Another month, another football scandal. It said something about the nation that a TV programme revealing little more than we knew already - that there's corruption in football - made headline news the following day. After all the hype, the content of Panorama's bung exposé seemed thin fare. But then, football no longer has to justify its place after the pips. Even in the dead two months after the World Cup, stories such as Ashley Cole's transfer and book serialisation, Sven's pay-off and the Italian match-fixing scandal dominated the public consciousness. There is an assumption, tacitly accep ted, that these stories are as significant a national concern as the war in Iraq or the state of the NHS. We live in an age that screams from every billboard that football matters.
Is it true? No one seems to know, or even care to question it. There are football research institutes all over the country, but, on contacting them, I learn that none seems to be investigating the possibility that the game's vaunted position in our everyday culture is wildly out of proportion with levels of genuine interest. The UK home viewing figures for England's last World Cup knockout match were 16 million. Even if you agree with the wild guesstimates that suggest the actual number of viewers was 30 million - and this is publicity-led, remember - that still leaves more than half the country not watching. There are tens of millions of people in Britain who have no interest in the game.
Of course, that doesn't matter, because the money has spoken. The Premier League recently became the most highly valued sports league in the world, thanks to a £2.5bn deal for Premiership TV rights. Barclays has re-signed as the tournament's title sponsor for £21.9m per year over three years (to demonstrate how quickly the value of football has grown: in 1993, Carling got the gig for £3m). Newspapers have had their say, too. "The general view of sports editors is that football is 50 per cent of the pages and everything else is 50 per cent," says the Observer's sports editor, Brian Oliver. "That's what they think is a true reflection of what readers want."
Everyone agrees that the game's explosion owes a huge debt to the advent of all-seater stadiums, and the corresponding drop in violence. The end of standing terraces did for football what the end of the Blitz did for London. Oliver believes it also owes a big thank you to Paul Gascoigne, and that it was England's emotional World Cup exit from the Italia '90 semi-finals "wot won it for football". "Before 1990 there was no such thing as a sports supplement," says Oliver. "Gazza crying was worth hundreds of millions of pounds for football."
Dr Hilary Matheson, a lecturer at the University of Wales who specialises in the media representation of sport, has discovered that, since 1984, football coverage in newspapers has increased by up to 45 per cent, with a corresponding decrease in the amount of coverage for all other sports. "With the rise in the number of games shown on TV," she says, "the newsprint media have needed to focus on other aspects of the game, which has resulted in sports journalists writing about players' lives, contracts and other related topics which eight or so years ago would not have taken on the same level of importance." No wonder the sports pages alone are not enough for Rupert Murdoch's titles, which carry special pull-out supplements, from the Sun's Supergoals to The Game in the Times.
Anglers outnumber soccer fans
And all this despite football attendances actually going down. Soccer may be invading every part of our lives, but gates in the top four leagues have dropped steadily over the past four years. Only about 700,000 people actually pay to see a team play each weekend. Anglers outnumber them six to one. If our fishing fans were equally well represented in the media, you'd be reading about very different kinds of tackle.
There has been nothing comparable to football's sudden and rapacious takeover of public life. Less than 20 years ago the game was an almost exclusively male pastime with an unsavoury reputation for thuggery. Now it's one of the mainstays of the entertainment industry and a catwalk trendsetter. It has gained its place on the high altar of consumer culture so rapidly that we just nod at the obscenely inflated wages, the ludicrous transfer values set on players, as if these things had always been.
Dr Rogan Taylor leads the Football Industry Group at Liverpool University. The success of the sport, he says, has been in selling itself as a global language. "Globalisation has transferred tremendous value to a game that was always there," he enthuses (even academics can be in love with football). "Flies are attracted to a honey pot but they don't make the honey." For the record, Taylor doesn't think that football's domination of our culture is out of proportion. "We read quite blithely that 1.2 billion people watched the World Cup Final. We need to realise what that actually means. Nothing else comes close."
You can't argue with figures which tell you that almost one in five people in a world of six billion is watching football. But let's not forget, too, that football has an unparalleled talent for self-aggrandisement. English football's romance with adland is one that other sports can only dream of. The advent of the Premiership and silly money coincided perfectly with the rise of celebrity culture: a triumph of marketing and good old-fashioned voyeurism.
