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13 March 2019

We used to laugh at footballers who pushed prams or changed nappies. Now we celebrate them

The perception of how men should act and look has rather moved on – if a bit slower in football than elsewhere.

By Hunter Davies

One of my earliest football memories occurred in the November of 1945, when I was nine and still at primary school in Dumfries. I heard that Moscow Dynamo were coming to Britain on a short tour, the first foreign team to visit, now the war was over, to cheer us up, show us how life would return to normal. The idea of Russian players seemed so exotic and exciting. And they were supposed to be terrific.

I cut reports about them and their photographs out of the papers and stuck them in my homemade football album, using flour and water, as we had no glue.

Dynamo attracted huge crowds: 83,000 in a 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge; 90,000 in a 2-2 draw with Rangers at Ibrox; 40,000 at Ninian Park when they beat Cardiff City 10-0; and 54,000 at White Hart Lane where they beat Arsenal 4-3. Note something strange ? The Arsenal game was played at the home of Spurs because Highbury stadium was still being used for war purposes, as an air-raid patrol centre.

Many years later, I managed to acquire each of the four programmes from the Dynamo tour, which I still have among my football treasures. The Chelsea programme contains a message in Russian, welcoming the Dynamo players.

The main image of that tour that stays with me is of a photograph of the Chelsea players being presented with a bouquet of flowers by the Russians. The whole Chelsea team stands there, in the middle of the pitch, each holding a bunch of flowers – and looking as if they wanted to die. I studied this photo in my father’s Daily Express the day after the game. How we hooted at the sight of these brawny chaps so clearly embarrassed and shamed.

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You have to remember that in those days real men never did such things – they did not hold flowers, push prams or change nappies. In Scotland we called men with such girlish tendencies “jessies”. In the north of England they were described as soft. In the south they were soppy. Nothing to do with sexual orientation. Just not real men.

We also giggled when we heard that in the Mediterranean men kissed each other on the cheeks when they met and that Arab men walked down the street holding hands.

The perception of how men should act and look has rather moved on – if a bit slower in football than elsewhere. David Beckham was always being mocked for fussing over his clothes or his hair. No wonder Fergie gave him the “hair-dryer” treatment. Cristiano Ronaldo is obsessed by make-up, keeping his moisturisers handy, yet he is perhaps the most admired player in the world.

 These days players are not ashamed to be seen with their children. When they score a goal, they often imitate the sign of a cradle, rocking their arms from side to side. At the end of the season they bring their children on to the pitch, holding their little ones.

The picture of Gazza crying during the 1990 World Cup in Italy was in every paper. But he was not a figure of fun or mockery as he would have been in 1945.

I am sure somewhere there is a PhD being researched on male emotion as reflected in professional football. Let’s hope the fans are included. The faces in the crowds, their unbridled joy, their terrible fury, their total despair, as at the PSG-Man Utd Champions League game last week in Paris – is it only at a game they truly express themselves?

The death in the plane crash of Cardiff City’s newly signed Argentine player Emiliano Sala caused widespread weeping among Cardiff’s fans. Flowers were laid, songs sung, posters waved – and yet the fans never once saw him play. He had joined the club just a few days before he died. Most fans did not know even what he looked like.

At all grounds these days you get a one-minute pause for solemn clapping because of the death of a young fan or an old former player, unknown to most fans. Today, men are not afraid or embarrassed to display emotion. Even if it’s just about football. 

This article appears in the 13 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control