If you want to understand a culture look at what that culture most talks about. And our culture most talks about, writes about, and most broadcasts about sport in general, and football in particular. Even more than sex.
It is difficult for many people to imagine that there was a time, in living memory, at least in my living memory, when football was not the primary topic of conversation among men, at least not men in the middle class. Now, it is almost impossible to avoid it. Similarly, there was a time when sports coverage was limited to a few pages at the back of newspapers. Today, football alone occupies a vast acreage not only of the tabloid newspapers but also of the so-called 'qualities'. Indeed, The Times actually gives over more column inches to football than The Sun - more column inches to football than any other area of national life - politics, education, the arts, media, religion. Furthermore, sporting stories are not just the preserve of the back pages but increasingly of the front pages.
But why worry? Football is after all a harmless enough pastime. And even if other people's enthusiasms puzzle us, revolt us or simply make us boggle with disbelief (what possible joy or satisfaction can there be, for example, in potholing - wriggling around in tunnels hundreds of feet underground in cold and dank conditions?) Well, even in such obvious instances of masochistic madness, it's hardly cause for wailings and gnashing of teeth. There is, however, an eternally significant difference between an enthusiasm and an idol. An enthusiasm may be indulged, but an idol must be torn down.
Sociologists may argue about whether football is in fact a religion but it is difficult to argue that for an ever-increasing number of people it functions as one. Just look at the red and white wreaths that bedeck hearses and grace the Garden of Rest in a North London crematorium. Flowers are arranged to spell out words of family affection like 'Dad' but also to register support for 'The Gunners'. The allegiance to a football club is such an intense component of the deceased's identity that its name bedecks his coffin. An extreme case? No, a rather common practice. And again, perhaps no harm in that. Except of course that this is but one symptom of what is clearly an idolatrous and corrosive obsession with football.
Far from being a pastime, the rhythms of the football calendar have the power to affect the mood of literally millions of people. There are, the statisticians tell us (cf Mail on Sunday, October 3rd) 12 million football fans in the UK and 67% report that they experience depression at the end of the football season. Not surprisingly, since 60% are 'psychologically dependent on the game'. 75% say that the game 'is more important than anything in their lives' and 86% plan their lives round games. Football then is the central organising principle of their lives – not family, not church, not friends, but football.
That said, for many being a football fan goes some of the way towards meeting the need all humans have for belonging and communal identification. How do you belong? Join the 'united' faithful. Who are my people? The ones I instinctively feel a connection to wherever I go in the world, whatever their colour, whatever their income level. Ah, how the game binds us together, binds us together with cords that cannot be broken. Again, there is nothing wrong with allegiance to a club or in friendships that flourish in the joy of shared interests but, how often perhaps, can a shared interest become a way of not helping one another deal with greater issues in our lives? And that's a problem obviously not confined to football fans.
Similarly, wherein lies my hope? My hope lies in next weekend's fixture. This is the event that I look forward to, the event that I build my life around, going to the match, watching the match on Sky, listening to the match on local or national radio. This is the moment I live for. And let all the other moments pass me by. This is my fix. It can be a good trip or a bad trip but I need it to keep going.
And before we think Christians are immune, look at just how hard it is to get men out to a weekday evening meeting when there's a Champions League fixture - and not even a semi-final or final. Well, of course, sometimes we need to reschedule things. Last year, I accepted an invitation about six months ahead of the date to give a Saturday morning seminar to a large group of working people in a hotel. About a month before, the organiser and I realised that there just might be a clash with a major sporting event. There was. The Saturday turned out to be the day of the World Cup Rugby Final. I talked to the RFU about re-scheduling their event but they were unsympathetic. Both shows went on. Mine with rather fewer participants than the England Rugby team. Of course, I wanted to be somewhere else. Actually, I wanted to be in the same place as most of the people who didn't come. Still, I was not alone. It was great. We felt like heroes. Or at least I did. Vanity, vanity all is vanity.
In Jeremiah 2:13, God levels two charges against his people: 'My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.'
The first charge is that the people have forsaken God. But note the metaphor: God is a spring of living water. He is a constant, aerated source of life-giving, pure, satisfying refreshment.
The second charge is that the people have sought to find a replacement for the life that God offers by digging cisterns that are leaky. Cisterns are designed to hold water and they are not in themselves a source of water, certainly not fresh water, but rather water that grows increasingly stale. The point in Jeremiah is that human beings are created for relationship with God. We are designed to be thirsty for him and if we cut off our access to the living water, our thirst will drive us to find some other means to try to slake that thirst. For many people in our culture, football has become the means of trying to fill the vacuum left by the flight from God. It is an opiate for the masses, and only credible as a focus for meaning in a context when no higher purpose, no higher cause presents itself as the organising principle of a life. Football is only a game. And that's how it should stay.
