanging deep". I'd hang them all.

Now to be fair, the football itself isn't all that bad. It's the endless talking about it that's soul-destroying. The saga of Rooney's foot is taking on the character of a national epic. That kid's bloody toe is being treated with the degree of reverence due only to a relic of one of the Twelve Apostles.

I can imagine psychologists explaining the fascination of football by the theory of tension-relief. I mean, let's face it, ninety per cent of any football match is pure boredom. Goalkeepers kicking the ball end to end. And I am surprised at the length of time the ball is actually out of play in any ninety minutes period. To compensate for the acres of tedium you might get, if you're lucky, three goals in a match. That's about twenty seconds of interest in the whole performance. If that psychologist were a Freudian, he would explain the attraction of football in terms of sex – the goal being the delayed climax…if, so to speak, it ever comes at all. Sex can end up nil-nil too.

I have another theory for the massively increased popularity of the game worldwide. It's nationalism and the chance to celebrate one's country. This is decried everywhere else and disallowed. Being a patriot these days is almost worse than being a paedophile. Children are taught in the schools that all the ills of the past were the fault of nationalism – this despite the glaring fact that the biggest threat to world peace in the last century was international communism, and the emerged threat now is international Islamic jihad. Football is one of the few places remaining where you can be a patriot with a clear conscience.

When I contemplate the World Cup, I'm reminded of a comment by Mark Twain. He was working as a journalist and his editor sent him to report on the Wagner operas at Bayreuth. Twain wrote back:

Wagner's music has some wonderful moments – but many dreadful three-quarters of an hour.
Footie is nasty, brutish and long. How the devil they can call it "the beautiful game" beats me. For the most part the players kick the hell out of one another. They tear at one another's shirts, spit and swear and scowl. At least when I used to play rugby, I knew I was being beaten up by gentlemen. Why can't the yobs who go to watch this miserable game sing in tune? There is only one dirge groaned out in a tired monotone: "Ingerlund, Ingerlund, Ingerlund". At least we get Swing Low Sweet Chariot at the rugger and Jerusalem at the cricket.

Is there anything attractive about football? I think the most beautiful aspect is often the stadium. Those magnificently layered and curved stands are modern secular temples to the one true god. And his name, behold it is Footie Almighty. Modern architects are useless at normal buildings, always wanting to put their own egotistical and insane stamp on everything they do. But give them a project that has something to do with modern communications and they produce works of sublime beauty: think of the jet airliner or the motorway networks of highways and bridges. Stunning. Purposeful. Exact.

If you are ingenious, you can escape the yob fest. Take where I live, for instance. Normally if I walk from my house opposite the Old Bailey, down Cheapside to my church of St Michael near the Bank of England, I'm bumping into bodies all the way. But choose your moment, go out when there's the England match on and it's like being in a deserted village at midnight. You can get served in the supermarket too. You can even discover, here and there, a pub where the landlord has declared a football free zone. So you can take your paper – having first been careful to throw away the "football souvenir special" which every issue seems to contain just now – go and sit in the corner and do the crossword over a quiet pint.

The majority of the pubs have brought in the big screen, though - and with it the noise and the sickening sentimentality and bonding exercises among the customers. I don't know why they call the World Cup after Jules Rimet. They should call it the Princess Diana Trophy. People in the four ale bar who wouldn't normally exchange more than a grunt and a glare now regularly – especially if England score – kiss and cuddle and hug as if they were at a modern Communion service in the Church of England with the Reverend Aisle-Dancer and the Joggers-for-Jesus.

There is no escaping the fact that footie is the new religion. And it displays all the emotional repertoire of the old religions. Faith is essential – even if in the case of most of the teams competing it turns out to be faith misplaced. Then it all ends in guilt and remorse, weeping and gnashing of teeth when England are knocked out in the Judgement Day of the quarter finals.

This year we have a diversion – I cannot bring myself to call it an added attraction. This is the craze for footballers' wives. While their husbands, boyfriends and "partners" sport themselves on the back pages, this vulgar collection of chav and bling disgraces the front pages, half-dressed in their horrific outfits, photographed coming out of the shopping emporium. They are a tribute to the surgical profession, this lot: face-lifts, nose-jobs, boob jobs. I heard that Capital Radio were running a competition to find the best collective noun for footballers' wives.

Guess what won it? "An implant".

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.


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er um I don't get the joke/collective noun point. What am I missing?

Posted by: jon gower davies at June 21, 2006 07:10 PM
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Great article - but I have to pint out it was Gioacchino Rossini, not Mark Twain who made the comment on Wagner, which comes out more smoothly in French - ("Il y a des beaux moments, mais des mauvais quarts dˇheures"). He also wrote, when a mediocre English composer had sent him his latest composition, "Le bon Costa m´a envoyé une cantate et un fromage Stilton. Le fromage était tres bon." His trenchancy as a music critic was admirable.

Posted by: David Conway at June 22, 2006 10:14 AM
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