Why can’t we let off steam on the pitch?
26 March 2008
Before the current pitch invasion by wimps, cissies and goody-goodies gets out of hand, it is time to speak up for bad behaviour in football. As in any sport, there will be certain types of play which are inadmissible: the leg-breaking tackle, for example, or the elbow to the face. It is probably a bad idea to be openly contemptuous of the little, pot-bellied chap officiating the game. Tactics which fall into the category of “unsportsmanlike behaviour” are almost certainly worthy of censure. Seeing a grown man launch himself, untouched, into the air and then roll around in faked agony is unmanly and annoying for spectators and players alike.
But football, when played by adults, is a tough contact sport. Bruises, rage, frustration and elation are not only part of the game; they are what make it worth playing and watching. From the humblest to the highest level, it has the capacity to represent honest, red-blooded passion and commitment in the form of play, on a pitch over 90 minutes. In that arena, people can behave in a way which would be utterly alien to them in everyday life. However ugly it may seem to the sanctimonious, uninvolved spectator, this commitment is what makes the sport compelling.
Without it, one might as well be playing carpet bowls. I once played in a game during which our new goalkeeper, a sweet-natured prep schoolmaster, accidentally threw the ball out to a member of the opposing team who returned it with interest into the back of his net. “Oh, whoopsie,” said our keeper. It was an unforgivable reaction. He never played for us again.
There is a place for swearing on the football pitch. It is therapeutic. When the Mental Health Foundation reported recently that two in three people are concerned that the British are getting angrier, it might usefully have guided readers to another survey, by Nottingham University, which revealed that men playing football are less likely to feel depression, more likely to have self-confidence, than non-players. Footballers were enjoying “therapy in disguise”, said the report,
In a world of ambiguity, doubt, guilt and ambivalence, those 90 minutes allow – demand – uncomplicated emotions of anger, disappointment and triumph. So the good-hearted innocents who believe that you can be a good or a committed footballer without emotion fail to understand the important therapeutic role the game plays. “Decent people are sickened at full-blast obscenities which they hear at football matches and are being driven away in droves,” according to the chairman of a league in Cumbria who has campaigned for swearing, even to oneself, to be a dismissible offence. Sensibly, the Football Association, has rejected his request.
Manners and restraint are important in daily life, and should certainly be required of games in which children play, but it is useful for adults to be able now and then to express anger or disappointment openly and honestly without being regarded as a psychopath or a hooligan. If you get tackled hard in a football game, it hurts. If you miss an open goal, it is annoying. Appalling as it may be to those decent people on the touchline, some kind of reaction, preferably a full-blast obscenity, makes it all better.
There is a grey line between niggling, semi-violent nastiness in a game and the normal verbal exchanges that are part of a contact sport and it is absurd to treat them the same. Football is doing the rest of society a favour, allowing men to let off steam at one another once a week. Let us keep bad behaviour where it belongs – on the pitch.
Aspinall’s lesson for life
The life of Neil Aspinall, friend and business manager of the Beatles who died this week, seems exemplary in several ways. Although he must have known more about the group than almost anyone else, he declined interviews and, almost uniquely, refused to write his memoirs.
The songs were what mattered, he believed, not the idiocies of fame.
Most commendably of all, he opposed anniversaries of Beatles landmarks, arguing that their music was contemporary, not part of some grand heritage of the past.
It is not a bad lesson for life. To quote the documentary about his employers’ contemporary Bob Dylan: don’t look back.
* A maverick with the weight of government behind him, Ken Livingstone has a dismissive, truculent way with his critics.
Rarely, if ever, admitting to having ever made a mistake, he cheerfully supports international leaders with dubious human rights records. Attack is his best form of defence: those who question him are invariably described as racists or right-wingers. All the same, his supporters will be holding their breath over the next month. This weekend, he described a government scheme to generate energy from waste as “an evil bit of propaganda… like the Nazis talking about community relations.” As for nuclear power, there was a reason for ministerial support: corruption. “All these civil servants know that when they retire there’ll be a job for them on the board of British Nuclear Fuels.” This kind of silliness really should not be coming from the mayor of London. Is it possible that Ken has enjoyed too much power for too long?