Sport has not been having a great time of it recently. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are a perfect illustration of how sport can be so thoroughly denatured and stripped of its original meaning, in this case giving way to a discourse centred on political repression and social discrimination, and driven by self-righteous Western indignation and an unwelcome re-animation of Cold War grievances.
Football, in particular, constantly throws up examples of such baffling idiocy and inhumanity as to rival even Sochi. The Champions League tie between Barcelona and Manchester City at the Camp Nou is one such case: of the 4,600 allocated tickets for away fans, adult tickets are priced at £77 each, while those for wheelchair users are priced at £97, an instance of discrimination which constitutes a damning indictment of the situation in which the modern game finds itself.
How to defend football in the face of its many ills, in the knowledge that it can – often and too readily for comfort – provide a platform for racism, misogyny and homophobia? More importantly: why defend it at all? Is it, as the comedian Bill Bailey once described it, merely an exercise in shepherding a bit of leather into a large, outdoor cupboard?
There is however something intangible and elusive about football, a pervasive sense of meaning in the lurch towards the outdoor cupboard. It does not lie in the trappings which accompany it, such as the sense of “belonging” which often amounts to little more than primitive tribalism. If you are an Arsenal fan, it goes without saying that you hate Spurs (and Chelsea, and Manchester United, and City, and Stoke, etc.), but football should not be reduced to an arena for the expression of group membership, where you vicariously engage in warfare with another set of fans.
Football is an art form, and as such it needs no justification, it needs no explanation, it needs no end other than itself. It doesn’t need all the trappings. There is something mesmeric in its very mechanics, satisfaction and fulfilment to be found as much in the simple, metronomic movement of the ball across the back four as in its arching flight towards the top corner. Maybe this is why people like to watch “good football”: there is something intrinsically pleasing about stylish, precise football which makes it more attractive not just on an aesthetic level, but because it stands on its own and has meaning beyond the result.
But we should not mistake Sky’s aggressive marketing, relentlessly ramming the “drama” of the Premier League or the “magic” of the F.A. Cup down our throats, for the real art at work in football. The “beautiful game” is a phrase so tired from over-use that it has lost any meaning, and any link to the “beauty” it once evoked; it serves only to consolidate the commodification of football, manufacturing and then selling it like a neat little package with a bow on top. Because of this, even writing the words “Football is an art form” makes you feel dirty, as if walking straight into the marketing man’s trap, caught in a vortex of meaningless clichés.
There is more than this artificial, surface level to the game. Even though profundity might not be something regularly associated with football (or footballers) there is something profound in football, even if it is difficult to pin it down. Tens of thousands of people, together, watching– and not just watching, but experiencing in a visceral, emotional way – 22 people kick a ball around on a muddy stretch of grass while rain pours on player and fan alike: there must be something transcendental in such a situation. A child kicking a ball against a wall for hours, day after day, does so for the pure enjoyment of the act; it does not require any significance other than that.
Football itself – not the firms or the chants, not the glitter or the glamour – has meaning. Even stripped down to nothing but a ball and a wall, it still has meaning. Everything which surrounds football – whether it is positive or negative – is, to a greater or lesser extent, superfluous. On a fundamental level, football matters.