These women like football. But it's OK if you don't. Photo: Getty
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Women! If you don't like football, it's OK to say so

Back in the 1990s, I used to pretend I liked football. Now I realise I had been taken in by the Football Mystique.

It is the summer of 2014 and I am witnessing my eldest son, just six, fall prey to the Football Mystique. It is, I suspect, a point of no return. From the moment he stood in front of the telly, blocking everyone else’s view, and intoned “ref-er-ee-ee-ee” for no apparent reason, I knew we’d lost him to the male equivalent of Friedan’s “problem that has no name”.

I first became aware of the Mystique 18 years ago, during Euro ’96. Back then, I was a liberated nineties woman, insofar as I had a long list of things which I was obliged to ostentatiously pretend to like (because if I didn’t, it would mean I was both oppressed and repressed). The list included items such as lager, the Spice Girls, pole dancing, giving blow jobs, faking orgasms, FHM, lipstick lesbians (but not real ones – yuck!) and Gail Porter’s arse. Then along came Euro ’96, Vindaloo and Three Lions and football was added to the inventory. Like most women, I had no idea whether I actually liked any of these things (and still don’t). The whole point was looking as though you liked them – but not too much, mind! Proper liking is for the men!

The Football Mystique may have been around for much longer, but it strikes me as very 1990s in its ethos. There’s something very Britpop/Common People about white middle-class men posing with pints of lager, modifying their vowel sounds and considering themselves very deep, sensitive and philosophical in mildly aggressive ways that women just wouldn’t understand. My own partner picks up elements of this (apparently his “football accent” is involuntary and nothing at all to do with him thinking that poor is cool). He gets incredibly emotional about very rich men suffering minor on-pitch injustices, and smiles on benevolently when our son does the same. Meanwhile, I’m stuck on the bench. Middle-class football fandom is a club to which women are invited as plus ones only and for this we are meant to be grateful. After all, however trivial it seems, it’s far, far more complicated than our poor little ladybrains could comprehend.

I believe it was the great Bill Shankly who said “some believe football is a matter of life and death […] I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”. And was it Pélé who first called it “the beautiful game“? It’s just so deep, so meaningful . . . Excuse me while I die of boredom. It’s a game. A pleasant, diverting game, one which brings people together, but which does not offer any direct route to fundamental human truths (apart from that time Eric Cantona said that thing about the seagulls, the sardines and the trawler, obviously). As Hadley Freeman writes, “football […] is hardly the most intellectual of pursuits and suffers from many of the same problems as fashion, with added homophobia, but because it is aimed primarily at men, it is seen as an essential pastime”. But it isn’t.

It’s not that some men don’t see through the Football Mystique. The IT Crowd episode in which Roy and Moss try to pass as “proper” men by following guidance on a football website offers a brilliant and endearing illustration of this. I really do sympathise with men who are trapped in the “gotta pretend I like football” bubble. Even so, it’s difficult for women for different reasons. We can’t speak out because we’re expected to be scornful of the Football Mystique (hence worshiping it became one of those fake emblems of 1990s women’s liberation – “ooh, look at how rebellious I am, lusting over Seaman’s *wink at the name* ‘tache!”). If you say “this is getting a bit silly” then it will be assumed that you are rejecting all those crumbs from the male privilege table that come with being a female football fan. You might as well say “what, sit on my fat arse, drink beer and intermittently roar ‘goaaaaaaal!’? Nah, I’d much rather don a frilly pink pinny, iron some shirts and make you a sandwich, dear”.

Right now my son has taken to declaring every single goal scored offside, as some kind of precautionary measure should anyone consider him insufficiently all-knowing. Earlier in life, he learned about war and famine with relative equanimity, but now he cries over the extreme injustice of Robin van Persie never having been made Footballer of the Year. Yesterday he first heard of Maradona’s “hand of God” and embarked on an impassioned half-hour rant about why England should have won the World Cup 21 years before he was even born. Already I can see him 20 years hence, strutting into some unnamed workplace to bark meaningless quotes from last night’s post-match analysis at other male colleagues, while female employees, who may or may not have enjoyed the match itself, keep their goddam mouths shut.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s funny or entertaining, or that I wouldn’t be pleased if “our lads” won (ha!). There is, nonetheless, only a certain amount of bullshit I can take before I want to explode. Fellow women, you may think it’s harmless to indulge the Football Mystique, but I’m starting to feel it can only ever be an own goal. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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