The Culture of Football

It’s true that I’ve told virtually nobody about this blog. For now I’m content with that, and I’m writing mostly for myself. The intention is, however, to make it a feast of faith, philosophy and football, with a few music videos thrown in as filler.

I’m conscious that football has been somewhat neglected to date, though, so I’ll go a way to putting that right here. Indeed, football, for someone like myself and millions of others, is attractive precisely because it incorporates philosophy and faith. Let no-one say that I fail to understand the religious mindset or that I’m unfamiliar with religious experience, and the fact that most of these experiences have taken place within the confines of Goodison Park makes it any less personally relevant. We also celebrate our rituals and traditions, both individual and communal, and the idea of abandoning Everton Football Club, for me, is as unthinkable as anything. The word “s****r is as much an abomination to me as “salvation by works” is to a Calvinist. The difference is that the religious aspects of football are naturally grounded, and therefore even the most partisan football fan can see his obsession from the outside, recognise his irrationality, view it for what it is, and walk away from it when need dictates. Football fans as a rule celebrate rather than deprecate differences – there’s nothing better to start the day than a cup of strong coffee and a session of good-natured football banter. We don’t expect others to conform to our prejudices – on the contrary we appreciate them. Football, as a quasi-religion, has a lot going for it, in that its adherents see shared values in differences of value.

It’s often said in support of the more traditional religious adherences, that having shared values is in itself a good thing, whether the basis of those shared values is true or not. I tend to agree with this to some extent, while adding the caveat that these shared values often have the potential to disrupt, rather than enhance, general political life, when the shared values of a group are imposed on those of a different persuasion. We can think of several examples from history, including most wars, that arose because one group or other wasn’t happy with the beliefs and shared values of others. By-and-large, intolerance is the result. This still goes on and sadly it won’t ever stop. See here, for a recent example.

Sadly,  football as a cultural phenomenon can’t escape from this. The closest thing I have to a holy book, Football Against the Enemy, by Financial Times football correspondent Simon Kuper (can there ever be a better job?), makes this clear, even though the book is about twenty years old now, therefore somewhat overtaken by events and therefore somewhat dated. Kuper travels the globe detailing the impact that football makes within the world and the impact that the world has on football. In both cases football emerges as a culturally significant entity, and the respective roles of football and culture are to impact each other.

In the book, football is seen as a unifying force among a minority (as with the Hispanics of Los Angeles); a subversive yet ostensibly innocent method of political protest (in the Warsaw Pact countries during the cold war); a form of prolefeed or sap to nationalism (Argentina leading up to 1978);  an attempt to encapsulate national or regional characteristics (African football in the 1980’s). Most significant, from a British cultural perspective, is the role of football in reinforcing existing cultural differences.

Kuper goes to Northern Ireland and talks to fans of rival clubs there. He then travels with them to a derby game. But the game  isn’t even in Northern Ireland. In Glasgow, Celtic and Rangers represent antagonistic religious traditions and their existence as rivals is partially (mostly?) explained by the existence of religious rivalry. English football fans will without much provocation sing about opposing players’ sexual preferences or personal failings, and I’m not condoning the singers’ behaviour here, but the atmosphere at Celtic-Rangers games is often poisonous. Without a doubt, the mutually antagonistic – and pre-existing – culture contributes to this. Every incident within a game is magnified as a slight against or vindication of Catholicism or Protestantism, specifically the worldviews of their adherents which may extend outside the strictly religious.

Football Against the Enemy struck a chord in me more than any book apart from Homage to Catalonia. As a sociological document I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. But it dawned on me that my rose-tinted view of football as a unifying force was only as strong as the culture that allowed it to be so. The reason that I can be so blasé and optimistic about it is that my culture is comfortable with it. While the UK isn’t a perfect example of freedoms (more of this soon, hopefully), in comparative terms, we do have freedom of speech and association to an extent that others don’t. (No doubt if Doze still reads he might have something to say here!) It is these freedoms that we perhaps take for granted and act as enablers for our general cultural attitudes. It should be noted that our attitudes towards other areas, including sexuality, feminism and yes, football, also reinforce fundamental freedoms, even though it’s also true that elsewhere our freedoms are under attack.

On many occasions I’ve been subject to the idea that, for some reason such as the notion that I don’t endorse adultery, that I’m “borrowing” from a Christian culture and therefore I’m an unwitting closet Christian. The very same people that say this will also say the Troubles of Northern Ireland or Celtic-Rangers rivalry are due to historical and political differences that lie deeper than the antagonistic versions of Christianity. What they fail to understand is that what we could call “culture” isn’t hierarchical in nature, but a system of inputs and outputs which both feed on and nourish each other constantly. Although there are differences – and therefore an evolutionary path – in culture which mean that there probably couldn’t be an American George Galloway or a British Rick Santorum that was in the least significant, we all too often speak of culture as if it defined us, when we are defining it all the time.


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