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18 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 5:34am

How I learned to stop worrying and love football

England’s footballers are a genuinely progressive force and the game provides the communal experiences we crave.

By Jonn Elledge

A mark of the fact that I’ve never really been one for football is that I hadn’t realised you need to watch it with the sound up. I had some work to do last Sunday and, out of some vague desire to engage with the nation (and/or Twitter), I decided to do it with England’s match against Croatia on in the background. But writing with people talking at you is hard, so I kept the game on mute. Consequently, the first I knew of anything as interesting as a goal was when people started yelling about it on the internet.

It’s just possible I have not quite got the hang of this.

I’ve never liked football, but I haven’t always hated it. I have dim memories of chasing a ball around the playground in infant school, and I can remember being genuinely excited about the 1986 World Cup, in the form of the Panini Mexico 86 sticker book (the words “got, got, need” can still bring back the smell, like Proust’s madeleine). But I’m fairly sure I never actually watched any of it, which leads me to suspect that, even then, I was less interested in actual sport than I was in collecting and cataloguing things.

Then I moved on to a school where they actually made you play football, where it immediately transpired that a) I sucked at it, and b) being a boy who sucked at football was not going to be much fun. That the real cause of my misery was less the game that brings joy to millions and more PE teachers never really occurred to me. 

As I got older and more pretentious, I justified this dislike on political grounds. Football, after all, meant capitalism, sexism, anti-intellectual macho lad bullshit: my dislike of football wasn’t just a matter of personal taste, it was correct. So dominant is football in our national culture that this felt like a far more interesting view than it actually was. That much of my critique could also be applied to lager – and I was quite happy to engage with that – never really occurred to me either. 

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But then a few years ago, something strange happened: people were talking about the World Cup, and I found myself feeling jealous. They had access to a whole realm of joy that was closed off to me – one that involved rolling news, long-running beef, and numbers, all things I normally loved. It wasn’t enough to get me to start following a game that, to me, still looks a lot like people running around a field while nothing much happens for 90 minutes, but I did start wondering if I might be missing out.

More recently, a couple of things have made me question how much football really is to blame for all the world’s anti-intellectual macho lad bullshit. One is the England team taking the knee to protest racism before their first games, and manager Gareth Southgate telling those who booed to get lost (only more politely, because this is Gareth Southgate). If everyone was this comfortable telling their more bigoted supporters to piss off, the world would be in much less depressing shape than it is.

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The other is – you’ve probably seen this coming – Marcus Rashford. Rashford is 23, with much more money than most of us will make in a lifetime, yet he spends his spare time working on a book club for disadvantaged children, or trying to pressure the government into making sure the nation’s kids are properly fed. More than that, he’s not taken yes for an answer, keeping up the pressure after Boris Johnson seemed to agree to his demands, to make sure the government actually delivers. A lot of people have made jokes of the form “Marcus Rashford is the official opposition”, but there’s a reason for that. Footballers are genuinely acting as a progressive force in politics. That is not always something you’ve been able to say about footballers. Hell, it’s not always something you’ve always been able to say about the Labour Party.

There’s one more reason that I can suddenly sort of see the point of a weeks-long sporting tournament. We’ve all been shut indoors for a large chunk of the last 15 months, separated not just from friends and family, but from the broader circle of acquaintances and passers-by that remind you you’re living in a society. Consequently, I think, we’ve all grown hungry for communal experiences, whether it’s watching the Line of Duty finale or Eurovision, or standing on a doorstep and clapping. The purpose of the latter wasn’t actually to help NHS workers, who would, by and large, rather have had a pay rise or some decent PPE: it was to make those clapping feel like part of something. For many people, it’s football that gives them that. Maybe, after the last year, I can sort of see the point.

I should warn you, though, that my previous attempts to engage with football, in 2010, 2014 and 2018, all saw England go out of the World Cup just over an hour and a half later, so my sudden interest does not necessarily bode well.