I have hair, which I sometimes get cut. And this week, that meant talking about football.
I hate football. I hate all sport, in fact – at least in its big, jingoistic, corporate-capitalist permutation. But for the first time in my life, I now actually know something about it.
That’s because I’ve ludicrously ended up in the work Fantasy Football league (for the uninitiated, it’s a game where you build an imaginary team using players from around the world, and score points based on how your picks perform in real-world matches).
Knowing I’m about as sporty as a Gregg’s steak bake, a colleague sarcastically asked if I wanted to join in, and I said yes just to annoy him. With a squad full of players from Panama and Iran, I was already on -8 points by the end of day one. I’m aiming to do as badly as possible.
But it did mean that when the hairdresser asked, ‘have you been following the World Cup’, I could say ‘sort of, yeah’.
It’s a remarkable thing. The five or six times I’ve seen the scissor-slinger in question, he’s never wanted to talk. I’ve tried – I like talking to people, and usually I’m quite good at idle chit-chat – and I’ve got nowhere.
But then we got onto football, and he utterly transformed. The convo-killing monosyllables were gone. Here was someone talking, passionately and at length, about a subject they were clearly besotted with. I was bowled over by the effusive enthusiasm of a life-long anorak – deluged with analysis and predictions, anecdotes and statistics. It was flabbergasting.
And what was even stranger was that I found myself keeping up. To my astonishment, I’d soaked up just enough knowledge from office Fantasy Football chat to pass as a casual fan. It was like suddenly discovering you can speak a different language. I now know who Neymar and Cavanhi and Mbappe and Coutinho are. And it allowed me to connect with another human being in a way that would never have been possible before.
I can’t lie – I’ve enjoyed the weird little Fantasy Football subculture that’s sprung up at work, too. It’s not just an endless source of semi-licensed procrastination. Again, it’s a way of connecting with people on a different level. There are now friend-colleagues I know and like better than I did before the World Cup started.
All of which has led me to do something astounding – to reassess my long and devoutly-held position on the Beautiful Game.
So, over the last week, I’ve thought about it. I’ve weighed all the things I hate about it against its potential to bring people together, to build bridges between cultures and nations, to spark conversations between people who otherwise would never engage.
And after much deliberation, I’ve decided football is just as awful as I’ve always said it is.
Football itself, the sport where you kick a ball in a goal, is fine. If people want to play it, and watch it, good on them. Great exercise. Nice way of meeting people, making friends, letting off steam.
But big football is a symptom that civilisation has gone insane. Millions of people are starving, the ecosystem is collapsing, the species is well on the way to extinguishing itself through its own cataclysmic stupidity – and in the bits of the world best-equipped to do something about all the above, we’re gawping at a football tournament.
It’s remarkably obvious, and yet never mentioned in mainstream culture – football is socially useless. Footballers are socially useless. A toilet cleaner does more social good in a day than a footballer does in an entire career. And yet they’re paid in a week what most ordinary people are paid in years to run around kicking a bit of leather.
They’re hero worshipped, made millionaires, practically deified, for doing nothing – in a way that still manages to help prop up a system of money and power that immiserates billions and is literally destroying the planet.
They turn themselves into walking billboards, corporate-capitalist clotheshorses, helping indoctrinate billions of people into the consumer religion that’s driving us to the brink of ecological meltdown. They love ‘the game’ and ‘the fans’ so much they sell their souls to help flog luxury brands that most of those fans will never afford. In a moral universe, they’d all be in jail.
Football apologists will often carp on about the working-class origins of a lot of top-drawer players – especially leftists who defend the game. But what does that matter? It’s like that pale, liberal feminism that campaigns for more women in corporate boardrooms. There shouldn’t be boardrooms.
A working-class kid becomes a multimillionaire. So what? There shouldn’t be multimillionaires. Alan ‘I recognise these fellas from the beach in Marbella’ Sugar is a working-class billionaire. Are you going to hero worship him?
Some people will acknowledge the madness of the pay situation, but fawn over the godlike talent of the world’s best players. But it’s not talent. If you spent twenty years kicking a ball, you’re going to get very good at kicking a ball. If I spent twenty years juggling turnips, or building sandcastles, or trimming hedges into the shape of the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo, I’d get very good at those things too, and it would be equally useless.
And I’m not even going to try and get into the mountainous iniquity of big football behind the scenes – the corruption, the excess, the exploitation of fans around the world. All I’ll say is this – Russia 2018, just like dozens of tournaments before it, will have been an excellent opportunity for private capital to get public subsidies to restructure major cities in its own narrow interest.
Mark Steel, the left-wing comedian who I like as a personality but don’t find very funny, once did a bit about sport. In it, he mocked humourless Trots who he found debating whether there would be sport after socialism. Steel’s argument, which I agree with, was that it’s a stupid thing to talk about – of course there would be.
But in my admittedly dour and hair-shirt imagining, it would be very different. The aim of my socialism is to give everyone as much of their life as possible do whatever they want with – providing they don’t want to do anything that’s going to destroy the planet or hurt anyone else.
Everyone would work two or three days a week doing something useful – growing food, making clothes, or furniture or other things people need, driving public transport, generating green electricity and so on. And then they’d have the rest of the week to do what they want.
There wouldn’t be professional sportspeople – or actors, or painters, or musicians, or anything like that. People would do their work, and then spend most of the rest of the week enjoying themselves – by, for example, playing football. You could still have teams and leagues and tournaments and so on. It just wouldn’t be insane. And people could enjoy all the nice bits – like getting to know your hairdresser – without glorifying the forces that are dooming humankind.