Sadly, football is not even that beautiful anymore, or at least the culture of the football industry isn't. Like so much other sport, it has not been tarnished by the professionalism that has led to ever-higher standards but rather by the commercial pressures and moral decline that have given contemporary capitalism a bad name. Indeed, if you want to understand globalisation look no further than Chelsea Football Club.
Once upon a time, in a country far, far away, Chelsea used to appoint a British chairman to employ a British manager to train primarily British footballers to play in front of British fans. Today, Chelsea's Chairman is a billionaire whose money has in some people's opinion been generated in ways perhaps not as white as the driven Siberian snow. Although the oil company he owns is the shirt sponsor of a Russian football team – the vast majority of his investment in football is outside Russia. He employs a Portuguese manager to train primarily non-UK players (there are only five British players in the entire first team squad) to play in front of British fans. And very dull Chelsea are too.
In the global economy, questions about what might be best for football in this country, or what might be best for football in other countries who are stripped of their best players by the lure of high wages in the European leagues, have not come high on the agenda. The rich hire the talented and the talented get rich. Everything is subsumed by the drive to maximise profit for shareholders or owners. Obviously, professional football is a business not a charity. But it is not inevitable that commerce and the true spirit of sport should clash. However, clash they now do and that clash is clearly leading to the degradation of sport and to its diminished usefulness as an appropriate recreational haven from the ideologies and rigours of working life.
Take, for example, the recent furore over David Beckham's claim that he deliberately got himself a yellow card in a World Cup qualifying match so that he could serve his suspension while he was injured. This would mean that his chances of being suspended for a future more vital game would be significantly diminished. This is, of course, totally against the spirit of the game, or indeed of any game. If his claim is true, it is a flagrant and cynical piece of gamesmanship. The yellow card system is there to be a deterrent to foul play and to penalize players and their teams by depriving them of a player. Beckham was actually using it to ensure his presence.
Quite independent of the damage David Beckham might have done to the player he deliberately fouled, or indeed to himself, this twisted cynicism is utterly inappropriate for the England Captain. Or at least you would have thought so. But who is there to condemn such a cynical act and such a poorly judged revelation? Well, only heroes from a bygone era like Sir Geoff Hurst who intoned that Beckham had not merely brought the game into disrepute but the country. I'm inclined to agree. Meanwhile the England manager has said little to condemn his captain's behaviour or statements. While Michael Owen, the vice-captain, defended Beckham by saying it went on all the time. So does murder. So does theft.
What we have here is the worst kind of moral relativism – it's OK because others do it. It's OK to bend it like Beckham. Winning is all. And respect for others, for the opposition, for the spirit of sport, well, what will that do for the bottom line?
Of course, such moral decay is not confined to football but it is at least partly the result of the critical importance that sporting entertainment events play in the economies of a number of very large organizations and of some countries. There is money in sport, and there are jobs in sport and so we are lured into believing that the development of major sporting facilities will be of enormous economic benefit. This is the argument behind London's Olympic bid. It is a spurious argument. Montreal hosted the 1976 Olympics and they have only just stopped paying for it. Greece built a host of splendid venues just in time and now look as if they have saddled themselves with facilities that will see very little ongoing use. And as for London, the Dome still stands, a monument to poor long-term planning.
Since Roman times and before, sport has been used by regimes to distract a populace from the otherwise unpleasant realities around them. Real Madrid for example was used by Franco to build popular support for his government. They were, as Four Four Two put it, 'always the regime team'. Similarly, sport has been used to score political or ideological points. Hitler's 1936 Olympics were intended to be a showcase for Aryan racial supremacy, a showcase shattered by the brilliance of the USA's prodigiously quick black runner Jesse Owens. Today, however, it is primarily corporations that have a huge interest in building ideological myths around sport in general and football in particular which offer viewers a specious kind of salvation. Similarly, from the Olympic bid to the frenzy surrounding our desire to have a British Grand Prix, countries are being duped into believing that national status and national economic development may be tied to their ability to stage major sporting events.
All these promises are as hollow as a football and as potentially damaging as a javelin.
None of which is going to stop me lounging back in my couch to cheer on the Spurs, or gasping in awe and wonder at the frolicsome creativity and prodigious talent of a Thierry Henry or scuttling off with a friend to watch Watford on an occasional afternoon. Football is, after all, a beautiful game.