As the World Cup approaches, I’m reduced by my family to the status of a mere spectator. Any semblance of conversation over the dinner table has been replaced by the competitive exchange of factual information about national teams and match schedules. My partner suddenly renounces our decision not to own a television, while my sons trade Match Attax cards and endlessly regurgitate obscure football statistics. Their animated chatter, from which I’m largely excluded, exposes my privileged yet peripheral position as the lone female in our household, and my ambiguous relationship with the game itself.
The children have been in training for Brazil 2014 for some time. Last week, at half-term, we sheltered from the rain in a hotel bar on the Pembrokeshire coast to watch Real Madrid play Atlético in the final of the Champions League. My sons sat munching crisps and slurping lemonade, rapt by the big screen. Meanwhile, I let my attention wander. The televised roar of the crowds and the claggy smell of boiled cabbage sent me spinning back across the decades, to my own childhood in a suburb of Manchester, where the kitchen windows streamed with condensation and weekends revolved around the intolerable tedium of Grandstand, Match of the Day and the Sports Report. As soon as the familiar theme music started up, I’d slope off to find my own entertainment, knowing I’d be sidelined for the duration of the broadcast.
Liverpool FC was my father’s great passion. A wry and charismatic schoolteacher, he lived for the game. His grandfather had been at Anfield for Liverpool’s first match there, and he himself was a season-ticket holder. His vocabulary tests invariably included a bonus question on football, while class discipline involved yellow and red cards, offside judgments and extra time. I recall the day in 1989 when he returned home, ashen-faced, from the Hillsborough stadium; in a strangely fitting twist of fate, he died on the twentieth anniversary of the Sheffield disaster. In his final years, it often seemed that his declining health concerned him less than the progress of his team. When asked the name of his ailment, he would simply reply, ‘Ferguson’.
So, while I’m no football fan, I do have a hazy appreciation that it’s so much more than just a game. My dad is no longer here to share it with his grandsons but I take comfort from the notion that it’s a continuous strand running through my family’s history; a point of reference passed from one generation to the next. My sons’ love of football, and its prominence in their daily lives, call to mind the words of the late Arthur Hopcraft: ‘The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people. It is built into the urban psyche, as much a common experience to our children as are uncles and school. It is not a phenomenon; it is an everyday matter.’