This afternoon my fellow Samizdata-scribe David Carr took me to watch his beloved Chelsea play Leicester City at football, at Chelsea Football Club’s home ground, Stamford Bridge, which is a walk away from the Samizdata HQ. He had a spare ticket, caused by the temporary absence in the USA of his usual Chelsea companion.
It was quite a day, if only because it was the first Chelsea home game of the season, and accordingly the first home game attended by Chelsea’s new owner Roman Abramovich, the mysterious and infinitely rich young Russian who has been spending money like water on new players. £50 million is quite a lot to you and me, but to him it is apparently small change. Who knows how he made his money? Certainly no one in the crowd today gave a damn. It was enough that he was spending a little of it on their team. Abramovich got the biggest cheer of the entire day. It occurs to me that owning football clubs have now replaced owning national newspapers as the preferred hobby of the Infinitely Rich.
The Chelsea supporters by whom David and I were surrounded took the whole thing desperately seriously. They showed most excitement (a), as you would expect, when the two Chelsea goals were scored, and (b) when the referee ever made a decision of which they disapproved, i.e. not in favour of Chelsea. It seemed to me that for these person, football had completely replaced politics as the focus of their ‘political’ enthusiasms, if you get my meaning. Which might have something to do with why the Super-Rich have switched from owning newspapers to owning football clubs. Both are the result of their fantasies of political power. No politician (or for that matter newspaper tycoon) would ever get a cheer nowadays like the one that greeted Abramovich today. I believe that one of the reasons football is the focus of such intense popular enthusiasm is that, when you watch it, it is possible to imagine that you could do most of the things you are witnessing. Cricket and rugby are my favourite spectator sports, but they never give me this feeling. They just look too skilled and difficult and dangerous. But football looks like something anyone could do. I don’t need convincing that this is not actually so, and that in fact a massive amount of skill was on display today. But, my point is, it doesn’t quite look that way to me. And I’m not the only one. When a Chelsea player missed what looked like an easy goal (which I’m likewise sure was not actually an easy goal at all) the woman behind me shouted out: “I could have scored that!” I think that this I-could-do-that quality is one of the reasons that football (or soccer as it is known in various parts outside the UK) is the world’s number one sport.
And another reason why football has captured the popular imagination is that so much luck is involved. I’m not saying that no skill is involved. Skill is definitely involved, a lot. But so is luck.
The winning goal today, a cracking half volley by new Chelsea signing from Romania Adrian Mutu (“Moo!” “Too!” “Moo! “Too!”), was a stunner, but it also fell just right for him, and on most days he’d probably have blasted it high or wide or both. The other Chelsea goal was an “own goal”, which means that a Leicester player scored it by mistake, which was also a big stroke of luck for Chelsea. On at three other occasions, twice for Chelsea (including the one that the lady behind me could have scored) and once for Leicester, potential scorers struck the woodwork, as the sports reporters say, i.e. struck shots that bounced back off the goal posts, and Chelsea nearly scored on about four other occasions. The Leicester goal only came after a decidedly controversial refereeing decision in Leicester’s favour. So, depending on the luck of the draw and the bounce of the ball, the score could have been anything from about 3-0 to Leicester, to about 9-0 to Chelsea. This time, as most times, the result went with the side that created the most chances. But a chance is only a chance. Even though the Leicester side, if you sold them all, wouldn’t have paid for even one of the Chelsea substitutes (all of whom were internationals), and even though Chelsea had more of the play in between the two goalmouths than Leicester did, Leicester could still quite well have won this game.
Football is thus what you might call a suitable focus for rational fantasy. Second or even third ranking clubs really can beat the big boys, sometimes. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it happens. Poor people love football for the same reason they buy lottery tickets. Because it is so chancy, it gives them a chance.
It is no accident, I feel, that cricket and rugby, which are much more middle class games both in terms of who plays them and who supports them, are games that seem to depend less on chance and more on sustained skill, rugby especially. Luck counts for something in these games too, and sometimes for a lot, but not as much as, it seems to me, it counts in football.
Football on the continent of Europe is (a) more middle class in who plays and supports it, and (b) more based on skill and less based on luck. We sometimes have Italian football on British TV, and it is striking how much more of the time the ball spends being controlled by one side or the other. In England, the struggle between the sides for control of the ball is relentless, and periods of uncontested possession are rare and short-lived. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s something to do with climate.
I confess it, there were times when my attention wandered during the game this afternoon. Heathrow Airport, I couldn’t help noticing, is a busy place, as is very clear from Stamford Bridge because it is just under one of the main Heathrow flight paths. A true believer wouldn’t have bothered with something like that, but I am not a true believer, not a worshipper at the Universal Church of Football.
Partly it is my eyesight. I’m short-sighted, and my glasses need updating. I can just see so much more of sport when it’s on my television. Plus, sport on television blends so much more comfortably with the rest of life, and it can be switched off if it gets dull or if your team is losing too badly. Plus, sport on TV is cheaper. Plus, in order to watch this Chelsea game I had to turn my back on a televised cricket match between England and South Africa, and at a most delicate stage. Thank goodness for videotape. Plus, I didn’t really care who won.
But it was a great thing to have seen, a great thing to have done. I have attended a Premier League football game before, but this was, now I come to think of it, the first time in my life that I had witnessed a serious English Football Championship contender team in action, at its home ground, and if you haven’t seen that then there’s a whole slice of England that you’ve never tasted.
My warmest thanks (on a very warm day) to David. He certainly got the result he wanted.