We stood on the terrace, a paltry sprinkling of crowd awaiting a corner. Those whom we had come to see stood at arm’s length, the accentuated shouts, the frenetic panting and the smell of turf and bloke as vivid in my mind now as it was a solid 20 years ago.
A morbidly obese man, known collectively as ‘Fat Howard’, stood at my side as he had done every second week for as long as I can remember, his goat-like wife joined in with his goading of the players. The goal-keeper, so often the tale-end-Charlie of the fans’ wrath, tried to ignore the bellows of this leviathan, situated but a few meters behind him, nothing but the rusting barriers and a hoarding for a local hair salon to separate the men.
‘KEEPER!’ he cried out, face reddening in anger and frustration as his exertions fell on deaf ears. Unperturbed he continued.
‘KEEPER!’. Nothing but the distant shouts of the faraway game.
‘KEEPER!’ As disciplined as a foot guard the target remained frozen, back to the world behind him.
Catching his breath Howard contemplates the scene, the expectant fans, a loyal wife, the remains of a burger so recently voted the worst in the entire football league system, and then the silence, scarcely broken by the distant sounds of a bouncing ball. He sums up the strength and growls, part man, part beast, projecting everything at the tall man emblazoned with a ‘1’ across his back.
‘What?’ comes the response as the player breaks the barrier of inquietude, his response tinged with disbelief that somehow, this huge, gluttonous oaf might care enough to address him. The curtain drops and the line is blurred. For one sacred second everyone is on the same page. Every schoolboy’s dream is laid bare upon the hallowed turf and in that divine moment both spectator and player share a moment of togetherness, a moment of pure understanding. Howard senses his chance, waiting pensively on a word, he chooses his locution with the air of some overweight sage, ‘Fat Howard’, our philosopher king.
‘You’re a fucking greasy, gypo cunt!’
A moment of silence before the crowd takes in his prose, braying in a unison of approval. The keeper turns back to the game, back to his world, crestfallen at having stooped into the plebeian mass, but at the same time smiling slightly, respectful of the duel between punter and player. The game goes on, Stevenage score, and Barnet lose 1-0. The halogen floodlights and incomprehensible tannoy inform the crowd that it’s all over for another week. They box their dreams and saunter off into the north London night. The Northern line rattles overhead, briefly illuminating the old pub, warm pints of flat lager adorning the perma-wet benches outside. Dads, lads, generations old and new chew over the game as they chew over sausage and chips from the chippie on the corner. It’s electric, almost romantic, a world rendered truly sublime by 22 blokes kicking a ball around a park for 90 minutes.
Twenty years later we sit in the tribunal, upper tier at the storied Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s behemoth of a ground. It’s one of the homes of football, the beautiful game at its most aesthetically pleasing is played out in acts for the best part of 100,000 people. A great concrete coliseum, replete with the storied names of ages, strikes both awe and fear in equal measure; look upon my works United, and despair. It’s amphitheatrical inside; winding staircases spiral heaven-bound, seemingly endless in their enormity. When finally you emerge into the light you are greeted with a scale unimaginable in sport.
Barcelona played Las Palmas, a routine fixture to be crossed off for the Catalan giants, and they routinely dispatched their opponents, with a few minutes left and the score at 4-0 there is ample time to sit back and take in what should be the ultimate experience in watching football, only it isn’t.
There’s something not quite right, a gut feeling of excitement and wonder that is unilaterally absent. Folks to the left sit eating popcorn, filming themselves with the aid of a selfie stick, not watching the game, but rather proving irrefutably that they were there. Barcelona score a fifth and the crowd erupts, but not in joyful release, but more exactly in comfortable expectation. There’s no relief, no sighs, no tears even, just an unbridled feeling of apathetic assumption. The goal scorer is beamed up on the big screen for all to see, not a picture but a digital version of himself celebrating with equally digitised teammates, but none of it is real, neither the football played nor the reactions of the fans. As the final whistle goes the crowd leave as one would a theatre. The whole feeling is wrong, it’s fake, a parody of the game I once loved. As I leave the ground, the sponsored forecourt lights up like a funfair and I feel completely empty inside.
Most folk think I’m mad for feeling this way. What is one to do but marvel at such a magnificent display of the game? This is universally thought of as the pinnacle of the sport. Yet I have a feeling of being cheated out of something. Granted the players, the pace, the names and the style easily exceed that of a soggy afternoon at Underhill all those years ago, but the connection isn’t there. It’s not just the size of the ground, or the thousands of people, it’s the sensation of no relationship whatsoever between players, club and fans. We are merely here to watch a show take place before the players exit stage left and we move on accordingly. This is entertainment, but it is not football, and for me it never will be.
The hype and the packaging serve no purpose for me any longer except to bore and discomfit. Highlights of top-level games run like advertisements for me, the best players seem out of touch, disturbingly un-human. The world cup, once an object of personal veneration has become boring and predictable, fuelled by money and mock-fanfare. Thinking back to my childhood, I wonder what the children learn now with no ‘Fat Howard’ to guide them? Do they have differing visions about what football is? Do they feel like I used to?
However, questions throw up solutions as fast as the doubt they cast in the first place, and my solution turned out to be a five minute walk past some non-descript motorway, where in the ruins of an old factory play UE Sants, currently plugging away in Spain’s 5th tier. A small stand tempers one side of a pitch separated from the terraces by the same rusty metal barriers of all those years ago, albeit painted green as opposed to rotting orange. I stand and watch as the referee waves away a contentious challenge. Almost immediately a portly old man stands up and queries the fidelity of the arbitrator’s mother, in a wonderfully eloquent way that the Spanish language so wilfully affords. The referee shoots him a glance and the old man grins a wicked grin, hewn from eons of dishing out similar abuse. I realise immediately that I am at home again.
Football is a sport grounded in emotion. Connection to an area, a history even a religion. It has the power to organise, unite and divide in ways that politicians can only dream about. It’s the release after the grind of work, the last refuge of ancient friendships and rivalries. It’s a feeling of belonging that is universally absent in a modern life that is increasingly defined by individualism and solitude. Football may not provide the answers, but it does serve a very important purpose, proffering as it does a window into the human condition. Fatigue, loneliness and dissatisfaction can fade away in the excitement of a last minute corner, while a wonder strike or a crunching-but-fair tackle easily abates stress and vexation.
Football bridges the gap between banal acceptance and something better, it’s a chink of light through the all-encompassing darkness that can be found in every work contract or download of ‘Candy Crush’. Real football is what it means to feel really alive, I learned that from a beer-bellied racist from Whetstone, a man whose politically incorrect swill couldn’t breach the sound of the adverts at the Camp Nou, not the goalie would listen to him anyway, detached as they are from the millions that adore their every packaged move. So I implore you to find your local club, go to a game, buy a burger and a pint and talk with the folks who have been there longer than concrete upon which they stand. That’s what football really is, has been and always will be. Pure, simple, living.
Cover image courtesy of Wagner Fontoura via Flickr
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