Later this evening, the Champions League final between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich at Wembley Stadium will effectively mark the end of the 2012-13 football season. And thank goodness for that. The past few weeks have seen a ratcheting up of media interest in the game, to the extent that there has scarcely been a news bulletin that doesn’t mention the sport. Starting with the protracted retirement of the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, and the dizzying number of tributes paid to his achievements, then the still more protracted retirement of that club’s former midfielder, David Beckham, I cannot recall a more febrile and concerted attempt to establish the importance, and broader social significance, of football.
The grotesque lack of perspective on these ultimately trivial matters has been catching, like an infection. Last week Liverpool paid their own homage to their faithful servant Jamie Carragher, an able enough defender who stayed with the club for 17 years. Most employees get a watch, or maybe an iPad, for such devotion. Carragher was rewarded with a North Korean-style ovation before the team’s final match, featuring guards of honour, and a mosaic spelling out his squad number and initials emblazoned across one of the stands.
I don’t expect football to be reticent over the broadcasting of its undoubted qualities. It is a great if vainglorious sport, capable of drama, conflict and controversy, which has taken a relatively long time to realise fully its commercial potential. But realise it, it has, and it is not a pretty sight. What shocks is the relentless and pretentious over-egging of the product, which is routinely thought to provide important life lessons, influential role models and tutorials on ways of being. A kind of existential heft has been ascribed to football’s daft and frequently ignoble ways, that frankly does not speak well of us as a mature species.
I speak from behind enemy lines. I love football, have regularly attended live matches for the best part of 45 years, and been lucky enough to attend World Cups, FA Cup finals and landmark games that have been so full of tension that I could barely breathe. But once the final whistle goes, you pack up and go home. Have I ever come close to tears at the missing of a penalty, the concession of a last-minute goal, consignment to relegation? Of course not. I love football because it is a game, a simulacrum of a vitally important happening that is gloriously and cosmically unimportant.
The amount of coverage granted to football is dismaying, when compared with that given to other artistic, scientific and cultural events. I am guessing that the retirements of Sir Nicholas Serota and Neil MacGregor, transformers of our cultural life over the past decade, from Tate and the British Museum respectively, will receive a tiny fraction of the attention paid to the boorish Sir Alex. The withdrawal from professional life of our most gifted performers will prompt specks of media interest next to the gush devoted to the banal and overpraised Beckham.
Football is a global game, and enjoys huge popularity, you will say. But so does culture. The annual number of visitors to Tate and the BM alone compares favourably with the total annual attendance at Premier League matches. The most expensive ticket to last year’s Olympic Games, remember, was for Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.
The part of me that likes to follow football enjoys its lack of complication. It is an infantile world, which rewards huff and puff, and punishes miscreants with cards that are drawn in different colours, just to make it easy. If you don’t huff and puff hard enough, you will be subject to a “hairdryer” dressing-down from the boss. If you are lucky, one of the referee’s mistakes will favour your team. And that’s about it.
It is easy to see how a nation can get obsessed about football, but not when it is at the expense of other, more telling pursuits. The arts provide spectacle, but they are – at best – twinned with a deeper resonance that stays with us long after we have left the theatre. A work of art, as the great American museum director Alfred H Barr said, is an “infinitely complex focus of human experience”. This is what should prompt our debates, our furies, our fanaticism. This is what shapes us.
Instead we fixate on football. It is nothing less than a flight from complexity, a nostalgic homage to our tribal origins, a hymn to atavism. We are like toddlers playing with an abacus, sorting our 4-3-3s from our 4-2-3-1s, and lavishing untold rewards on the wily strategists and preternaturally gifted performers who realise that there is more than one way to add up to 10.
We should instead respect those extraordinary minds and hearts that start at 11, and keep counting, deep into the unknown. It is the willing dive into infinite complexity, not the curled free kick into the top corner, that speaks most excitingly of human achievement.
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