Essays: Football fanaticism |
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Football fanaticism

AS Alberto Moravia once put it, the class struggle continued until there were no classes left, and then the struggle continued. What he meant, I think, was that resentment has a momentum of its own. Certainly it was hard to figure out what other reason the English soccer fans had for behaving so bloodily in Turin.

Interviewed on Newsnight (BBC2), or it might have been News at Ten (ITN), Bill Sirs, obviously the gentlest of creatures, said that while deploring hooliganism he felt bound to point out that unemployed young men could easily be tempted into mischief. Counterpointing this assertion, either ‘Newsnight’ or ‘News it Ten,’ or perhaps both, screened some pictures of the mischief the unemployed young men had got up to. Undoubtedly they would have done less damage if the Italian police had not started hitting them. On the other hand it was not easy to see what else might have been done.

On Question Time (BBC1) Sir James Goldsmith favoured short, sharp punishment. This sounded like William Whitelaw’s remedy, which already sounded like something out of a particularly unsubtle satirical passage by Dickens. The question turns, of course, on what the short, sharp punishment is to be. The guillotine?

While you were pondering this question there was ample opportunity to watch the rioting being replayed on all channels. By this time I had long forgotten which channel I was watching. The only certainty anyone could cling to was that the fans were spoiling football. It was especially important to cling to this whenever the suspicion occurred to you that football might be spoiling the fans.

Television has caught football the way Europe used to catch the bubonic plague. No wonder some of the fans become self-important: the game they love has delusions of grandeur. There is no reason why the BBC and the IBA should not share out the coverage, but everybody prefers to do the unreasonable thing. The result is that the channels are saturated with football well into the summer. If all we saw was the matches themselves then things would not be so bad, but there are hours of uninspired chat to listen to as well. ‘Very sharp ... very quick ... like Ian says ... tremendous power ... tremendous ability to find the man ... tremendous second half ... like Dickie said ... tremendous penetrating passes ... certainly a willing worker ... never stops running ... showing his skills ... tremendous.’ I scooped most of that up off the floor during ITV’s coverage of the Italy v Spain match. It had drivelled out of the set and piled up like spume.

Religious convictions have nothing to do with intelligence. Quite plainly football is a substitute for religion, so it never surprises me when some of my literary friends embark on a long analysis of the league table, or announce their intention of flying home from New York in time for the Cup Final. Putting themselves out in order to keep up with the football news is a form of religious observance. Having a wrecked knee to flaunt after the Sunday game in the park is a form of witness. They want to belong to football, in just the same way that people were once unable to imagine how life would be bearable if they were deprived of the sacraments.

But really nobody in football can be sure of his role except the players. Hence the hysteria around the periphery of the game, a rhetorical hubbub which doesn’t start calming down until you get to the centre. At the very centre stands, or rather runs, Kevin Keegan, who looked as if the Turin disaster had taken a million pounds off his life. ‘After 10 minutes,’ he told ‘News at Ten,’ ‘I was ashamed to be an Englishman. I can’t understand it ... They come all this way and spend all that money ... It’s got to be a social problem.’ It probably is, but defining what kind of social problem is a problem in itself.

Sir Arnold Weinstock made a distinguished contribution to Platform One (BBC1), on which Robert McKenzie was the interlocutor. Sir Arnold quietly deplored the fact that labour’s resentment against exploitation had outlived its historical appropriateness. On the other hand he showed himself to be aware that the division between management and labour is exacerbated by the British habit of clubability. He was all set to explain why management did not treat the factory as a club, but McKenzie interrupted him. At this point I let out a small yell of frustration, since I wanted to hear more.

I think Sir Arnold was going to say that the managers have too many other clubs elsewhere. He is obviously a capable man who would make a good Prime Minister, but life being what it is we might have to put up with Tony Benn instead. Britain owes a lot to its Jews. I have received several letters backing up Sir Oswald Mosley’s assertion that his quarrel was never with all Jews, only with some Jews, the ones responsible for getting Britain into a war with Hitler. This is like somebody saying that he has nothing against blacks as such, only those blacks responsible for the Aurora Borealis.

Half-way between a genius and a head-case, Freddie Starr turned up on Saturday Night at the Mill (BBC1). Never too quick on the draw even at the best of times, the Pebble Mill mob are currently exhausted by their efforts to find a replacement for Arianna Stassinopoulos, who, you will remember, left the programme by mutual agreement after it was discovered that a significant proportion of the listeners were under the impression they had tuned into a modern-dress production of ‘Elektra’ transmitted from Athens on the Eurovision link.

Already numb, the Mill hands found Freddie a hard ball to field. Bob Langley unfolded his smile and did his best to interrupt. What I was going to say, Fred, is that you are ...’ ‘I’m not really,’ simpered the guest, ‘it’s just a rumour.’ Almost anything it too much for Bob, but Freddie was miles too much.

I had been told that The Wind and the Lion (ITV) was a great neglected film masterpiece of our time, but didn’t believe this till I saw it. Now I believe it. Written and directed by John Milius, it stood revealed as a miraculous piece of work even when confined to the small screen. In the cinema it must be overwhelming. A desert epic starring Sean Connery as a Berber chieftain doesn’t sound too promising, but in the event it turns out to be yet further evidence that the deciding factor in the arts is talent.

The second edition of It’ll Be Alright on the Night (LWT) was a bit strained for material, but Denis Norden held things together with such charm that you hardly noticed the gaps. The television presenter getting his finger bitten by a guest ferret was the best moment. The South Bank Show (LWT) was properly respectful about Andrew Wyeth’s excellent paintings.

The Observer, 15th June 1980