Football is life

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that,” said the great football coach Bill Shankly.

I wonder what Harry thinks about the life expectancy of his Soviet colleagues

True enough, many Britons base their whole identity, philosophy, morality and consciousness on the football club they support.

And then there are intelligent people, who abhor any display of such brainless tribalism. Mention football in their presence, and they’ll wince like someone who has accidentally touched a slug.

Those snobs don’t know what they’re missing. For, looked at properly, football can offer invaluable sociological and cultural insights.

Yesterday, for example, I chanced on a video of a 1967 friendly between the Soviet Union and France (to my shame, I remember watching the match live). The video was posted in 2011, 44 years after the event, and the commentator waxed slightly nostalgic about the good old days.

It was in that spirit that he mentioned in passing that only three of the 11 Soviet players were still alive. I did some quick mental arithmetic, which isn’t my core strength, and calculated that eight out of the 11 didn’t make it to their late sixties, early seventies.

But, added the commentator in an attempt to look on the bright side, all 11 French players were still alive and well. You see now how useful it can be to follow football?

For this little datum is the end of a strand sticking out of a ball of wool. Pull on it, and you’ll unravel the lot.

This statistic tells you more about life in the Soviet Union and the delights of socialism than you could learn from many a scholarly tome. Since I have no intention of writing one, on this subject at any rate, I’ll put a full stop here and pass on to the next football story.

This one involves the English footballer Harry Maguire who recently received a suspended 21-month sentence in a Greek court for a brawl outside a Mykonos restaurant.

Harry and his eight friends emerged from that establishment after a five-hour drinking session, in the course of which the generous footballer had spent £67,000. The management must have seen them coming for Harry was, among other things, charged £18,000 for a bottle of 2002 Dom Perignon.

Since that same bottle retails at an average of £185 in London, Greek restaurateurs have a peculiar idea of what constitutes a reasonable mark-up. That by itself would be a subject worth studying, especially in a course on comparative cultures or perhaps European federalism.

But it gets deeper than that. For interesting questions may well be raised about a society in which Harry earns £195,000 a week, whereas the average UK salary is £29,000 a year.

Yes, I understand – and welcome – the concept of supply-demand and the supremacy of the market with its invisible hand. But, since the market is driven by people’s tastes and preferences, I wonder about a society that values the service provided by the likes of Harry so much higher than those provided by teachers, doctors, engineers or priests.    

This isn’t to cast aspersion on Harry personally, since he’s obviously a man of broad erudition and impressive cultural attainment. True enough, while he manfully engaged five Greek cops in fisticuffs, Harry was issuing the usual battle cries of a British football player or indeed fan.

Expressing himself with a freedom of expression hard-won over many centuries of British history, Harry was frank in his negative assessment of the Greeks, policemen in general and Greek policemen in particular. His language was par for the course, as will be confirmed by anyone who has ever been within swearing distance of a football stadium.

But one of Harry’s remarks caught my eye. Having gone through a lengthy list of the individuals, institutions and countries he’d like to copulate with, Harry then screamed: “F*** the Greek civilisation, I don’t give a s***”.

Sexual intimacy implies some degree of familiarity, and I’m sure Harry studied that offensive civilisation in detail. No doubt he is aware of the contribution Greece made to Christendom. Pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Aristophanes, Pericles and Solon, Iktinos and Praxiteles must have all been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Harry must sense, as I sometimes do, that the Renaissance, for all the masterpieces it produced, must on balance have had a detrimental effect on Christian civilisation. He must feel that, rather than merely injecting a resuscitating dose of Hellenic antiquity into the bloodstream of the West, the Renaissance delivered an overdose.

Caught in the heat of a modern-day Thermopylae, and almost as outnumbered as those 300 Spartans, Harry couldn’t have gone into such issues in any depth at the moment, restricting himself to epigrammatic shorthand. But the very fact that he has obviously pondered them testifies to the vertiginously high level of British education.

I bet none of those Soviet footballers had a view on the comparative merits of Hellenic and Christian civilisations. Actually, perhaps it was shame about their ignorance that contributed to their premature demise. But that’s something for the medical scientists to consider.

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