Monday, May 08, 2006

The new religion

This morning I gave an assembly for the motley assortment of non-Christian kids who don't want to attend the school's church service, at a school just north of London, as I do once a term for AJ6. Not feeling like talking about anything too heavy, and it being the day after Spurs lost out to Arsenal for the last Champions League place, my theme was football as the new religion.

Here is an outline of the themes:

I started by getting everyone to stand up, then sit down if they were from particular religions. Then they had to stand up again, and sit down if they supported particular teams. There were no other Cardiff supporters there, but I concealed my disappointment and ploughed on.

I talked a little about some of the religious symbolism in football:-

· Last game at Highbury, holy ground kissed by Henry, parade of honour etc, like in some kind of shrine
· Sectarianism of Rangers vs Celtic, including the perverse exception made by UEFA to permit sectarian chanting on the terraces at Ibrox and Parkhead, for "historical reasons"
· Why Spurs are “The Yids” and it seems acceptable (and how Steffen Freund found that he was the first German in history to get 20,000 Jews to shout "shoot!")
· Cardiff’s “Ayatollah” - the tradition of calling for players in the middle of a game to start patting their heads
· Fans bowing to the great players like Fatt Le Tissier

What makes us so passionate about it, that it divides families and friends? We know Bill Shankly's quote of “football is not a matter of life and death; it is much more important than that” - and football is filled with evocative language such as referring to Old Trafford as the “Theatre of Dreams”, and any commentary by Stuart Hall.

But look at the tragedies of football, from Heysel and Hillsborough to the general tarnishing of England by hooliganism, and the incidents of crowd racism in Italy and Spain. The role models have to start on the pitch:

· Lineker was never booked in his entire career
· Di Canio went from pushing the ref to catching the ball when the opposition keeper was injured, and winning a FIFA special award for fair play (before reverting to Mussolini salutes in the Rome derby - go figure)
· Robbie Fowler tripping over Seaman and telling the ref it was not a penalty (then missing it apologetically, though someone else snaffled up the rebound)
· Arsenal offering to replay an entire FA Cup game against Sheffield United after a player misunderstood that he should give the ball back after an injury (they still won)

But there are endless examples to the contrary – diving, claiming someone dived, malicious fouling, pretending to have been fouled, handballing it into the net, handballing it out of the net, claiming it crossed the line when it didn’t, claiming it didn’t when it did, swearing, spitting, shouting, ripping off your own shirt, trying to rip off the opponent’s shirt…

These contradictions make football fascinating and create fragile heroes like Maradona – look at the two goals he scored against England – one was cheating and the other one of the greatest goals of all time, then he fell into drugs, booze, womanizing, weight problems but then got his life in order.

Perspective is lost with football – it’s addictive and hypnotic. What was bigger news?
· Eriksson’s affair with Ulrika or Prescott’s affair with his secretary
· Posh and Becks’ “royal” wedding or Charles and Camilla
· Patricia Hewitt’s comments on the state of the NHS or the coverage of the health of Rooney’s foot

And this absurd sense continues with how we normally feel about backing whoever the British representative is (even if it's Greg Rusedski in the tennis). Do we support other British or English teams? Does that diminish our love for our own team? Spurs fans stand up – now it makes no difference to Spurs’ season, who will be cheering Arsenal on as the English team? Who is behind Middlesbrough?

There are 12 million football fans in the UK and 67% report that they experience depression at the end of the football season. Not surprisingly, since 60% are "psychologically dependent on the game". 75% say that the game "is more important than anything in their lives" and 86% plan their lives round games. Football then is the central organising principle of their lives - not family, not church, not friends, but football. Not of course that being a football fan does not go some way to meeting people's needs for belonging and communal identification. How do you belong? Join the 'united' faithful. Who are my people? The ones I instinctively feel a connection to wherever I go in the world, whatever their colour, whatever their income level.

This is a form of escapism from the much harsher realities of day-to-day life, like exams and homework. I know this from personal experience – I sat one of my finals at exactly the same time as England vs Argentina in the last World Cup, and there was a huge cheer outside when Beckham scored the penalty. At least most of us can unite behind England, despite some of the naffness that comes with, such as the Great Escape and turning the national anthem into a football chant.

As with the last assembly, which was about national anthems, I wanted to finish with a song. Under each chair was a song sheet, and I got the 100 or so boys to join in with a rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone:

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark

At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark

At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk

You'll never walk
You'll never walk alone.

(R. Rogers & O. Hammerstein II, performed by Gerry and the Pacemakers)

The headmaster of the school had been on the stage with me, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, despite being a Newcastle fan, and I have been invited back next term...

On the Spurs illness thing, by the way - whilst I do feel sorry for them, they chose to go ahead with the game. If their players were really so ill, they should have been more concerned for their health, and played a reserve team or no team. Then the fixture would have been an obvious farce and they might have had a chance to replay it. By choosing to field what was on paper pretty close to a First XI, they lost that chance. It seems to be unfair on West Ham to make them replay, when they could only beat the team put in front of them, and to Arsenal, who did what was required of them and were involved in a classic finale for Highbury.

Unfortunately, the onus should have been on Spurs to win some of the games they dropped easy points in earlier in the season. There is no legislating for a food bug sweeping away the side, but ill fortune can happen to many sides - Birmingham might have had a better chance of staying up if they hadn't lost half their squad to injury at one point or another. Just from games I watched, Spurs dropped 2 points at home to West Ham after having all the possession but Mido and Defoe were greedy and squandered chances to make the game safe, Stalteri gave away the ball in the last minute against Fulham and they dropped another point there, and how on earth could anyone fail to beat Sunderland is beyond me - 5 points there alone.

So whilst I feel sorry for them, I think some objectivity is required. If Martin Jol had been offered 5th place and a UEFA Cup spot back in August, he would have been thrilled. Next season his team has the chance to prove how hard done by they were, and challenge for a top 4 finish over the length of a season.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

You fail to mention that Spurs had no choice but to play the game against West Ham.

If you had read Daniel Levy's letter to the Premier League, you would see that he was forced into a corner by incompetent Premier League employees who forced his hand in this situation.

Middlesbrough were docked 3 points when they chose not to play a game. If Spurs had chosen not to play, then they were sure to lose 4th place by default.

Now go and rewrite the last part of your blog ;-)