August 8, 2014 12:39 pm

Life 1 Football 0

Men are spending more time with their children than their fathers did. The beautiful game is being outcompeted by life
An illustration by Luis Grañena depicting the decline of football©Luis Grañena

Face down, drenched in sweat, brain spinning from an inane cacophony of what passes for dance music in this century, and wondering whether eight puffs of an asthma inhaler qualifies as illegal doping, the last thing I need is to be goaded by a man with a head like a boulder. The instructor from Barry’s Bootcamp – the self-styled “Best Workout in the World” – looks down and says: “Don’t give up on me! You are not as weak as you think you are!”

Oh but I am. Otherwise I would not pay to be shouted at by someone with arms the size of my legs. I hate gyms and I lack willpower. Therefore outsourcing motivation is the best option if I want to be fit for the new football season. I have played 11-a-side Saturday football at a decent standard for many years. In doing so, though, I am in a shrinking minority.

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The number of 11-a-side male adult amateur football teams in England has declined steadily over the past five years, from 30,701 registered teams in 2009-10 to a forecast 28,300 in 2014-15. There are more men of playing age available and interest in football remains high, so what is happening?

There are parochial reasons. The traditional amateur game is not immune to broader public spending cuts. In March, the Football Association had its funding for grassroots football reduced for allegedly failing to reverse decline. Four out of every five pitches are provided by local authorities, which have to choose where to spend their dwindling budgets. Providing care for the elderly, maintaining children’s services and collecting rubbish are more important than helping football.

But the decline in participation predates the onset of austerity and runs deeper than fewer lawnmowers and less grass seed. The marginalisation of traditional football reflects how men are choosing to spend their time in different ways, as well as shifts in the places where they choose to live.

The falling popularity of 11-a-side football is an urban phenomenon, according to the FA. Participation has declined most sharply in cities. Land in inner London is too valuable for new football pitches, so most games are on the outskirts. Having spent many hours on slow trains to playing fields in the suburbs, I can attest to how London football consumes time. This problem will only get worse: fewer teams mean that the remaining ones will have to travel even further, at greater cost, to play.

Distance is not the only issue. Eleven-a-side teams are often linked to fixed institutions, such as schools, universities, trade unions or companies. However, cities are home to the rootless and transient. It is hard to find a team – and even harder to set one up. Listings website Gumtree is full of adverts by old clubs looking for new recruits. “Please consider our location and your travel requirements carefully,” warns one.

There are now fewer 11-a-side teams in England than there are five-a-side versions, which ask for less time of fewer people. Whereas traditional football is often reliant on some form of subsidy, the market has encouraged the growth of the small-sided game. Powerleague, a big five-a-side operator, is owned by a private equity fund. It has worked out the type of football game that is conducive to city living.

Therein lies the deeper reason for the decline of traditional football: men have other things that they want to do with their time. In the book Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton is of a world when afternoon meant football and then: “Piled up passions were exploded on Saturday night.” Fortunately, there is now a wider variety of things to occupy young men’s weekends.

For the sporty, there is the flourishing of individual endurance sports such as cycling, fitness challenges such as Tough Mudder and temples of calorific efficiency such as Barry’s. (An irony of these savvy businesses is that they sell the power of external motivation and public accountability, which one can get for free in football.) These are easier to organise than a big football club; only you can let yourself down.

For the urbane urbanist there is an expanding offer of festivals and live entertainment. When friends are highly dispersed, as in London, visiting pals is a day trip, not a casual meeting. Low-cost airlines make partying in Berlin an alternative to playing football in Barking. The rise of weekend working hinders participation too. Men are also spending more time with their children than their fathers did. Football is being outcompeted by life.

So I am holding on to an ideal as well as to the sides of the treadmill. Mutual sacrifice, friendship and the game’s simple morality still make me want to play 11-a-side football. That is what makes me feel that I am not as weak as I think I am. The collective euphoria after a win is better than any post-gym high or victory in a 40-minute kickabout after work. Even so, it seems that reversing the decline is impossible. How and when we play football is changing because the nature of the weekend itself is changing.

john.mcdermott@ft.com; Twitter: @johnpmcdermott; Simon Kuper is away

Illustration by Luis Grañena

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