Football has no home: Enough with the negativity

As we repeatedly stumble upon examples of banter and general negativity crossing lines and limits, it is maybe time to sit back and reevaluate how and why we watch football.
Art by Onkar Shirsekar

I did not watch a single match of this World Cup live. Work, parenting, and broadcast times made sure of that. I spent most of the tournament avoiding scores as best I could until I was able to watch several hours later. That meant a de facto social media blackout. I wish I could say I did not miss it, but that would be a lie. I did. On the few occasions I was on it, I loved seeing the snark. I was a spite junkie in search of a fix, and the the backlash from the rest of the world to “it’s coming home” was the sweet, sweet hit I needed.

Yes, it started as a joke, but after the Three Lions made it to the easy side of the bracket it became a lot less ironic. The rest of the world is prepared to tolerate a great deal of patronisation and superciliousness from the English as long as it is done sardonically. Indeed, that’s their brand. As soon as they become earnest, however, it was very off-putting and came across as entitled. The oafs trashing IKEA after England defeated Sweden while singing football is coming home didn’t help.

I prayed for a Croatian victory in the semifinals, but when Mandzukic put away the winner in extra time though, it felt hollow. Cheering against a team simply isn’t satisfying. Sure, there’s a brief high, but one can’t bask in the afterglow of someone else coming up short. I suppose it’s possible, but no one wants to hang out with that guy. And quite rightly.

The saddest thing about “It’s Coming Home” is the English are trying to walk it back – like when a man’s advances are rejected and he claims he was just joking anyway. No, no, they say, we weren’t serious. But of course they were but are unable to admit it. Why? Because they felt real joy seeing their team perform so well. And then they saw our jubilation after their loss to Croatia. They knew we would savage them for having the audacity to believe the Three Lions had a shot at winning the whole thing. They weren’t wrong, and that’s the problem.

There is a story that The Times once sent a query out to a number of famous authors and philosophers of the day to answer: what is wrong with the world today? G.K. Chesterton responded briefly, but profoundly, “I am.” What is wrong with football today? I am. And you too probably, but I’m starting with the man in the mirror (to quote a different philosopher). I am what is wrong with football today because I feed off of its negativity. The World Cup this summer has been a veritable feast of schadenfreude, but it is time to appreciate the universal beauty of the game. I only have the strength to begin another season as a fan because football has no home – despite what England fans tried to insinuate over the summer. It belongs to everyone, and we should be free to experience its highs and lows without worrying how it looks on social media.

There’s so much to look forward to ahead of a new season. Take the Premier League, for example. Manchester City are producing thrilling, exciting football. Liverpool has gone out and spent some serious money on fun players. It’s Mourinho’s third season at Manchester United, and there will be guaranteed fireworks. Spurs are moving to the new and shiny White Hart Lane. Sarrismo and Jorginho have arrived at Chelsea. Arsenal actually strengthened the spine of the team! And that’s just the top six. Truly, as Chesterton put it, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

How can we keep a sense of wonder throughout 2018/19 and avoid the negativity that takes so much away from this game we love? Maybe it’s time football fans made resolutions ahead of a new season so we can resent each other a little less. I’ll start with mine.

I want to be grateful ahead of this campaign because, as Louis C.K. reminds us, “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.” Neuroscientists talk about the brain’s innate “negativity bias,” but they also speak of its plasticity. We might be born sad bastards, but we don’t have to stay that way. I certainly don’t want to stay that way, and just being thankful I can enjoy a match at all is a good place to start. Growing up in rural America in the nascent days of professional football in the US, I would plan my month around the possibility of a televised match only to see it preempted by coverage of a gridiron football game in overtime. I now have the ability to watch just about any game in the world. So, I can seek and find the beautiful game wherever it might be.

We are also living in a golden age of football content. There are so many talented writers, artists, and filmmakers out there creating beautiful pieces of art about this silly game we can’t get enough of. In 2018/19, I want to let those people know when something they have created brought me joy (even if they did post “It’s coming home” during a moment of excitement this summer).

I plan to use football as a way to connect with others better this season. The great American folk singer Pete Seeger rued the invention of headphones because it made music into something to be consumed individually rather than communally. Football is a communal game. It loses its power when it is reduced to just 90 minutes of entertainment on a screen. It’s great entertainment, don’t get me wrong, but we can get so much more from it with others. Joe McGinniss likens football to sex in The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: you’re really missing out if you’re doing it alone. I’m fortunate enough to be able to enjoy Chelsea matches with the Rainier Blues, and I can’t wait to enjoy 7:00 AM matches with them more regularly than last season.

I took my son to a couple of local football matches this summer, and he loved it. It is interesting to watch from his perspective; headers from a keeper’s punt, for example, are indeed wondrous up close. I worry though about how long it will take before his wonder is replaced by negativity and shouting abuse at the referee. Mainly, I worry that I will be the one who introduces it to him. Mockery and criticism are the defining characteristics of my fandom.  My boy can’t make it through 90 minutes without abandoning his seat to go play the game on the empty pitch next to the action. I end up joining him and miss the rest of the match. And that’s quite alright. I want football to be about joy, movement, and connection for him. He will have plenty of time to sit through matches with his miserable old dad in the future.