The Lager of Life

The following is an excerpt from Issue Nine of The Blizzard - The Football Quarterly. Available in both digital and hard-copy formats on a pay-what-you-like basis (digital copies are available for as little as 1p each), it has fast established itself as must-read publication dealing with all manner of issues in the beautiful game from around the world. In this exclusive excerpt of 'The Lager of Life' from the upcoming Issue, Tim Vickery looks at the dangerous passions that the game can unleash, and asks whether it's football's fault.

“Football,” says the Liverpool-based academic Rogan Taylor, “is like strong beer. Some people just can’t take it.” It is one of the wisest quotes on the game that I know. Our sport, of course, does not have the physical incapacitation of the opponent as an objective — though I have to confess that head injuries are making me increasingly squeamish. But in comparison with boxing it has a greater power of representation — in part because it is a team game, but also as a result of an intense internal contradiction between its simplicity and its complexity. The former means that, with low barriers to entry, almost anyone can join in. The latter means that how you join in says so much about who you are; a player on the ball has so many options available to him that it follows that the choices he makes are in some way culturally formed. Get the ball forward quickly using pace and power, or take the scenic route before suddenly striking, using surprise and deception as a weapon. No other game contains such a variety of movements.

As you live, think and dream, so you express yourself on the football field. And so those who watch feel themselves being expressed, as individuals, and in those moments when a surge of emotion makes a crowd react as one, collectively as well.

Here lies the problem with Taylor’s observation. When a mass of people are overdoing the strong beer all at the same time, their collective intoxication is more like a poisoning of the mind, the hysteria that fascism seeks to generate and feed off. And it can take effect with alarming speed. Some of those at Heysel in 1985 talk of a friendly atmosphere on a lovely spring evening suddenly descending into an inferno. I recall being at a derby in Cali, Colombia, which seemed to be a relatively good-natured affair until one police action turned the stands into a riot zone, with the game halted and disorder reigning for hours afterwards in the streets around the stadium. Or, more than a decade ago, going to the Maracanã by bus to see a Vasco da Gama-Flamengo game, Rio’s most potent local rivalry. As we approached the stadium a gun battle was raging — it may have been between rival groups of fans, it might have been the police firing into the air in a bid to control the crowd. No one was keen to put their head up long enough to find out. Everyone was on the floor of the bus, children wailing and old people shaking with fear.

Ah, local derbies. So often the atmosphere they generate is referred to with a blithe smile. To my mind they can often be the most over-rated games in football, almost guaranteed to generate more heat than light, fuelled by demented anger. Being in a big derby crowd can sometimes be like experiencing a 90-minute version of Orwell’s Three-Minute Hate. Am I the only one troubled by this? Apparently not. “Stand up if you hate Arsenal,” goes the inevitable Tottenham terrace song. Hunter Davies and an elderly fan nearby stayed in their seats. “I’m too old to hate,” said Davies. “I’m too old to stand,” replied his acquaintance.

Am I too feckless to walk away? I watched the 1985 European Cup Final, stayed with it all the way to the end, perturbed, of course, by the scenes from the stadium, but still curious to see whether Liverpool or Juventus would come out on top. It didn’t feel quite right at the time, and it feels worse in hindsight. But I was not the only one. I’m haunted by an image in my mind, a tale recounted on a TV documentary by someone who was on duty at the Heysel stadium that night. He recalls seeing an Italian fan, who had lost his shoes in the deadly crush and whose clothes were covered in dust.  But now the match had started this fan was cheering on his side, totally caught up in the emotion of the game. Football is powerful stuff.

For years I carried all of these thoughts in my head, but they were locked away in a guilty little corner, seldom visited. Therapy came from an unlikely source.

Towards the end of last year I had the opportunity to interview Paul Breitner, West Germany’s star left back and midfielder from the 1970s and 80s. There was one point he was very keen to make: whether it was racism in stadiums or young players unwilling to accept responsibility, his piercing blue eyes flashed and he pointed out that these were not problems of football — they were problems of society that were manifesting themselves in football.

It is a simple observation but a brilliant one. Football matters, and so we tend to load more on the game than it can realistically carry. It had been foolish of me to blame football, even in a little corner of my mind, for the dangerous passions it can unleash. The fault lies not with football. Perhaps, in this case, the idea that society is to blame does not go far enough. It is more fundamental than that. It is a problem of the human being.

Turning against football on these grounds would be like hating democracy because people voted for Thatcher. Give the human being the chance to express himself and the outcome will not always be pleasant. Far better that the ugly side of humanity get an airing at a football match than at a public hanging.

Because football carries within it so much that is positive. One of the driving forces behind boxing success is narcissistic individualism. In football the glory always has to be shared. The far right can make a fetish of competition, but human progress has almost invariably been the result of co-operation. Football teaches us the dynamic between these two forces. The best way to compete is to co-operate — a lesson well worth learning, even if it comes at a price.

The full version of this article appears in Issue Nine of The Blizzard, which is available to pre-order now, and will go on general sale on 10th June. You can follow The Blizzard on Twitter - @blzzrd.

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