The beautiful game

If one were to ask most people, what is the national game of my country (England), most would say football, certainly for men, and in recent years we have seen many more women playing.

Years ago, I had a friend who came out with the saying that “it is a man’s game”. Clearly, these days at least, it is a woman’s game too! Another friend came out with another saying, when comparing football with rugby: “football is a gentleman’s game played by thugs and rugby is a thugs game played by gentlemen”. I guess the distinction is more blurred than that. My hope and joy is seeing the game played with skill and intensity but in a sporting spirit. Played at its best, the game can bring out so many of the best qualities.

I have been fascinated with this beautiful game ever since I was a little boy, when I used to play endless hours of football with scratch (whoever happened to be around), ability balanced teams comprising of local kids (often the two best players took it in turns to choose their team – I was usually picked toward the end), in the local park, mostly away from adult supervision, generally using imaginary pitch markings to define the play area, the size of the pitch depending on team sizes, and outer clothing to mark the goal posts (sometimes with rush goalies, to adapt to numbers playing).

At different times in my life, I have played, supported, coached, refereed and organized games. From school, to college, to work, as a member and later a leader and helper of youth organisations, at camps or on holiday, with my own son and other people’s children, in my own area and elsewhere, including abroad, and now retired, I have been involved with the game and relish having done so.

Games in which I have played, most often have involved all sorts of people, of all sorts of abilities. While I have played in some serious, competitive matches, most have been informal, friendly kick abouts. Although I will never claim at any time being much good, I generally enjoyed playing. I have also found it a good way to socialise and break down barriers. I even got to be a qualified referee, although at fairly low levels of competition, and have over the years been drafted in to referee a number of matches. One of my delights as an event coordinator has been to organize football tournaments for girls as well as boys and work with schemes using the beautiful game as a means to teach other skills. Some of these tournaments had representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu communities as well as teams of kids from rough estates. It struck me that this was one way to truly build community in harmony.

We are now approaching the end of the English football season. The two big questions are: will Liverpool win the Premier League title (likely) and will Southend United (SUFC) secure a place in the play offs (also likely) and win through to secure a place in the next higher league (anyone’s guess)? Of course there are many other questions, such as who will win the FA Cup on 17th May: Arsenal or Hull or will Chelsea qualify for the final of the Champions League? the significance of which depends on one’s interests. I am not ashamed to be seen as a supporter of SUFC but to my shame I don’t get to watch them play all that much (not having the excuse of a son with an interest in following the team). I have fond memories as a 9 year old being taken to Roots Hall by my dad to see SUFC play. It is that memory and the loose interest held and infrequent visits to matches made since that I use to substantiate my claim to be a supporter.

As for being a supporter or fan, the biggest quality is loyalty and maintaining that support when the team is playing badly as well when it is playing well. While one attraction is to see skilful players perform, and is why these days such players attract such a big financial premium in the professional game, seeing one’s team play well as a team is even more important. One of the attractions of the game is that it is primarily about playing as a team and it is those teams that play better, even if the skills of their individual players are less than that of their opponents, who often come out on top.

Years ago, I astonished two Israeli soldiers guarding one of the famous archeological sites, the walls of Jericho. Getting there as a backpacker was a mini adventure, but worth it as the few ruins and the site itself excited me, yet held no interest at all to them. They had asked me what football team I supported and my unexpected answer was Southend. I have found with many since then, and often surprisingly, and in all sorts of contexts and situations, being able to discuss the game can prove to be a helpful icebreaker, not least when I go out these days as a Street Pastor. As an activist seeking to encourage building of communities, it occurs to me that football team supporters could legitimately claim they are a community.

When recently I got to spend time with a well known politician, himself a SUFC supporter, our main topic of conversation was the fortunes of and our hopes for this club we support, rather than any number of hot topics in the political arena we might have discussed.While football is not unique in providing a platform for such unlikely exchanges, the fact it has done so on numerous occasions says something about the game’s attraction.

A long while ago, my cynicism due to the way the professional game had gone (too much money, lack of loyalty, ill discipline, big egos and bad attitude), dissuaded me from supporting big named clubs. I have said: bring back the Corinthians, with its sporting ethos and charitable aims, or give me scratch teams of youngsters who play with a good attitude and for fun. One interesting fact I just learned is that getting onto half of the Premiership clubs have their origins in churches setting up the team to meet local social needs. We might well reflect on how far we have gone away from such an ethos in this present era! Even so, I do admit to following the fortunes of the clubs in the English football league, reading news of what is happening and occasionally watching games on television.

My big footballing interest is in the international sphere. I strongly feel that playing for one’s country should be the pinnacle of any player’s career and, along with developing the game at grass roots community level, be the primary focus of the game’s administrators. I am looking forward to the footballing pinnacle, the World Cup, to be held in Brazil, in June. Ever since England lifted the trophy, way back in 1966, I have followed this competition, even though some of the romance has long gone. While there is much that disappoints and may yet disappoint during the coming tournament, my hope is that my team (in this case, England) will do well or maybe even win.

Football is a beautiful game as its beautiful exponent, one of the world’s greats, Pele, has said. Love for the game unites people all over the world and it could be the one game that is played all over the world. I have enjoyed playing and following the game over these many years, while recognizing I became long ago, well past my best, which at my youthful peak was as an honest and quite fit trier that read and attempted to play the game in the right spirit. While I regret some of the less savory aspects that have crept into the professional game in more recent years, and have filtered down to the lower levels, especially to the young, it is a game I would still want to encourage others to take up, for it is one that can engender life skills, create fitness and provide balance, produce team camaraderie and inter-dependence, and give immense enjoyment.