Is it possible to watch football on one’s own terms?

My unease with football has been growing since the Qatari takeover of PSG, and it came to a head this summer. First, Jonathan Wilson delivered a firm punch to the gut when he described football as being in the process of turning into “the entertainment wing of the oil industry” [1]. Monaco, having won promotion with a young squad, went out and bought a more experienced one. Finally, Gareth Bale moved to Real Madrid; when asked by my non-football-following father if €100m was the going rate for the best player in the world I had to explain that he was not even in the top 10.

I am not saying that before this summer all was sweetness and light in the football world. Since its creation, football has often been used by unpleasant people/governments/organisations to launder their reputations. More recently it has been used by some unpleasant criminals to launder their money. There is a limit to what one can put up with, however, and by the summer’s end I had conceded to myself that perhaps football no longer merited the time I devoted to it. Given that I would have a lot on my plate over the next 10 months, I decided at the start of this season that I would not watch any football until the World Cup. Time constraints aside, I was not entirely sure why I was doing this or what precisely I was hoping to get out of it, but it seemed like a good idea.

Four months into the season I finally have a bit of down time, and my determination to stay away from football has faltered. Nonetheless I think the idea of avoiding it for a while has indeed proved to be a good one. For one thing, it has helped me to realise which aspects of the sport still captivate me.

I miss internationals, and the word-wide frenzy that only the end of a World Cup qualification campaign can inspire. I am still fascinated by the development of young footballers throughout France. I want to see how players that I have spent so much time watching over the last few years are doing. I want to see how different clubs’ styles of play have progressed since last season. My desire to follow long-term developments in football, things one must track over a period of years, remains undiminished. I really want to watch Ligue 2, which in my mind is the living, breathing archetype of what a league should be, where “certainties” do not exist, where “probablies” are rare and where 10 teams have a genuine chance of winning the title.

But as much as I am reminded of the things I really miss, equally prevalent are the things that drove me away from the sport in the first place. The existence of superclubs that stockpile the most talented players to the detriment of the sport everywhere. The fact that French football, to which I have previously devoted so much of my time, now has two superclubs of its own. The fact that it will be impossible to truly enjoy the 2014 World Cup, so great is the scandal of FIFA’s insistence on creating a state-within-a-state to siphon away all of the money that Brazil generates. The way football’s powers that be have so cheerfully embraced people with dubious pasts and questionable motives for the sake of a few dollars more. These are not minor issues. They influence every aspect of the game, from the outcomes of individual games and seasons, to the long-term trends that determine the way football is played on the pitch. These issues directly affect the lives of both young footballers who risk being exploited, tossed around like pieces of meat, and impoverished workers who are held hostage so that the richest people on earth can create new temples to the world’s richest sport.

*                             *                             *

When I was growing up I watched a lot of sport. Everything except horse racing and golf. I watched these sports because I could connect to the emotional content of what I was watching. As time went on I found myself struggling to retain this connection. I was able only to see a stripped down, cynical version of what was on offer. I have, over the last fifteen years, slowly been shedding sports.

Motorsport was the first to go; it was just rich people going round and round. Rugby League was next; it was just square people standing in a line and occasionally running into each other. Cycling was next; no matter how often people went on about how they were not drugged up any more, they were still drugged up.  Rugby Union was next; it was turning into Rugby League. Athletics was next; see cycling. Tennis was next; at least in athletics and cycling people were willing to talk about how obvious the doping was. Cricket has been teetering on the edge for several years; the majesty of test matches and the wonderful writing of a series of journalists, most notably Andy Bull, have prevented me from ditching it, despite all the T20 nonsense.

Football took up the slack whenever another sport fell by the wayside. I read even more books. I watched even more matches. Despite my exasperation with certain aspects of the way football has developed, my desire to keep following the sport shows me that I still have a connection to its emotional content. I want to watch the likes of Bakambu, Cabella or Ghoulam develop as people as well as footballers. It still matters to me to watch clubs like St Etienne or Reims draw strength from a glorious past as they create a healthy future. I still want to marvel at the pure joy of players who make it to the World Cup. The events of the 19th of November show how magical football can be, both for what happens on the pitch and the way it makes us feel in the stands, in the pub or in front of the TV.

The concurrent drama of Zahir Belounis reminds us of the ways in which this is a sick sport, one that is stubbornly refusing treatment. Is it possible – is it right, even – to keep following a sport, however much I love it, when it seems so determined to inflict damage on itself and the world around it?  If I am going to start watching football again, I feel I owe it to myself to at least have that question in mind when I do so.


[1] Before the pedants attack, Wlison refined his point in his Editor’s note in Issue Ten of The Blizzard in questioning what football was becoming: “Some sort of game for the mega-rich? A propaganda tool for oligarchs and the commodities industry?”


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