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England vs Brazil, May 1956 (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

“Football’s not a matter of life and death … it’s more important than that” – Bill Shankly, Liverpool FC manager.

If you go to any park in the British Isles, any area of public space which is relatively flat and green, and is not riddled with signs begging all and sundry to keep off the grass, sooner or later someone will start a football game there. There will be items of clothing put down as goalposts, some working out of who should be in which team, and then a lot of running and shouting. Occasionally, one of the people doing the running will break free of the others, and at his (or her) feet will dance a shiny ball.

This happens among children, it happens among teenagers, it happens among grown ups, and even senior citizens have been known to gamely punt a rogue ball back into the melee with startling accuracy. Football is just something we’ve all grown up with.

Note: for the purposes of this blog, you’re just going to have to remember that as far as the British are concerned, football is the game you call soccer. The reason we call it football is because it’s a game in which you predominently kick a ball, with your foot. The game you call football should really be called throwball, or carryball, or armoredshouldersfightyball. Or – if you’re playing it in a park – catch.

But there’s no reason to adopt a superior attitude about either game. In fact, humans have been messing about with inflated leather bladders since prehistoric times. Sometimes they’ll be trying to chuck them through a hole in a sheet (the ancient Chinese game of cuju), sometimes booting it across a circle and trying not to let it touch the ground (the Japanese game kemari), and sometimes an entire village will be chasing after it, while a rival village attempts to stop them kicking it at various local landmarks (the English medieval game of mob football).

England was the first nation to formalise the game of association football, in the public (meaning private) schools of the 18th and 19th centuries. And as the graduates of these schools went on to run the Empire, it’s no surprise that the game should catch on in British colonies, alongside cricket and having to dress formally at all times.  Meanwhile, those British citizens that came from lesser means, who’d been playing variations on the game for hundreds of years, simply fell in with the new rules: 11 a side, a goal-keeper at each end, stuff about handball and offside and all that gubbins. Then clubs were formed, to play in leagues, and before you can say “aw come on Ref!” a national obsession was… well not BORN, as it had been going for so long already, but definitely cemented.

Football remains a key part of British identity, whether it’s a reflection of religious differences, as with Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers teams representing Catholic and Protestant communities respectively, or a route for working class talent to get out of their humble backgrounds. You can make snap judgements on a person’s character depending on what team they support too. Fans of Manchester United – the team David Beckham made his name playing for – who don’t live in Manchester, are often derided as bandwagon jumpers who just want to be on the side that wins.

And even if you’re someone that can’t abide all the fuss and nonsense around the sport, it’s so impossible to ignore that even the sound of someone reading out the results on a Saturday afternoon is enough to trigger a Proustian rush of epic proportions.

Even this, a mocking sketch from the BBC’s Mitchell & Webb, carries with it the total joy of abandoment in matters footbally and sporty. I’m sure sports fans of any stripe can relate:


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By Fraser McAlpine