Before I start, I’d like to get something off my chest. A deep dark, stereotypically female secret. I am not a football fan. Or at least, I wasn’t until very recently. I had the wrong idea about football, I was focussing too much on the action on the pitch. The England – France international friendly at Wembley, on the 17th November, was entirely forgettable. The young and inexperienced English squad gave a lacklustre, nervy performance, letting France win 2 -1 by virtue of poor to non-existent tackling, and a seeming lack of passion. Peter Crouch was the English hero, knocking one in the back of the net after little over a minute on the pitch. But the real action happened off the pitch, within the crowd.
Football matches are shared experiences that glue people together – families, friends, workmates, even strangers. The 90,000 spectators, who had battled through terrible weather and dealt with malfunctioning transport systems to get to Wembley, were part of a community. Throughout the match, fans leaned to the strangers on their left and right, swapping frustrations and inanities about the action on the pitch. Whilst an acceptable nationalism was on display, with English fans belting out Swing Low and the national anthem, there was no stereotypical hooliganism. Despite aggressive booing almost every time a French player touched the ball, good-natured ribald banter with French supporters was the evening’s only “conflict”. The French, despite their terrible taste in football team, were also part of the evening’s communal experience. Supporting the wrong side, granted, but still in the stadium. The game is something to be taken seriously when in the stands – anger, frustration and joy generated by the game are real. Supporters really do want their side to win. But this desire does not necessarily overwhelm the enjoyment of the game as precisely that – a game, an experience to be enjoyed for its own sake. Doubtless, had this been a more important match – a local derby, cup final, “real” international – passions would have run higher, the crowd more tense, more divided. In any case, football, or rather the consumption of football, is an important cultural act. Not just a scene for fan violence and laddish behaviour, football matches can afford a powerful expression of fellowship between and within groups, especially at a yawn-inspiring friendly on a cold wet night in November.