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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.