A friend of mine says that when he’s driving and listening to one of the countless football programmes on talk radio, in which fans call in to rant about their team’s manager, opponents, referees, ballboys, et cetera, he feels the urge to phone in himself and say: “Have you ever realised it doesn’t really matter?”
That’s how I’ve come to feel about football. I played it until my left knee dissolved into pulp, and have written about it for 25 years, but now I often think: I don’t like the game any more. Partly, this is professional deformation: I’ve got too close to the adored object and seen what it’s really like. But partly, I’m suffering from a condition that is common among middle-aged men yet rarely discussed because it’s considered an embarrassing taboo. Football just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
I should say at once that I’ve nothing against the players. The vast critical apparatus attached to the game (more of which later) likes to gripe that footballers are mercenary multimillionaire sex fiends. This argument often rests on an appeal to a supposed golden age when players lived like saints and loved their clubs. The simple truth is, of course, that the economic conditions of footballers have changed. Since the 1990s more money has entered the game, and it’s become easier for players to change clubs. If I were a 21-year-old multimillionaire with girls and Ferrari salesmen hurling themselves at me daily, even I might be tempted. And if someone offered me five times my salary to work for a higher-status employer with better colleagues (impossible, obviously, for an FT journalist) I might do it too.
Most footballers I’ve interviewed have been perfectly pleasant. My problem isn’t with them. In part, I no longer like the game on the field. In my childhood there were barely any live matches on TV. A weekly highlights programme was a highlight of my week. Now that we can watch six live matches every weekend, the secret is out: most football is boring. And the ceaseless flow creates too much repetition. Lionel Messi is the best ever, but now that he’s live on TV 60 times a year, déjà vu encroaches: Messi dribbles past four men and scores, again.
Still, the game itself is bearable. When my kids are old enough, I’ll take them to matches. Football is made for family ritual. What else will my boys talk to me about when they are teenagers?
Much worse than the football is that vast critical apparatus attached to it. The 24-hour humourless hype is exhausting. Every comment by Alex Ferguson about a referee is treated as world news – bigger than, say, a massacre in Mali. Last June about 500 of us journalists crammed into one of the England team’s meaningless press conferences in Donetsk, Ukraine. Meanwhile, the media lack resources to cover actual news.
Then there’s the anger: at a referee who gives a penalty, or a player who dares change clubs. Heavy use of the word “hate” (“I hate Manchester United” et cetera) means football talk often sounds like fascist propaganda. Hysteria would be much reduced if fans and media shed the fairytale notion that a footballer must love whichever club he happens to play for. Footballers don’t think that way. Listen to their language: they call themselves “professionals” with “careers”. Football is a job – well-paid and often enjoyable, but employees don’t love their employers. A friend who supports Manchester United told me he believed United’s long-serving players Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs loved United. I asked him if he loved the bank where he worked. Obviously not, he said. Well, Scholes and Giggs don’t love United either. They just have happy employee-employer relationships.
Anyone who peeks behind football’s curtain discovers there is no magic there. Another friend, a Sunderland fan, during a stint writing about football found himself in the tunnel with Sunderland’s players just before kick-off. He looked at them and realised, “It’s just a job”, and the magic died for him.
For me too, football is now a job. In Johannesburg in 2010 I sat in the stands watching my team, Holland, almost win a World Cup final. But when Andrés Iniesta scored Spain’s winning goal with five minutes left, my dominant emotion was relief. The match had gone to extra time, and football journalists writing match reports dislike extra time. Deadlines get missed, editors in London keep emailing to ask when you can file, and you can’t write a word because the score is tied and you don’t know who will win. Iniesta made my professional life easier.
I remain grateful to football. I entered journalism in the 1990s just as newspapers were collapsing, and that vast critical apparatus allowed me to make a living writing. I hope to keep covering football with the professionalism that other journalists apply to politics or the insurance industry. But love doesn’t come into it.