By casting a ball at three straight sticks and defending the same with a fourth
But this they do (which is doubtless a spell) and other matters more strange
Until, by the operation of years, the hearts of their scholars change....
Last Thursday, about a quarter of Channel 4 News was given over to one news story.
Apparently, a group of foreigners wearing red shirts had scored more goals in a football match than a group of foreigners wearing some other colour of shirt. This was particularly exciting, because at one point the second group of foreigners had had more goals than the first group. A lot of people who lived in the city after which the winning name was named were quite pleased about this. The winning team was driven around the city really, really, slowly in an open-top bus. A lot of people turned out to cheer them. They sang a rotten song from a rather sexist musical over and over again and very badly. There wasn't a riot. There wasn't a riot during the "game" either. This came as a relief to the police, because there sometimes is.
Why did the most "serious" TV news programme give such prominence to this non-story? "It's a bus. Yes, it's definitely a bus. There are lots of people. Thousands. They are very pleased. They haven't been this pleased since the last time their team won something which was quite a number of years ago now."
While they were "reporting" it, various thoughts crossed my mind. How many of the half million supporters have ever read a book? Come to that, how many of the team have? Did the team coach become a football instructor primarily because of the opportunities it provides him with to look at young men with no clothes on? Did he tell them that if they didn't try hard enough at todays match he would spank them with his plimsole; or make them train in their underwear? Or did he become a football coach because he was such a pathetic, abject failure as a geography teacher?
My apathy towards football is limitless. Last weekend was the wedding of two of my friends, and I genuinely had no idea that it was also Cup Final day until the vicar made a joke about it. (My reaction was, as it always is: "Gosh, that means it must be the Eurovision Song Contest as well. Which do I care about less?")
I find it hard enough to undersrand why anyone would, under any circumstances, want to watch to someone else playing a game of any kind. But Association Football seems pointless even by ball-game standards. I understand that what people pay to see are sort of exhibition matches, in which skilled athletes impress the audience by making balls behave in surprising and unexpected ways. And I can occasionally look at a game of Rugby Footbal or cricket and see that something clever is being done, as "You wouldn't think that such a big man could run so fast" or "That man must have a great grasp of Newtonian mechanics to make the ball bounce in that particular way." But "professional" soccer is to me no cleverer or more interesting than the kids playing in the park. Grown men passing a ball to each other in a vaguely energetic way.
I admit that I don't properly understand the rules of Cricket. Cricket exists mainly in order for people not to understand the rules of it. It's purpose within the class structure is to define an in-group of those who went to the right school and therefore know the difference between a silly-mid-on and an ablative absolute, and an out-group who didn't and don't. (This is also the reason that an irritating hard-core of pedants are at this moment composing an e-mail pointing out that I should have said "laws" rather than "rules" in the previous sentence.) But this I admit: if I understood cricket better, and had a better idea of what was going on, I might it enjoy it more. But I am rather afraid that I understand the "laws" of soccer perfectly well, and that the reason that I am missing the game's subtle points is because it hasn't got any.
Athletics I have a slightly better handle on, provided we are talking participation and the Athenian ideal. If I can go to the gym and challenge myself to run a mile in less than 20 minutes, and then gradually reduce that time over the next few years, then I can see why a sports enthusiast would want to push himself to the limits of what he is physically capable of. Run a mile in 300 seconds; run 26 miles without falling over; read the back page of the Sun without his lips moving. It makes even more sense if you are challenging yourself to do something which it might have occurred to a human being to do in any case: run a very long distance; run a short distance very quickly; jump very high; lift a very heavy weight. I'll even put up with "throwing a spear", because when the Greeks first invented P.E lessons, spear-throwing was a useful skill, and I'm a sucker for tradition. When you get into "jump very high holding a fiberglass stick" my eyes start to glaze over again. If you are an averagely good club runner, then maybe it is interesting to you to know what speed the best runner in the world achieved in last years egg-and-spoon race: but I find it hard to correlate actually watching someone else running with anything that I would call "fun" (Unless, I suppose, you are studying their technique in order to improve yours, in the way an amateur chess player might study the games of the masters to improve their own.)
I understand how you can love the city where you grew up a lot better than I understand how you can "love" your country. A city is a concrete thing which you can know; a country is too big and abstract to have many feelings about. So I can see how a religion could have emerged in which champions of particular cities battle one each other in order to ritually earn status. If the battle involves kicking a ball rather than cutting each other up with swords, so much the better. If it prevents the less well-educated citizens from getting into real fights, then it's obviously a Good Ritual. If –as very often happens-- it encourages them to get into fights, riot, and from time to time, murder each other, then it's a very Bad Ritual and Tony Blair should abolish it.
If sport was still mostly amateur, I could understand it even better. If Liverpool FC consisted of local lads who had started out duffing up softies behind the changing rooms of Liverpool Bog Standard Comprehensive, and had gradually worked their way up to playing in the city's First Team – if the people you were cheering were really "your own boys" -- then I could I see the point of it. In fact "our" team consists of people from different cities and different countries who is wearing a red shirt because a businessman is paying them a lot of money to do so. Next season, some other city will buy their loyalty for a six figure sum.
In order to appreciate something, you have to understand it, and, since one can only understand a finite number of things in a life-time, the majority of people are not going to understand the majority of things. If I decided to watch 100 hours of cricket (that's the equivalent of about two test matches, and feels longer) at the end of the process I would probably have a good idea of how the game works, and would therefore be in a position to enjoy it. (I would probably also start wearing blazers and ties in the summer and feeling nostalgic about the Empire.)
But perhaps there is really nothing to understand. Human beings invest the most unlikely things with significance. Collections of beer mats; numbers on the fronts of railway trains; ball games; twenty-eight-year-old movies; forty-two-year-old TV shows. If you have got to the point where 500,000 people regard a football match as being important, than it is important. To attempt to deconstruct the game, to understand where its importance resides, is to miss the point.
As a wise man once said: you gotta ask the question, you ain't never gonna know the answer.
NOTE: The above contains a lot of personal prejudice; several out-of-date stereotypes and caricatures; numerous over-generalisations; one or two factual inaccuracies and also a grain of truth.
Just like everything written in the mainstream media about Revenge of the Sith.
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