I love football. Despite myself. Despite the fact that I actively dislike the players, the fans, the backroom staff, the home and away shirts, and the mascots of nearly every club in the world. I love it despite the semi-literate pundits, the appalling corporate sponsors, and the gormless marketing executives that unburdened by creative talent have nevertheless managed to fob off substandard nylon tat as desirable consumer items ie those nasty replica shirts which the bastards change every year and which allow us to become living breathing marketing platforms for some hideous corporation which still cannot believe that we would actually pay to do this. I love it despite the Stalinesque modern stadiums with their corporate boxes, and their apocryphal prawn sandwiches. I love it despite FIFA and UEFA and the morons who infest these organisations and who come up with the worst ideas imaginable, not only in footballing terms, but in terms of any field of human endeavour. Four quarters instead of two halves? A 48 team World cup?
The World Cup in Russia, then Qatar? The World Cup in Syria perhaps? I love it despite all these things because it’s a part of who I am, and like all proper football fans I have an ancient tribal allegiance and you can never leave the tribe. I love it because the game combines skill, speed, strength, and stamina as collective and individual human drama unfolds before our eyes drawing on strategy, will power, and inspiration. And even though most of the games are crap, just as in life itself, these extended periods of crapness are vital so that we may treasure the rare moments of gold. It is the anticipation of these golden moments that makes all the crapness endurable. Football teaches us this.
I’m not very good at football though. This is probably because I ‘m English, and as we all know pretty much since 1966 England have spent nearly every major tournament huffing and puffing and looking startled. I think this has its roots in our culture. In the endless hours of childhood games in the park there were only two skills we focused on: the sliding tackle designed to induce maximum fear and inflict optimum pain on your opponent, and when in goal tipping the ball over the bar, even if the shot was only aimed at waist height. While the Spanish, Germans and Italians, and sadly even the French, were cunningly perfecting the art of passing, and controlling the ball, we were busy trying to maim each other as we rolled around in the mud, or scraped all the skin of our bodies trying to slide on concrete. The cultural values that prize recklessness and indifference to pain may have been useful for fighting foreigners, but have proved largely ineffective when it comes to playing football against them. Only Scotland have been consistently more crap for which I suppose we should be thankful.
My love of football has evolved over time. I no longer hero-worship footballers. I can’t think of a single footballer I would like to have a conversation with. In fact it’s difficult to think of a group of people less deserving of interest. In the Spanish League Messi is a sublime talent, but has the charisma and verbal skills of a gerbil. Cristiano Ronaldo, an outstanding athlete, is a brain dead narcissist who attempts to inject an air of sultry homo-eroticism into his every move, but actually comes across as an animated blow up doll with the same suspiciously orange hue as Donald Trump. The English League is no better. Like any reasonable person I am a fan of the finest club in west London but it’s hard not to look at John Terry without thinking he has the same dead eyed look as a shark. Were it not for the obvious breathing difficulties, it would be easy to imagine him moving silently and sleeplessly through the ocean relentlessly devouring his prey.
Despite the fact that the professional game is played by dull sociopathic millionaires there is still something very special about football day. I couldn’t really empathise with Nick Hornby’s book “Fever Pitch” because the main character inexplicably supports Arsenal, but I did get the bit where he argues that death would not be so bad if only you could get the football results. For those of you who understand this you are lucky because Madrid is a great football city. Spending all day in one of the city’s many “Irish” pubs watching the English Premier League is of course as fine a way to spend a Saturday as any other. However, if you do go native and get into Spanish football then you are in the right place. If you’re a fan of the smug and the self satisfied you can head north up the Castellana to Real Madrid’s iconic Santiago Bernabeau stadium and watch 100,000 people booing their own team if they’re not 4-0 up within the first 20 minutes. If you see life as a tragicomic affair madeup of a series of bitter existential blows, cruelly punctuated by the odd glimmer of hope, then you should probably head south and watch Atletico send their fans into emotional turmoil for the millionth time. For proper football though head east to working class Vallecas, and watch the mighty Rayo Vallecano do their annual flip between relegation and promotion. Rayo actually have left wing football hooligans, a refreshingly novel concept, and a day out at their uber old skool stadium, enveloped in a cloud of marijuana and surrounded by symbols of working class struggle, is always a rewarding experience. The actual football is usually dire, but when did that ever matter? And if you’re really adventurous you could head out to one of the dormitory towns and watch Leganés or Getafe (sponsored by Burger King!) You might fall in love with the game all over again, and although like love itself, loving a football club is ultimately self defeating, the highs are occasionally worth the lows, and at least it’s something to talk about beyond how increasingly shit the world is. Just don’t buy the replica shirts or eat the prawn fucking sandwiches.