Football, to your average fan, represents much more than a competitive sport. It’s a dominant, all-powerful force that permeates society like an unquestionable, unwritten rule. It shapes people’s very being, it changes the mood of entire nations, it makes them cry, it makes them fight, it makes them react in ways they’d probably never do in any other aspect of their lives. To die-hard football fans there are few things more important. The teams, the players, the scores, the managers – all of it forms a complex world that is as immersive as it is unavoidable.
As a young lad growing up in Lincolnshire I remember playing football during lunch times at school or on the playing field at weekends. At that time it never even occurred to me that it was a choice. It was just what everyone did. It didn’t matter that I was crap at it or the fact I didn’t enjoy it in the slightest, it was just what boys were meant to do. Sure, I may have wanted to stay in to play on my Commodore 64 or watch Hitchcock films, but that was irrelevant, boys were playing football, which meant I had to as well.
As I got older I began to realise that I didn’t actually have to play football any more. I understood that it was my choice. But like most choices I had as a teenager, dismissing football was something that came with a level of sacrifice. It was almost an omission of being slightly different. If I was ever with a group of friends and the topic of football cropped up, which it did most of the time, I would pull together as much knowledge as I had to muster through the conversations. I found it boring, but I felt like it was my fault for not being interested. And if anyone spotted a weakness in your football knowledge at that age they would be sure to let you know about it. Boys should be interested in football after all.
When I started drinking alcohol in my late teens most of my friends were no longer that bothered about playing football. We were too busy smoking and attempting to flirt with girls to bother doing any exercise. But with the novelty of going to the pub also came the advent of watching games there as well. For a couple of years I relented. I sat for ninety minutes watching whoever was playing, a moderate interest in what was going on fuelled by cheap lager and Lambert & Butlers. However as time went on I began to dread it. Standing shoulder to shoulder with dozens of people shouting at a TV screen whilst I was just counting down the minutes on the timer. It may as well have been a video of my dad painting our back gate for all the interest I had in it. I had much better things to do with my time. Well, at least I had other things that I’d rather be doing with my time.
As I got older I stopped going to the pub to watch football. I had other hobbies to keep me busy. My friends knew I wasn’t interested. They’d occasionally make a joke about it, but they were adults, they also had other priorities. That was until the Euros or a World Cup were on. Suddenly it was like being eighteen again.
“Are you coming to watch the game tonight?” a friend would say.
“Nah I’m alright,” I would always reply.
“Why, what are you doing?”
“Just going to sit at home and watch a film. I don’t even like football.”
“Yeah, but it’s England playing.”
This is when being a non-football fan is really difficult. For some reason patriotism overrides any interest in football. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather be sat with a cup of tea watching antiques roadshow. It’s England, you have to watch it. The irony is that if you don’t like football, going to see England play in a pub is probably a hundred times worse than watching any league game. A time when everyone is completely obsessed with football, where the outcome of the match becomes the most important thing in the world. People start shouting, they get angry. A non-fan sticks out like an extremely bored sore thumb. Suddenly, even as an adult, I’m the odd one out again. The one person in the room that has no idea who the players are or if the last goal scored was actually any good.
And it doesn’t happen seem to happen with any other sport in England. Sure, patriotism exists when we play tennis or cricket. People care about. Suddenly a sport that isn’t football becomes all anyone can think about. But football is the only one where watching is compulsory. People understand that not everyone cares about who wins Wimbledon or at the Oval, they don’t argue about it or look at you like you’ve just declared you don’t agree with equal rights. But an indifference to an international football tournament is tantamount to treason.
I see how football brings people together. It’s a universal talking point for people to bond over; the perfect solution to kill dead air in any situation, regardless of class or status. People use it like a learned response to being placed in a scenario with someone they don’t know or don’t feel comfortable with. “See the game last night?” becomes universally translated as “look, I know we don’t know each other, but we’re the same you and I. You can relax. We shouldn’t fear each other.”
But for someone with no interest in football the gap is widened. A response of “I’m not really into football” becomes “I’m sorry, but I’m different to you. I’m not of your world.”
And don’t get me wrong here. I’m not having a go at football itself. There are loads of sports I’m not interested in. The point I’m trying to make is that football is the only one that feels like a necessity within large chunks of society. Where disinterest is made to feel wrong and unnatural. Sure, in London it’s a bit different, the wide variety of choices available diminishes the pressures of being interested. But it’s still there. If I ever find myself sat with a bunch of movie fan boys or indie music aficionados they may argue against my disinterest in their chosen topic, but it’s met with an understanding that it’s just a thing they like and I don’t, the conversation will inevitably change to something else. However in the same scenario with a group of devout football fans disinterest is often meant with confusion, it’s like an alien concept that needs to be explained or ignored. Put that in the context of a live England football game and people start looking at you like you’re inciting some sort of anti-patriotism.
So yeah, it can be tough being a non-football fan sometimes. It can be easier to pretend to like it with a few learned responses (“See that game?” – “Oh yeah, what a game.” – “Wasn’t it?” – “Oh man, I couldn’t believe it.” – “You’re telling me!”), but ultimately you have to be true to yourself, otherwise you’re just going to have to end up watching it anyway. It also means you pretty much get the gym/coffee shop/pub that doesn’t show football to yourself for 90 minutes. Which is actually pretty cool.
Picture Credits: Pond5