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Mick Hume

A man's game?

Look at the picture on the front cover of this month's LM. A black footballer and his white team-mate, losing themselves in a multicultural moment of hugging, kissing and crying their eyes out, in front of the assembled world media; traditional British restraint it ain't.

The photograph (taken in Rome last October, when the England team qualified for the World Cup finals in France '98), provides an appropriate image of national sporting heroes for Tony Blair's New Britain. It illustrates how the national game has come to symbolise the dumbed-down values of our politically and emotionally correct post-Diana age.

Not only are we now supposed to celebrate a nil-nil draw with Italy as if it were another Waterloo, but our modern heroes act like losers even when they are winning. How these changed times have transformed what England expects its men to do; it is hard to imagine Wellington or Monty, or even Bobby Moore, behaving like such a big jessie in the public gaze, never mind winning the nation's hearts in the process.

On the left as you look at the pair is Paul Gascoigne, whose famous blubbering over England's exit from the World Cup in Italia '90 showed that the stiff upper lip was on the way out some time before Diana kissed it goodbye. On the right is Ian Wright, another man whose heart often overrules his head, who is almost as likely to rant and rave at his own fans as at the referee.

Both of these 'damaged' individuals have been in therapy of late: Gazza for his drinking and domestic violence, Wrighty for his general psychotic behaviour on the pitch. And because they proved willing to confess to their sins, not just in private but on the public counselling- couch provided by the media, both have been welcomed back into the fold with open arms by England coach Glenn Hoddle (although, as I write this, it is unclear whether Hod's faith healer can resurrect Wright in time to make it to France).

Hoddle has tried to make it clear that his tolerance of Gascoigne in particular is 'not just for football reasons'. He wants to set an example to miscreants everywhere, about how they can get back into teacher's good books if they follow the moral code and get in touch with their inner feelings. 'For me', said Hoddle when he picked Gascoigne after a well-publicised bout of wife-beating, 'the greatest example would be Paul Gascoigne becoming a role model off the back of some of his mistakes...That's what Paul Merson has done'.

Merson, another aspiring England football hero, is the role model's role model who, having announced that he was 'addicted' to just about everything, switched from a diet of lager and cocaine to diet coke and support groups (a life-change symbolised by his move from glamorous Arsenal to grim Middlesborough). 'If you are not being good off the pitch', says the humbled Merson these days, 'you don't deserve to be good on it'. In Britain AD (After Diana), it seems that the meek really shall inherit the earth, or at least a place in the World Cup squad.

Along with the likes of 'recovering' alcoholic Tony Adams, these are some of the football heroes of what has been called our 'therapy nation'. Where once we could look up to top international sportsmen as towers of strength and achievement, now they spend much of their time lying down while we are asked to 'relate' to them as victims of the same emotional weakness and vulnerability that the rest of us are meant to suffer from.

And where once football fans might have envied a George Best his high living off the pitch just as much as his volatile skills on it, now we are supposed to admire footballing dullards who swear they will conform to Hoddle's new rules at home as well as when in Rome.

What does it say about a society when its heroes are therapy cases, and their emotional admissions of weakness are welcomed as signs of leadership and strength? That is how low our expectations of ourselves and others appear to have sunk today.

The implication should be clear enough: if even the stars and strongmen whom the nation idolises cannot be expected to get through a football tournament without the aid of faith healers, counsellors and spiritualists, how can the rest of us possibly be trusted to get through real life without professional help and constant guidance and instruction?

In the world of football, the authorities are busy evolving a strict new etiquette to guide the behaviour of dysfunctional and untrustworthy players and fans alike. No doubt this initiative will be given fresh impetus by the recently announced Blairite crusade against the laddishness of those whom Whitehall has dubbed 'the Loaded generation'.

Football's new etiquette reflects the politic-ally correct obsession with imposing regu-lation and control, while avoiding anything potentially risky or offensive. On the pitch, it means no aggressive tackling, no elaborate celebrations, no joshing with the crowd. Off the pitch, it means no standing up, no swearing or abuse, no smoking in the family stand. And the bland played on.

The new etiquette is often justified as an exercise in making football a 'family game again'--something it never was in the first place. As usual, however, women and children are just being used as human shields, behind which the authorities can pursue their agenda of sanitising the game.

Far from making football a more people-friendly game, the new 'feminised' etiquette turns out to be a highly coercive exercise in emotional correctness. At a time when society seems almost bereft of collective experiences, commentators and politicians these days like to play up the mass passions and emotions generated by football around something like the World Cup--so long as they are the correct emotions, that is.

Passions which pass the PC test are those which chime with the victim culture, as reflected in sympathetic television pictures of players crying when they win and fans weeping into their beer when they lose. Displays of more typical footballing passions, however, like anger aimed against opponents and referees, must be suppressed. It is 'the People's game', only so long as the People play by the new etiquette.

You do not have to defend the boorish behaviour of overgrown schoolboys in replica football shirts, or even give a toss about the future of football, in order to see that there are broader developments here that should be of some concern. Football's new etiquette looks like a five-a-side practice version of the sort of code of conduct which New Labour longs to introduce across society.

In the name of combatting 'laddishness', the authorities' ambition is to encourage a general culture of passivity and acquiescence. They would like to turn the country into one big all-seater stadium, complete with CCTV and security guards, where we are only allowed to sing from officially sanctioned songsheets, and where anybody who steps out of line can be told to sit down and shut up on pain of having their season ticket revoked.

Much of what is said and done about football today has little to do with the game itself, but reflects the wider loss of nerve in our society, from the top down. In the past, for instance, the national game was seen as a source of patriotic pride around which to wave the flag and galvanise support for the state. Now the insecure authorities are more likely to view any outburst against Johnny Foreigner with a mixture of fear and embarrassment, as reflected in Lord Wakeham of the Broadcasting Standards Council's pre-World Cup warning to the tabloids not to 'incite hatred' during the tournament.

Similarly, the authorities always liked the fact that football could act as a relatively safe outlet for burning off popular aggression. Indeed, in an earlier age of working class militancy, it was the potential usefulness of football as just such a safety valve which helped explain why so many capitalists got involved in organising the game. Today, by contrast, despite the demise of the working class movement, the authorities' loss of nerve means that they are sufficiently disturbed by any excited crowd to try to keep that aggression bottled up.

I am not nostalgic for the old football I grew up on, with its urine-soaked terraces, mudpatch pitches and clogging defenders, who would murder ball players in cold blood while supportive sadists in the crowd shouted 'It's a man's game, ref'. You can keep 1966, Sir Alf's 'wingless wonders' and all of that. I'll take Sky Sports, the premiership, a seat with a proper view and the foreign imports every time.

But while much about the game in Britain has changed for the better, there is a high price to pay--and not just for tickets. Football has been turned into a vehicle for all of the emotional and cultural rubbish of the nineties--many aspects of which are dealt with in our special World Cup section starting on the centre pages. France '98 threatens to be a festival of the worst as well as the best of the sometimes beautiful game.

But for all that, those of us who care about these things will no doubt enjoy every minute of the greatest show on earth. So try to get into the true spirit of it: sit back on your analyst's couch, crack out the nicotine gum, the alcohol-free lager and the swear box, and prepare to hug, kiss and counsel each other using non-aggressive communication techniques.

And as we say in sporting Britain, may the best team win, just so long as it's not the bloody Germans.*

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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