It's only a game: why football matters more than a first
Jonathan Booth defends the appeal of the beautiful game in a city of rationality
by Jonathan Booth
Sunday 20th May 2012, 10:52 BST
As I staggered through the streets of Cambridge sometime in the early evening of 13thMay a thought occurred to me: this feels better than anything else I have felt before. Personal achievements, even getting into Cambridge, simply could not compare with the feeling that my beloved Manchester City had finally won the Premier League. It’s been over a week since that happened, and watching the West Ham fans go as bonkers to their team being promoted as I was on Sunday to me forms a poignant juxtaposition between the cheering fans and the dreary, tired, exam-ridden students walking around town.
What feeling could possibly compare with the team you supported all your life finally winning? Arguably, not even the feeling of getting a starred first. These sound like the words of a madman and perhaps they are: I had no direct involvement in the affairs on the pitch and my team would function without my existence just as it did with it. It has been said that football is the true opiate of the twenty-first century masses, and perhaps this is true; if so, it is a drug that I, and countless others, am more than happy to keep on taking until the day I die.
As a football fan, acutely aware of the illogical nature of it all, I have to rationalise this all out. Of course it doesn’t make much sense; valuing a football victory more than any academic achievement, in an environment such as this, is absurd, and it is easy to see why many people here fail to understand why anyone would do that. Yet there is an oath made when supporting a football team that is worth more than any words bound in blood. There are those who can switch allegiances at will, but these do not understand the feeling of being a football fan properly: the helplessness of merely waiting for something good to happen and not being able to change a single thing. That makes it all the sweeter when things turn out well, and all the more bitter when things go badly.
Indeed it is this lack of control that can, to the supposedly rational and highly cultured minds of Cambridge, seem all the more peculiar. The almost religious fanaticism is at odds with the critical capabilities we are supposed to be taught at Cambridge, but that to me seems all the sadder. Once the dust settles and other people have quickly moved on with their lives, it seems that football fans, and sports fans in general, have something special that the more apathetic do not; a bond that so many people here could not understand and would not hold. How could they possibly comprehend the scale of winning something, anything, after years of supporting an awful team? Surely they’re missing out from the drama, for better and for worse?
Perhaps it is fair that the football fanatic is looked down upon, as they parade the latest souvenir shirt around town, being sucked into an endless play of success and failure, torment and jubilation, unable to escape. Even devout atheists in the stands are drawn into muttering prayers cynically to gods they would never believe in for goals that seem impossible: it is senseless and mindless, yet more beautiful and sweet than many of the rewards given here.
A part of me, then, can’t help but look down upon those who cannot understand the feelings of sports fans, in much the way that they must look down on me as a mere passenger in a journey I can do nothing about. Yet football is part of my identity as it is for so many: the mediocrity of Manchester City, of being the odd one out in schools where everyone supported our crosstown rivals United, were important lessons in independence. It is tribalism at its most basic and most enjoyable, and also at its most ridiculous and stupid.
Cambridge is a wonderful place for challenging opinions, for having one’s assumptions taken head on in the name of academic discourse. As another essay is due, as the mind wanders once again to the commentator screaming “Agüero!”, I wonder if I’m meant to be here, as one of the fanatics in a place where fanaticism is challenged, whose logic buckles under pressure for supporting my football team the way I do. Knowing that I shall never lose that connection, no matter how stupid it may be, is as wonderful as it is daunting and embarrassing, in a way that I simply cannot feel for my degree or my place here.