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.