Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Why Write About Football?

Sunday saw the 100th post put up on Polly's Pause for Sport. I would firstly like to thank everyone who has taken their time to read any of the previous hundred pieces that have been put up on this site. It has proven to be an extremely enjoyable venture for me personally and I hope that it has provided at least some enjoyment to those of you who have followed it. Also, a special thanks to the guest writers who have chipped in from time to time, there promises to be more of them in the very near future.

For this, the post to celebrate the blog's centenary, I have chosen to address a question that seems perfectly apt for the occasion. It is, perhaps, a question I should have answered back in February when I started this blog but there we are. The question - why write about football? (The answer, I will forewarn you, is quite a lengthy one but justice could not be done to the subject with only a brief response.)

It is a question that is posed to me on a regular basis. As someone training to be a journalist, people often assume that I should be applying my time to a more worthy or noble cause. To a higher art form. To a more meaningful subject. After all, as the critic would say, 'it's just a game'.

It would be too easy to dismiss such sentiments on account of my passion for the subject. That would be to miss the point. In its simplest sense, football is indeed 'just a game' and yet there are hoards of websites, publications and media outlets devoted entirely to it. Why have we as a community here in Britain become so largely fixated on football? Not that I am suggesting that the entire community shares a love for the sport, I am simply saying that football has become a corner stone of modern British culture. It walks hand-in-hand with our society's love for celebrity gossip, cups of tea and the weather.

Conversations in pubs, Saturday afternoons and children's playgrounds are spent talking about, watching or imitating what twenty-two men do on rectangular patches of grass across the country. Large portions of society read the newspaper from back-to-front. 'Real' football fans will keep at least nineteen weekends a year free on which they can spend their hard-earned money to watch a collection of players from around the world, who are getting paid ludicrously large sums of money, kick a ball around while they, the loyal spectators, cheer these strangers on purely because they wear the right colour shirt.

There is something counter-intuitive about the whole thing. This is the reason some people declare a resentment towards a society that worships at the feet of individuals who, in their eyes, do so little. A society which uses these men, who are so often shown to lack a moral compass, as role models. Football has become more than a game, more than sport, it is a way of life. It consumes people's time, money and emotions and yet when one attempts to rationalise the game of football and assess why it holds the gravitas it now does, they will often be found wanting. Thus are we to say that we are all fools for loving the sport? No.

Let's start by examining why we love football.

Like all sports, it appeals to a very primitive, humanistic instinct - competition. The desire to test ones strength against another and to see who will prevail as the victor. This is why football in its most pure and basic form captivates so many. It is the same reason why nearly all societies around the world, both now and through history, have contained sporting competitions in one form or another. Such competitions have comprised predominantly of men which may well explain why the followers and competitors in such sports today are too predominantly male, but this is a whole other matter for discussion. Nevertheless, the instinctive appeal of football alone explains why it achieves such universal attention. It justifies why we would go to a stadium or sit in front of a TV and watch 'twenty-two men run around and kick a ball', because in reality it is much more than that.

But football is more than this. It would be wrong to portray people's love for football as being simply our instinctive desire for competition. There is also admiration to be taken from what can be seen on a football pitch. Football is a game of flair, technique, fitness, teamwork, tactics, physicality and finesse. There is joy to be had in watching greats like Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Messi do things that an standard person could only dream of. People love the sport because of the intricate nuances and glimpses of what ought to be called 'genius'. When played the right way, by the right team, football does become an art form. It is not a collection of Neanderthals grunting around a pitch as many would dismiss it as. Football has the potential to be the 'beautiful game' when played right and many appreciate it as just that, in much the same way as others appreciate classical music or the ballet.

Football has, of course, grown beyond just ninety-minute matches. It is more than merely a game insofar as its influence extends beyond the chalk lines of the pitch. I have commented before on how central football is in within society, using the comparison with religion. From a functionalism viewpoint, football performs an important role in British community. It unites people, it offers them a sense of belonging. The support of a team is passed down through generations and brings together neighbourhoods. The African spirit shown at the South African World Cup illustrates this point perfectly. Localities come together to watch their club or country. They stroll to their stadiums, the focal points of their passion, and pass the iconography of past greats with their like-minded brethren. Beyond the enjoyment to be taken from the competition between two teams, football and its teams have become part a city, region or nation's identity. It must be accepted that football is not just a game but also a universal cultural phenomena.

This is not to say that football is not a sport without its faults. It would be wrong for me to ramble on about how great the sport is when it has so many flaws. We are all too aware of them. It is subject to much criticism and some of these must be addressed.

Overpaid, misbehaving players. Short-sighted, money-hungry chairmen. Brands and advertisers attempting to suffocate every opportunity for financial gain. These are all undesired bi-products of the globalisation of football, collateral damage of an ever-expanding sport being driven by the capitalist West. FIFA's recent escapades are all too indicative of these problems. Furthermore, violent and occasionally barbaric fans often give football a bad press. These, however, remain an uncondonable minority that ought not to distort people's view to make them see the stereotypical football fan as an uncivilised yob.

