Saturday, December 03, 2011

Mutant

I sometimes put my lack of interest in football to the fact that I missed the first week of term, when presumably the rules were explained, and nobody ever bothered to catch me up. But I doubt things would have been different had I known the rules. It involved several things that I hate - being outdoors for extended periods of time, having to physically compete - where aggression matters, getting dirty, and being part of a team. I would much rather be off doing something solitary inside, like playing the piano.

So I would spend the whole hour hanging around on the sidelines, cold and bored. If teams were picked, I was usually picked last or close to last - a humiliating ritual, designed to establish and fix a hierarchy of masculinity. It always seemed so unfair that it didn't happen in other lessons - where I would have been picked first.

I never understood how all the other boys seemed to instinctively know about the World Cup. When I was about 9, the teacher put up a chart on the wall showing all the World Cup matches that were taking place that summer, and the boys gathered around it excitedly, giving their own opinions about who was going to do well, and who would be knocked out in the first round. It was as if they were talking another language, and even now, when I hear men talking football, I start looking for a fire exit. Because in this country, and probably the world over, you fail as a man if you confess to disliking the national sport.

During another World Cup (I was about 15 by this time), England got into the semi-finals, and then lost to Germany. My Dad, who is not particularly interested in football either, had started following the World Cup that year, as did many people who only bother to get properly onboard when it looks like England might win. He was devastated when England lost the match. I said, with characteristic teenage spite: "I'm glad they lost," and he looked at me in horror as if I'd just announced that I'd killed the Baby Jesus.

But, it turns out that while all my friends were watching other men running around fields in shorts, they were damaging their long-term prospects. The Guardian reports a study suggesting that boys' GCSE results are dented by football tournaments. It's especially true for working-class boys - when a football tournament is on, they perform up to half a grade worse. I would like to think that if my school had known this, that silly World Cup chart would have been ripped down and replaced with a diagram of the solar system - much more interesting. But I doubt it.

My nephew hates football too. So I think there must be a "liking football" gene which we don't have. But maybe it's not so disadvantageous after all.

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