A tale of two football teams

My elder son plays for a local football team – let’s call it Swallows United – that trains on the playing fields of a well known public school. A couple of the players show promise but the rest display more enthusiasm than talent. The atmosphere is firmly inclusive, with an emphasis on enjoyment and team spirit, and for the less able – including my son – there are friendly games running alongside the competitive cup matches.

The Swallows are drawn from the affluent suburbs of north Bristol and their parents, almost without exception, are middle-class professionals. When a child broke his leg in a recent match, two GPs and an orthopaedic surgeon rushed forward from the touchline to offer assistance. My son is a recent addition to the team, and the club was able to offer him a place only because another boy had dropped out owing to the unfortunate re-scheduling of his private maths tuition.

I look forward to Saturday mornings, not so much for the football, but for the chance to catch up with the other parents as they offer polite encouragement from the sidelines. Most of them are relaxed about their sons’ sporting abilities; their competitiveness manifests itself in other ways, focusing on academic success. I’d guess that most of these boys will go to university. Football will continue to feature in their adult lives but it won’t be all-consuming: some might play in a dads’ team or kick a ball around on a stag weekend, while others will draw on their knowledge of the game to form a rapport with clients and facilitate business deals.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, my younger son plays for Amazon Athletic, a club that competes in a regional youth league. All the boys are skilled and a few are outstanding, showing a raw intelligence on the pitch. It’s a competitive environment; at some point, my son will probably decide that he can’t take the pressure and ask us to put his name down on the Swallows waiting list.

Many of the Amazon parents come from tough, working-class areas of Bristol, and a few struggle to eat decently and pay the rent. This isn’t a snotty assumption on my part; it’s what they tell me. Just as grammar school was a passport to a better life for my father’s generation, playing for the Amazons represents a chance of success for these parents, who dream of their sons being scouted and going on to become professional footballers. The game means everything to them, so it’s not surprising that passions occasionally run high. Bad language isn’t unusual in the heat of the moment, and last season a couple of families were asked to leave the club because of a series of angry confrontations with the manager over his selection decisions on match day.

It’s been said that sport is human life in microcosm, and in my more pretentious moments it strikes me that my children’s football teams, with their different composition and philosophies, reflect the divided society the boys are growing up in. The Swallows raise their children to value academic achievement above sporting prowess, but the truth is that almost anyone can go to university these days, provided mummy and daddy have sharp elbows and a fat cheque book. Even the Swallows who don’t shine academically will have their paths through life smoothed by their parents’ money, connections and social capital.

We ascribe high aspirations to middle-class parents, but it’s the Amazons who are truly aspirational, shaming those who peddle the myth of low expectations among the working classes. The sad thing is that, in all likelihood, none of their sons will make it in the competitive world of professional football. In every city across the country, there are hundreds of committed, talented boys just like them. Only a handful will ever be picked to train with the professional clubs, and most of the lucky ones will end up falling by the wayside. For now, the Amazon players have no class consciousness – they’re just a group of small boys who love to play football. They’re a pleasure to watch, but it’s painful to imagine a time in the future when their dreams fade and reality looms into focus.

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