Back in the early 1990s, when I was first introduced to the sport of football, players looked like BT repairmen. They had names like Hoddle, Waddle, Beardsley and Platt, and haircuts whose style can only be described as nondescript. I am sad to learn that this is no longer the case. Now players all resemble low-quality male models. They have names like Suarez and Fred, and advertise online gambling and Pringles. If they belonged to any other discipline they’d surely be labelled sellouts, and yet, because they’re football players, they’re somehow revered beyond all reasonable understanding. They can behave appallingly if they so wish, and usually do. In the end, the general public forgives all, provided that the player performs well enough on the pitch. The most reprehensible ones usually do.
Aside from perhaps the camaraderie shared between supporters of the same team, there is little to be admired about football culture. FIFA, the game’s governing body, makes sure of that, conducting its unscrupulous business with all the greed of an obese uncle at a wedding buffet, who eats too much, then, come the end of the night, resorts to shovelling sausage rolls into cellophane bags. It is a shame therefore that FIFA and football are so often thought of as the same thing. Football, on its own, is perfectly fine. It is all of the obligatory additions that come packaged with the sport—constant advertisements, violence, racism, dubious punditry—that I find particularly unappealing.
Punditry is hardly the worst of these things, although it is the most detrimental to the viewer’s enjoyment of the game. The pundit, as far as I can discern, has two utterly pointless jobs to do: these are to comment with absolute authority and conviction on events that have not yet happened, and to do so by speaking entirely in misunderstood idioms. I fear that these aficionados would struggle find work in any other profession. They make newspaper journalists look like master prose stylists. Yet it’s important to remember what sort of position of power these people are in: after all, they are watched by millions of people every week; they can influence opinions if they so wish; they have been granted a soapbox on which to say something of genuine worth.
All the same, the simple fact of the mater is that there is not a lot a pundit can say about a game of football. He can comment on how well the players are performing, about what he feels the players should be doing, about the quality of the grass on the pitch; but ultimately his job is to sound as though his commentary on the game isn’t simply a verbose way of saying: “The players need to kick the ball into the goal.” And, of course, there are plenty of tedious ways for a pundit to extend this bit of indisputable wisdom out to torturous extremes. He might continuously use words such as eager, exposed, denied, diabolical and—rather strangely—woodwork, which actually means “metal goalpost”. Or he might pad his sentences out with a superfluity of clichés, such as at the end of the day, sick as a parrot, when all’s said and done, and over the moon.
Pundits seem to enjoy stating the obvious. In a recent game I actually heard one of them say: “Brazil know they’re in a game here,” which sounds utterly meaningless when first heard, then, remarkably, seems to make even less sense when examined closely. Similar sentences are a common feature of BBC’s Match of the Day, and are all the more perplexing given the mood of humourless sincerity that resides over the programme. For instance, whenever a pundit says something stupid, his colleagues simply nod earnestly in agreement, as though truer words have never been spoken. Of all the pundits, Danny Murphy, MotD’s very own Samuel Beckett, is particularly guilty of this. He looks constantly beleaguered by dark thoughts, and thus like a person one might cross the street to avoid. This, I have to remind myself, is a man whose foremost passion in life is football. This is Danny apparently doing what he loves, though instead of seeming elated, or charged with joie de vivre, he looks as though he’s just unearthed a human torso in his garden.
Despite this, his pensiveness has apparently resonated with many viewers. Football fans, for reasons I can’t quite explain, fancy him one of the programme’s best pundits. They love his stony-faced musings and eyes that look as though they have seen misery beyond comprehension. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s because he speaks with more conviction than his colleagues do. Perhaps viewers really believe him when he says that England should pass the ball up the field, find those chances and kick the ball into the goal. I really have no idea.
I equally struggle to fathom why certain players are so beloved by the general public. The best example of this is ever-popular Christiano Ronaldo, who aside from being an arrogant brat, with a disturbingly thin head and a face like uncooked gammon, I also find rather irritating to watch on the pitch. Nobody can say that he is not talented, but in many ways his talent makes his frequent attempts to cheat all the more vexing. Who possibly could ever cheer for a team who would accept such a narcissistic fraud as a member? The same goes for many of the supposed best players, who are frequently failed by their God-given ability and quickly resort to dirty tricks. Suarez, the suitably low-class face of 888poker, has recently made headlines for this very reason: he bit a player. And while it was not the first time he had done so, it was the first time that his actions were not defended by the British press. How could they be? He had been largely responsible for knocking England out of the tournament.
At first every football supporter in the country was calling for Suarez’s head. They wanted justice, and they wanted it forthwith. They demanded that he be banned from what pundits were calling “the world stage”. But alas this caused one very major issue: if Suarez were to be reprimanded, then he wouldn’t be able to play for Liverpool, which would surely (and this is a real tragedy) be to the detriment to English football. We’d be punishing ourselves in a way—or shooting ourselves in the foot, as the pundits might say. Thus quite a number of people changed their minds. The consensus among these people appeared to be this: that it would be wrong to be so hard on such an excellent player, regardless of whether the very thing he was being punished for was entirely his own doing. FIFA apparently agreed; in the end Suarez got off lightly. He received a four-month ban, which means very little to him in the grand scheme of things. His life will barely change at all. He will return to football and no doubt continue to behave reprehensibly. He may even bite another player: a four-month ban isn’t much of a deterrent; nor does it set a good example to the great many children around the world who idolise this 888poker-endorsing plank of wood.
I would imagine that a less acclaimed player perhaps might not have been as lucky as Suarez. But then a less acclaimed player probably wouldn’t have bitten another player in the first place. Such, unfortunately, is the nature of football, and one of the many reasons why I can never seem to get into it. I enjoy the game; I just can’t seem to tolerate everything that comes with it. If a man belonging to any other profession were to bite a man at work, he’d be fired. He may even be sent to seek professional help. When a conceited football player does it, he receives an inconsequential suspension. It’s no wonder Danny Murphy seems so reluctant to smile, given what he has to put up with on a weekly basis.