Another major flaw of football is its coverage. So wide-spread is the media attention that it receives, the quality of the coverage fails to remain at a consistently high standard. In the battle between quality and quantity, the latter seems to be winning. You only have to watch the punditry on Match of the Day, which lacks insight and interest in equal measure, to see how the media's coverage of football often fails to do justice to the sport. So too, in the mass of material readily available for world-wide readership, does the quality of the writing produced do a disservice to the sport and, moreover, to the industry of journalism. I am well aware of the fact that as a blogger I have, from time to time, contributed to this problem. Ultimately however, none of this ought to detract from football as a sport. It may be part of the sport but it is not representative of the sport. It is, rather, a reflection of our own social and economic culture. To criticise the sport of football because of the media's lens through which it is often distorted would be the equivalent to saying that you dislike singing because of the X Factor.

Finally, an increasingly worrying problem within football is the role of journalists who cover it. Namely, the way that the attitude that 'dog doesn't eat dog' seemingly rules supreme in the industry of sports journalism more so than any other. Sports journalists rely heavily on a list of contacts, be it managers, players, FA executives or chairmen, which they use to produce their articles. The fear of alienating said contacts often means that a blind-eye is turned to suspicious activities. The investigations that have been launched into corruption or dodgy dealings in football have been done by journalists who apply their trade in other sectors. Andrew Jennings' various works, the Sunday Times exposé and the documentary 'Football Dirty Secrets' did not predominantly involve sports journalists. As such, sports journalism often receives a hard time. It is labelled as 'lazy'. The role of journalism, as well as reporting the news and informing its audience of what is going on, is to hold the unaccountable to account. Matt Le Tissier's autobiography explicitly outlined how he had taken part in an incident of spot fixing, FIFA have been shown to be corrupt on numerous occasions while managers and agents are known to take their own illegal cut from transfer deals. Yet often sports journalists often take the easy approach of leaving such matters to others or accepting that it is part and parcel of the game.

Now I am well aware that it is all too easy for me to sit on the edge of the industry and make such criticisms with only limited experience. Nevertheless, this ideological stance of wanting to address these problems that lie within sports journalism is another reason for why I wish to make a career out of being a sports journalist.

So, to conclude, why write about football? Because it is something that is both psychologically and now sociologically a fundamental part of British culture. It has become more than a game, more than a sport. It has the ability, contrary to what some people may say or think, to be a beautiful art form. Furthermore, the criticisms that are levelled at the industry of sports journalism act as motivation to attempt to do things differently, even if that is hopelessly ideological.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...


  1. You're right, football is much more than just another sport - though in ways that people like Richard Scudamore and Blatter will never be able to fully comprehend. It's provided my first cultural point of entry to just about every place I've ever passed through or lived in. Sport, art, national identity, global lingua franca - why wouldn't people write about it?

  2. I don't know if anyone else feels the same, but when I see something happen, I have to express my views to people. I just have this sudden urge to write about it. I can't explain why, but I do. I'm sure many more people are the same.

  3. Interesting thoughts. Speaking for myself, I started because of the pure enjoyment of writing. Apart from the occasional sideline on a music blog, football is the topic which I know the most about. I would be interested to know how many football blogs there are compared to those covering music, film, food or politics?

  4. Hey Polly, interesting article and well written. Just thought I'd say you can't not comment on football today. Whether for good or bad football is a now an industry of multinationals with a huge amount of influence. Premiership clubs above all are followed throughout the world, its not just a cornerstone of English culture but a global phenomenon. I'm living in Brazil atm so it's easy to overestimate the influence of football lol but even so, there's no denying how huge a position football has in todays society and it is therefore one of the most worthwhile topics to write about.

  5. Interesting stuff, well written.

    I would just like to add to the 'Why Football?' par. the explanations given in Goldblatt's The Ball is Round: the fact that it utilises such a broad range of skills that anyone from 5ft to 7ft can compete. In terms of playing the game itself, it can be done with any number of people in any given space. I think this fluidity explains why the game has became the World's game rather than any of the other games Britain exported through the informal Victorian empire.

    Top stuff.

  6. This is great, really great - and I'll reply properly later.

    Thanks for the thoughts - really interesting stuff (as always)



  7. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Michael, you are absolutely right. When you meet people anywhere in the world and they ask you 'where are you from?' If you were to say Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester etc., their response often is to name the football team from the area. It is a global sport and, as you say, so often acts as the 'first cultural point of entry'.

    Lanterne Rouge, I think that football blogs may well outweigh the others. Such is the intense love so many have for the sport, non or part-time writers are far more inclined to blog about football than someone with a passion for politics or food.

    GhostGoal, spot on with both points. The fact that football can be played by Crouch or Messi, Titus Bramble or Shaun Wright-Phillips means that it is relatively indiscriminate, at least compared to other sports for example rugby, basketball or athletics. The way that the game can be adapted to fit different numbered groups or locations is another great strength. Both of these points have undoubtedly contributed to its global appeal.

    Rob, thanks. I look forward to reading your comment if you get time.

  8. Dear Dominic,

    Would you be interested in receiving a copy of this book?


    It's the story of football far far away from homophobic tweets, petrodollars and John Terry.

    I'm at jamie@tobyeadyassociates.co.uk if you'd like me to send you one.

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  11. The desire to test ones strength against another and to see who will prevail as the victor.

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