It is really like welcoming an old friend again, now the football season has returned. I always feel a little bit sad when the season ends in May, even though this year my team did really well and we went out on a high. Now the new season has started, there is a kind of fresh optimism, a hope that we’ll win the League this year, the Champions League again, and there’s the sure knowledge that we’ll experience highs and lows, wins and losses, times when we were robbed and times when we ground out a victory we didn’t deserve. That’s football. It’s all about the emotion.
Of course wild emotion, blind devotion and hot-headed passion are not always good things. I find myself often having to explain to people why I love football. Many of my friends can’t see the point in the game and they offer me a salvo of reasons why I shouldn’t like it: footballers’ salaries, high ticket prices, homophobia, racism. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to shrug off the negatives and justify the beautiful game.
Years ago, I was a student, watching a derby game. The man standing in front of me swore at a player on the pitch: in one sentence he managed to create an insult that fused misogyny, racism and homophobia. I was shocked by his words and puzzled by his sudden aggression. After all, the player was on the team he was supporting and all he had done was give the ball away.
Football generates such passion. Standing at the kop end, listening to fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, surrounded by banners lauding players and ex-players and honouring the Hillsborough 96 always brings tears to my eyes. It’s an incredibly powerful moment in which tradition, ritual and intense loyalty bind a whole crowd of people together as a family. In some ways there’s nothing to beat it, from kick-off to final whistle. I always say to those who don’t understand the point of the game, echoing Camus’ words, that football is pure theatre. Being a fan at a match brings such a strong sense of belonging, despite and sometimes because of the ups and downs of each game.
I’ve just related one single negative incident of aggressive racist behaviour at a match, but there are so many positive stories I could tell. There was the time a man next to me gave me a grin and said ‘Eh, girl, do your kids like crisps?’ and stuffed a six-pack of Smiths into my hands for my two children, who were ten and nine. There was another time at a different game when a huge man in the seat in front of me leapt to his feet to applaud and one of the fans next to me patted him on the shoulder and mumbled ‘Sit down, mate – this girl and her kids can’t see if you stand up.’
I came out of a game once – I think it was against West Brom and we’d just won 4-1 –and a woman I’d never met before caught my eye and came over. She hugged me, her face beaming, and said ‘What a fantastic game that was, eh? Didn’t we play great?’ We chatted for about ten minutes and she was a lovely person. How often does that happen outside of football, a complete stranger making conversation? It should happen much more frequently – it is so rewarding. Football can bring people together.
Racism is a huge cloud hanging over the beautiful game. Yet again this week, just a few days into the season, there have been attacks on Twitter, abusing players such as Tammy Abrahams and Paul Pogba. It is shocking that this still happens.
In the same way that a fan can ask someone to sit down because they have leaped up and blocked kids’ vision, we as fans have to ask people not to be racist. The abused players’ safety and feelings come first and there are ways to change behaviours and protect the players.
My friends often cite the negatives when they ask me why I enjoy football. Sometimes they’ll suggest something trivial to explain why I watch a game: it must be because of the twenty two men in shorts – how else could I tolerate ninety minutes of kicking a bag of wind? I tend to shrug off such comments and remember the good times – cheering in the Kop, being hugged senseless by someone I’ve never met because our team has scored; being in a crowd where I can listen to several accents all crooning the same song; hiding behind the sofa because we have a penalty shoot-out after extra time. But racism and homophobia don’t belong in football.
Football is about ninety minutes of suspended normality, where rivalry and skill and the lottery of goals and the vagaries of VAR come into play, but at the end of the game, that’s all it is, a game. Football’s about laughter and banter, belonging and hope, supporting and solidarity, cheers and fears and tears, but it can never be about hatred and derision in any form. The friend I welcome home at the start of each season is one with a good heart that understands fair play. It’s a lot of fun, a tense performance of two halves packed with suspense and thrills, winning and losing. But the beautiful game of football reflects the diverse beauty of the world, no matter which team we support. There is no place for an unfriendly face or violence or words that wound.