In the good if relatively recent tradition, I must declare a personal interest, which in this case may be tantamount to committing social suicide: I like football.
Though I don’t support any particular team other than England, I find the game exciting, when it’s played well. Actually, I wasn’t accurate: I also support any team Chelsea FC play.
I dislike Chelsea because it’s a vehicle for laundering mob money. I also hate its fans, who once a fortnight cover my otherwise nice neighbourhood with burgher wrappers, empty bottles and vomit.
That, however, is no reflection on football itself. I used to play it to a reasonable standard, and I always watch it.
In England, however, affection for footie attaches an indelible social stigma among the PLUs (People Like Us). Rugby, yes. Cricket, most definitely. Football? It’s worse than drinking whisky-and-Coke, wearing legible clothes or driving a brand-new car with extra speakers.
In France, the only other European country I know well, the situation is roughly the same. If you confess you like footie, your best bet is to laugh at yourself before others do. You may just get away with it.
During the previous World Cup I was talking to an old French aristocrat whose title goes back to the Carolingians. When I mentioned that I had just seen a cracking game, a slight shadow came across his face.
“But of course I’m a proletarian,” I hastily added with double-bluff self-deprecation. “Oui, mon cher,” smiled the aristo forgivingly. “Moi aussi”. That turned the whole thing into a joke and saved my social face until the next faux pas.
The reason football can evoke such strong social responses is that it’s no longer just a game. It has evolved not only into a class indicator, but also into a microcosm of society, a living study in social anthropology. Society looks at football and sees itself in this mirror.
Thus if you don’t think we’re reverting to barbarism, look no further than football.
And don’t just look at it synchronically, as football is now. It’s more instructive to examine it diachronically, over time. This sort of cognitive methodology is bound to produce a melancholy conclusion: an age of savagery is upon us.
For footballers don’t exist in a vacuum. Like everyone else they’re a reflection of their time, and these days their time is increasingly a reflection of them.
Comparing the way football is now and the way it was back in the fifties and sixties, one notices that the value society attaches to the game has increased no end.
If Stanley Matthews, England’s top player of the post-war era, earned £5 a week and travelled to matches by bus, today’s equivalent may pocket £500,000 a week and travel to matches by a supercharged Bentley.
TV money and commercial supply-demand don’t quite explain such disparity. If they did, most top clubs wouldn’t be operating at a huge loss. And Sir Stanley wouldn’t have been paid 100,000 times less than today’s equivalent, considering that the pound was then worth only about 30 times more.
This has to affect not just football. If a ball kicker earns in a week what a good teacher earns in 15 years, then the issue is wider than football. If the habitually naked ‘artist’ Rihanna collects $1,000,000 for an hour-long gig, the problem isn’t economical – it’s cultural and social.
Preoccupation with panem et circenses has since time immemorial been regarded as suicidal decadence, something that can destroy a civilisation more surely than any barbarians. When they’re at the door, they can be repelled. When they’re inside the walls, a massacre ensues.
Rome fell not because Alaric was a great military leader, but because chariot racers merited vast fees. This even though, unlike our lovers of football, their fans didn’t use mobile phones to prearrange post-race punch-ups after a few amphorae of Falerno.
If you look at most footballers of Matthews’s generation and the next, the one that won England’s solitary World Cup in 1966, the contrast to today’s lot is striking.
The odd rotten apple aside, they were good working-class lads, modest, well-behaved, neatly dressed, usually taciturn, with a good sense of humour and a strong sense of right and wrong. In other words, they were just like their fans, the salt of the British earth.
If you look at the newsreel of any match from that period, watch the fans. Most of them wear their Sunday best, and they support their team with enthusiasm but without any visible malice towards its opponents.
Unlike them, most of today’s fans are lumpen middle class, affecting what they think are appropriate working-class mannerisms. Hence they wear prole clothes, push their accents down a notch, swear non-stop and look at the other team and its supporters with genuine hatred. And they drink themselves to a stupor both before and after the game.
Then there are the tattoos. Looking at the photograph of the 1966 England team, I can’t spot a single one. I may be missing a couple, but certainly no more.
These days you’ll hardly find a footballer not treating his flesh as a canvas for body art. Some morons, like David Beckham, are densely covered from head to toe.
That stands to reason: it’s hard to expect the general social decline to leave aesthetics untouched. It’s also hard not to notice that tattoos are now seen as the norm, not an unpleasantly asocial eccentricity.
Probably 80 per cent of Premier League players, wherever they come from, sport visible tattoos. The corresponding percentage among the fans is probably lower, but still high.
Nor is this abomination restricted to football. Every other young person one sees in the street has either tattoos or facial metal or both – and that’s just on the visible parts of their bodies.
Such adornments aren’t the exclusive property of the proletariat, lumpen or otherwise. The middle classes, lumpen or otherwise, are close behind.
I don’t know what message body art communicates in places like Easter Island or Sub-Saharan Africa. In the West, this side of gangs and prisons at any rate, it betokens nothing but a cretinous disdain for a civilisation about which the bearers know next to nothing and understand even less.
This is evil, sociopathic anomie, yet no one in the mainstream press will ever dare say so. It’s as if there were nothing wrong with millions desperate to jump backwards into our cave past, or sideways into cultures alien to ours.
The other day the England footballer Raheem Sterling caused an outrage by adding a tattoo of an assault rifle to his existing gallery. Yet every indignant gasp in the press was about the bellicose theme, not the revolting practice itself.
As a British subject, I feel proud of the influence our culture exerts on the world. Though one still doesn’t see as many tattooed yahoos in France, they’re catching up, and many of their textual tattoos are in English.
Here in Auxerre there wasn’t a single tattoo parlour 20 years ago. Now there are five, with most sited in gorgeous medieval timber-framed houses. They were built at a time when people adorned their towns, not their bodies.
Well, to each civilisation its own.