High windows, high crosses

If anyone doubted that football really is the religion of the British male, there’s a story in the Guardian today that rather proves the point: last Saturday, a Manchester United player fell awkwardly in the course of an away game with Liverpool and broke his leg. When the ambulance taking him to hospital passed a pub where there were Liverpool supporters drinking, they left the pub, stoned the ambulance, and attempted to overturn it.

Anywhere else in the world, this sort of behaviour would be religiously inspired. The story that I thought of at once when I read it was the campaign of assassination against shi-ite doctors in Pakistan in the early part of this decade. Lexis Nexis wants three dollars for 200 words and I’m feeling cheap, but the glimpses I get from the search page suggest that at least 24 were murdered inside a year.

In this country, however, such brutal tribal passions need have no theological dimension. The hatred between Liverpool and Manchester is, like God, its own reason for existence.

Of course, not all the religious aspects of football revolve around communal hatreds. There is the solidarity with your own crowd, the mystical identification with your team, the veneration of relics (Alan Smith sent his shirt to the paramedics who had been in the ambulance with him), the communal singing. There may even be some kind of aesthetic experience involved. I myself would rather look at high windows than high crosses into the box but perhaps the flight of a ball through the air does have some kind of geometrical attractiveness.

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5 Responses to High windows, high crosses

  1. Rupertg says:

    And disbelievers of either sort get rather annoyed at the obsessive natures of the Truly Faithful. At least with religion you don’t get huge chunks of the media devoted to the antics of the priesthood every darned day of one’s life on earth.


  2. SRW says:

    That idea is crying out to be made into a comic novel.

  3. Sedulia says:

    Sports riots are an ancient tradition. I think men just have to fight over something. On the whole I’d rather “it were sports.”:http://www.ha.sad22.us/BenJohnson/riot.html

  4. Andrew says:

    … ” There may even be some kind of aesthetic experience involved”…

    Not when Norman Whiteside was playing.

    As a neutral, I used to watch both Manchester clubs regularly – regularly enough to know the people around me. The first and last United vs Liverpool derby I ever attended at Old Trafford kicked off at midday, to avoid alcohol-inspired violence (which obliged everyone to start drinking earlier); and despite the freezing weather, much of the crowd was naked from the waste up and daubed in paint. The Liverpool fans sang, nonstop, songs about the 1958 Munich Aircrash, and the United fans sang nonstop about Bill Shankley having a heart attack. This was pre-Hillsbrough, which subsequently provided a rich source of material for the United chorus. No one paid any attention to the game.

    The paint daubed warriors included quite a few familiar faces, some of whom I knew to be sober fathers who were close readers of the game, who brought their children to every match, and would tell them off for swearing.

    For 24 out of 25 weekends they were content with aesthetics, but the Liverpool derby was the one opportunity they had for ritual cursing.

    Your comparison of football ritual with religious ritual is excellent, but in attempting to generalize, your list of similarities omits two important things, which makes it more of an incomplete list of symptoms, rather than an attempt to find the causes.

    Liverpool and Manchester are two great cities divided by very little earth. They have distinct cultures, great histories, and guard both zealously: with the consequence that every yard of the 40 miles separating them is clearly delineated as sectarian turf. If you don’t believe me, go for a Saturday night out in Warrington, which has the distinction of being midway between the two. It’s not surprising then that given their uncomfortable proximity and cultural histories, that there’s a lot to defend.

    But as with your shock and incomprehension at Atlantic magazine’s American teenage blowjob story, you choose to ignore aesthetics – that which gives us pleasure.

    ” perhaps the flight of a ball through the air does have some kind of geometrical attractiveness”

    Of course it does, saucy. The geometrical arc of a lofted pass is a great introduction to the Beautiful Game, but it’s one of only one of many things that make football so beautiful and engaging.

    Here’s Dutch sculptor Joeran Hermann’s description of a Dennis Bergkampf pass, that late in the game, split the opponent’s defence:

    “One moment the pitch is crowded and narrow. Suddenly it is huge and wide.”

    Gleaned from David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, which recognizes the Dutch affinity to their landscape, and how their peculiar topology inspires such a creative sense of space.

    Or Tobias Jones description of what’s most valued in Italian football culture:

    “Talk to any Italian about the strengths of the Italian game, and they will always mention the two vital ingredients lacking in Britain: fantasia and furbizia – fantasy and cunning” “Fantasy is the ability to do something entirely unpredictable with the ball. The British will never outwit [the defence] … Italian fantasists produce a nanosecond of surprise that springs open a defence. It can be a back-heel, a dummy, a pretence of being off-balance. It’s the one side of football that can’t be taught”

    While “Fuburzia is the ability to tilt the game in your favour through slightly sly, but perfectly legitimate, tactics.”

    Gamesmanship, in other words.

    So when it comes to religious or football tribalism, we can’t simply tut-tut at the symptoms like Old Queens, as Andrew and Rupert have done. There are important psychological reasons why people believe the “unfathomable”, which can’t be wished away, or explained away by a neat algorithm as the one WD Hamilton found for altruism.

    (Note that “Evolutionary Psychologists” have lots of interest in fuburzia, but none at all in fantasia.)

    Things like pride, landscape and aesthetics are very important to people, and any explanation that discounts them is next to useless.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, and one day we’ll see an algorithm that predicts “centre half will tire in the 54th minute, outwitted by opposing inside left, so substitute him at half time” – and there’s a queue of modern managerial football managers (like Sven) eager to follow such advice.

    But this isn’t a game that anyone would want to watch, or a religion that anyone would want to follow – is it?

  5. acb says:

    I wasn’t discounting pride, loandscapes, or aesthetics, and I’m glad for the explanaton about Warrington, Liverpool and Manchester.

    Perhaps I should scan and post the chapter of my police book about going to a Spurs/Arsenal match in the Eighties.

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