Background balls.

I’ve been thinking about football a lot the in last few days, for obvious reasons. It started when I realised that I didn’t care too much that Italy had beaten Turkey 3-0. I was also crammed with indifference when Wales clawed back a goal to draw with that font of perpetual footballing mundanity, Switzerland. I then managed to switch on the TV on Saturday afternoon to see a Danish player twitching away behind a wall of his comrades as he had CPR performed on him in front of a semi-crowd of supporters who were all secretly hoping the match would get started again sooner rather than later, because they had paid for something and it wasn’t an episode of Casualty. As the scene unfolded, Gary Lineker and his pundit panel explained to the viewers that it is ever so important to remember that football is just a game and that at times like this what is really important is your health, family and happiness. A very useful sentiment, but a little too late.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about football since that moment: what’s really important to remember about football is that football isn’t important at all. It might sometimes graze the outer thigh of distraction, but a life changer it is not. There is famously that quote from Bill Shankly which offers the opinion that football is even more important than life and death, but that was just the opinion of a dour Scotsman so we shouldn’t be obliged to take it at all seriously. I imagine being Mrs Shankly must have been a hoot. The Danish player turned out to have had a cardiac arrest (proving once and for all that being fit as a fiddle won’t necessarily do you much good) and was carted off (don’t panic, he recovered). The match continued a short time later anyway, and that tells you everything you need to know about health, family and happiness in the world of football – chiefly that they are mere distractions.

As you will know by now the European Football Championships are underway, taking place across a series of venues from the chewing gum and traffic choke of Wembley to that other great gem of European glamour: the not remotely European city of Baku in Azerbaijan. Over the course of the next few weeks some games of football will be played between teams that without this championship may never get the chance to ever meet on a pitch; when and where else, for instance, were North Macedonia and the Netherlands ever going to continue their centuries long feud? And this year the excitement is heightened even further because the competition was postponed from last year for reasons that escape me, and so the long, hard four year wait has been stretched out to five years – how did anyone manage to wait five whole years to watch Ukraine play Austria without wetting themselves a little bit?

For once in a long time England enter the Euros with as much as half a chance of getting somewhere quite respectable. They have a seemingly decent manager at last, and even a few players with some talent, even though that talent probably won’t quite stretch far enough to see them through all the way to the end. It also won’t help them fumble under a barrage of cliches in every post-match interview as they discuss the importance of scoring more goals than the other side, the disadvantage of scoring  no goals at all, taking away lots of positives (or some points to think about, as they call the negatives) and something that may or may not happen at the end of the day that may or may not be related to it being a game of two halves. England’s campaign kicked off with a 1-0 win against Croatia and accordingly everybody (except the Croatians) seemed to take away plenty of positives from that, though none of the experts were prepared to admit that the overall atmosphere was one of boredom (as far as I could make out the entire match contained a total of three exciting moments, only one of which featured a goal, and these combined for a total run time of about one minute – not including multi-angled repeats – which in a running time of nearly ninety-five minutes doesn’t look too great and explains rather a lot about the correlation between watching football, the consumption of vast amounts of alcohol and talking loudly to a stranger about a the advantages of a 4-4-2 over a 3-4-3 formation).

And boredom is a sin. With all the gimmicks, blaring music, flashing lights and endless playbacks football should be the very opposite of boring and yet that’s the rub – the extras are piled on precisely to trick you into thinking you’re watching something thrilling that is in reality essentially a whispered puff of nothing for much of the time; 99% of it is just kicking a ball, after all. The other night there was a match between Spain and Sweden, in a major competition, that ended 0-0 and looked about as much fun as waxing your own genitals. These are supposed to be professional footballers, as in people who get paid to play football for a fucking living, some of whom are highly prized and over-compensated for their ability to kick a ball into a net, and yet that was all they got out of the experience: 0-0. For that kind of big thrill, bang per buck payback you might as well have televised fly-fishing or a real time grass growing competition. With close ups.

Perhaps then it is better to think of football as just an expensive, potentially dangerous, exercise in blowing off some kind of steam, and it just depends whether you pay or get paid to do it. From my local council tennis courts you can watch and hear various local football teams play at the weekend and it always seems to be an unsubtle blend of booting the ball as hard as possible in any direction but at the goal, players yelping in vain for someone to make a pass that would defy the laws of physics and then a ceaseless whining and aggressive flapping of arms at the referee, because that’s what they see on TV – only on TV most of the players aren’t overweight and don’t work for British Gas, although in fairness they do still behave like twelve year olds; nice in a sense that the sport can be a great leveller.

All that said, once in a while something happens in football that almost makes the time and effort worthwhile. Watching Scotland getting beaten is always a treat, for instance. I can remember matches where I have leapt to my feet in excitement or hugged people I wouldn’t normally like in a moment of unexpected, joyful camaraderie. I can also remember (and these are rarer) being sunk to a funk after a bad result and vowing that nothing ever again would be worth the heartache of another failed penalty shootout. I am older and wiser now (well, older) and over the years have let football occupy a far smaller space in my emotions, which means I don’t get overexcited and nor do I experience the same level of loss (on a positive note I should take a moment to at least congratulate football for not being rugby, a ball sport even duller and more pointless than playing catch with yourself). It is quite possible that England will do either quite well or quite poorly and an absolute definite that for their success will come reasons and for failure a tepid soup of those idle cliches we’ve all heard before. During their match with Croatia I got so bored I ended up doing some ironing and that’s when it hit me: football is best to have on in the background while you get on with the rest of your life. To be conscious of but not immersed in; just in case, you know, something interesting happens.

G B Hewitt. 17.06.2021

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