Sport, the “beautiful game” in particular, is no stranger to a grand theory. These tend to come in various colourful guises, belying their platitudinous and conspiratorial natures, and all too often delivered with “bet-you-didn’t-know-this” solemnity. I have learnt to keep my own football theorising to myself, having read Ian Hamilton’s remarkable essay “On Being a Soccer Bore” early. Reading it again the other day, I was struck by just how prescient Hamilton was; foreseeing a future of everybody wanting to be a football bore, whilst lamenting the days when “soccer- mania was dark and lonely work”. In recent years the acquisition of footballing knowledge has had to keep up with a game that is omnipresent; though few of us have the courage to admit we are exhausted.
This sporting hiatus has become a prolonged period of Lenten reflection. The early loss of ritual – live football every other day – was at first keenly felt. Without the game, what were we going to do, let alone talk about? The media tried to fill the void by revisiting classic and forgotten matches and profiling great players. Those “Top 10” lists have become the final word in tedium.
An Arsenal season ticket holder I know has been especially candid: “If they cancelled football forever, part of me would be pleased.” How easily we manage without what we once deemed indispensable.
Matthew, my literary agent, is equally untroubled, though this has more to do with Tottenham Hotspur’s lacklustre season than ennui. He is rectifying his club’s perennial underachievement by playing “Football Manager” online. “I beat Arsenal two-nil in the quarterfinal of the Carabao Cup last night,” he tells me over the phone. “It was unbelievably tense.” I can’t help but feel this is a case of art not reflecting life. I’m sure he would feel differently if he supported Liverpool, the one outstanding club of the season.
This time away from the game has given me some respite. It has also allowed me to develop a small theory of my own: that football remains a primer in nostalgia. The anticipation and subsequent dissection of a match is probably what matters most, at times more so than watching the game itself. As Hamil- ton quite rightly observed, “football is nearly always disappointing”. But then for the nostalgia to work, there needs to be live soccer to watch. I think I’m ready to enjoy that feeling of disappointment all over again.