With its unstoppable advance from the back pages to the front pages to the glossy pages, football has been able to conquer its last frontier - women. Fashion brands, gossip magazines and TV soap operas have been able to do what the Football Association alone could not, hooking millions of women into a sport they conventionally cared little about. Victoria Beckham has clued more of the sisterhood into the game than any outreach strategy. And it was Grazia magazine which, by christening the Wags at this year's World Cup, defined England's 2006 campaign.
Shocking brand values
"Football is no longer about 90 minutes," says Tony Quinn, head of strategic planning at the advertising agency Leagas Delaney, which counts Reebok among its clients. "It's about celebrity far more than it is about sport. The more lavish footballers' lifestyles become, the more we've been seduced by them. It's self-perpetuating." Yet if football is a brand, its brand values are shocking. Galloping self-interest, greed, squabbling, dodgy dealing: these are the themes that permeate media coverage of the sport every day. Yet we scarcely notice them. It takes something as truly blundering as Ashley Cole's woefully misjudged book - in which he claimed that a £55,000-a-week salary was "taking the piss" - to provoke any real debate about the game's appropriation of our culture.
David Goldblatt, who has just published a definitive history of global football called The Ball Is Round, believes strongly that football needs a more scrutinising press, but argues that we "get the football we deserve". "Football doesn't lead society, it reflects it," he says. "If we're going to complain about its conspicuous consumption, its anti-intellectualism - well, I can think of other places you see that. Yes, the game has reached unprecedented heights of significance. But I tend to think, 'Why not?'"
Politicians, too, are keen to play down any disparity. The sports minister Richard Caborn says that although he has concerns about the game's governance, he has none about the scale of its influence. "You can say the dominance of football is part of the problem, but I see it as part of the solution," says Caborn, who thinks it can persuade people to take up all sorts of sports. Hugh Robertson, Caborn's Tory opposite number, has a similar line. "If extensive football coverage encourages people to be more active I'm all for it," he says - though he admits that there is "no direct link between the number of people who follow sport and who take up activity". Quinn sees the distance between "real" football and the glamour machine increasing. "Umbro has taken pride in being real, in being about football in the park. And who buys Umbro?"
Still, it's possible to detect a backlash in people's personal experiences with the game. A lifelong West Bromwich fan recently told me he was giving up football. "I've decided to start following Rugby League instead," he said. "I don't know the rules, but it's got to be better than this. I can't stand read-ing about those idiots and paying for their luxury watches any longer." The "was Sven worth it?" lament, following the realisation that £25m had been lavished on a coach with more notches on his bedpost than on his team's record sheet, was the wounded cry of a cheated nation. It could be time to stop feeding the beast.
Emma John is associate editor of Observer Sport Monthly
The beautiful game?
Ashley Cole, Chelsea
"When I heard my agent repeat the figure of £55,000 I nearly swerved off the road. 'He's taking the piss, Jonathan!' I yelled down the phone. I was trembling with anger. "
"I have come to accept that if I have a new haircut it is front-page news."
Graham Bean, FA compliance unit
"The world of agents is a murky one - there's no getting away from it."
Chelsea statement on William Gallas
"Having failed to secure his demands, his position became increasingly intransigent. He refused to join the team during pre-season and went on to threaten that if he was forced to play, or financially punished for his breach of the rules, he could score an own goal."
Mike Newell, Luton manager
"It's about greed, bad economics and football's unique business model. But agents would not demand payments from clubs if players were happy to pay them for their work. Players are complicit, as are the clubs."
Colin Gordon, Steve McClaren's agent
"We pretend we are holier-than-thou. But the English game is considered the dirty man of Europe. We are the worst."
Coleen McLoughlin, girlfriend of Wayne Rooney
"Apparently, young women are getting into debt because they try to shop and party like a footballer's wife. If I heard of anyone doing that I'd tell them to get a grip."
Charles Collymore, agent
"There are managers out there who take bungs all day long."
Football by numbers
£2.5bn will be paid this year for Premier League TV rights
£30.8m biggest transfer fee in English football history - agreed this summer by Chelsea for the striker Andriy Shevchenko
£640,000 average annual salary of Premiership footballers
£100,000 average amount spent by a season ticket holder on supporting a football team for 52 years