AFTER a summer without any football whatsoever, I like most sports fans have had to watch other sports in addition to the Beautiful Game. In actual fact I watch many other sports all the year round, but none of them in my mind can compare to football. Why is that?
What often puzzles me is why, when football can often be extremely boring, I'd still rather watch it live on virtually every day of the year than any other sport. Other sports are consistently more entertaining and exciting than football, but in preference I would invariably plump for footie (even matches not involving Grimsby or England, the two outfits I support).
Here's my personal self-analysed potted history of why football matters so much to me. This purely represents my personal views and is not intended to be in any way a general explanation of why football is virtually a national obsession.
It's unpredictable. Anyone can beat anyone else to a degree which is simply not true in any other sport. In rugby and tennis where there are so many more points at stake, it makes it extremely unlikely that a heavy favourite won't win. If St Helens are 30 or 40 points up you might as well turn the television off. Likewise if Nadal is a couple of sets up and his opponent has hardly won a break point all game you know what's going to happen. If Man Utd are 2-0 or even 3-0 up there's always a chance that the opposition can nick one and make it interesting.
There are so few goals. Consequently each major event in football, such as a goal or a sending off is so important. I have never, ever gone absolutely mental about any other sporting event than a goal in football. Yet several times a season I forget who I am and where I am for a few seconds in the ecstasy of celebrating a goal. Very few other events in sport have the finality of a goal. Yes sometimes a penalty or drop kick in rugby can take the game out of reach of the opposition in the time remaining on the clock, or a wicket of a key batsman can hugely increase the chances to win the game, but invariably you have to stop and think why for a split second. In football when the ball bursts in the back of the net every part of your being, your whole consciousness, is at one in knowing intuitively its significance. It is a moment of unadulterated joy.
There aren't many highs in football but those that there are profound. Tennis is consistently exciting, much more so than football, there are lots of highs, but even the highest moments are hills in contrast to football's mountains. In a good game virtually every point can have you on the edge of your seat but they just drift by and are soon lost in the rest of the game. Show me a picture of a tennis fan in ecstasy celebrating a break point won? You won't find one.
The hype. The papers are full of football, it makes national television news headlines most days. It simply matters more than every other sport, with the exception of special one off events like Wimbledon, the Six Nations and The Ashes which occasionally march alongside it. Almost everyone, every male anyway, has a favourite football team (although you might have to coax it out of a few people). When you go to work the next day people are talking about last night's game. The Rugby League game might have been a classic the other night, but it's forgotten straight after the final whistle because nobody's talking about it, it's deep within the back pages of the paper, and it's not mentioned on the news. You broach the subject with sports fans at work and you have to explain what happened and why. They simply didn't watch it most of the time. Half the time you'll end up explaining things like how the Super League works, what the scoring system is in baseball, or how the seedings work in the US Open before you can go on to explain the great match that you saw. Everyone knows this kind of detail in football. Other sports simply don't matter to anywhere near as many people as football does, so consequently, as a member of a social species, it doesn't matter as much to you.
Crowd segregation. This is probably one of the most wonderful things about live football as it leads to chanting and all the gestures surrounding them. It creates the atmosphere. You just don't get this in any other sport. I was at an Ashes test match the summer and the Ozzie fans were dotted around the crowd. It just doesn't generate that focal area to direct chants and gestures that you get in football. Chants in football can be so funny at times that they live with you for years. It's a depressing sight indeed to see the away end going absolutely mental at Blundell Park, but it makes the game what it is. Likewise on television I love watching a goal go in and nobody whatsover moving behind the goal. I always know where the two sets of fans are in televised games. It's just as fundamental to me as the team line-up to appreciating the game. People who have never been to a game (football virgins, pity them, they do exist) simply cannot understand this as you have to have experienced it first hand to really pick it up on the television.
Controversy. Because there are so few goals each referring decision is so important. In other sports it is common to see mistakes by the officials, but they simply average out and rarely does a mistake have the overall impact that it does in our game. They are just accepted in other sports because they don't have the impact that they do in football. So annoying as it is when the ref has a nightmare, in many ways it's part of the entertainment and usually we can look back and "enjoy" the memory of it a few weeks or months later.
The banter. Travelling to a game, whether it's by train or coach or even car, you meet so many fans of your own team or those of other clubs going to other games across the country. I have had hundreds of such encounters, little vignettes of shared dreams and memories over the years, and some of them I remember far longer than the games themselves.
The shared joy, not only with friends but also with people I have never met before. I treasure the moments when I've danced on terraces with complete strangers and then sat down and never spoken to them again. For a few seconds we have been as one, united in the love of a mutual team, before we descend back to normality and coventional etiquette. It may one day happen, but I yet to experience a moment like this at the Crucible.
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