23 October ~ When Liverpool's chief executive touted for more TV money last week one statistic seemed particularly galling. The reports said that 600 million people in over 200 countries watch the Premier League. That all these people are willing to pay over £1 billion to watch English football matches is very strange. When you consider all the opportunities and problems in this world, the popularity of football is rather worrying.
There are few better things you could do on a Saturday afternoon than watch your team win a game, especially if you looked forward to it through the week and secretly thought they'd lose. When the ball hits the net and nervous expectation turns into a wave of the noise that bounces around the stadium, you could ask for little more. But in reality, that doesn't happen very often – certainly not enough to justify all these millions of viewers on the other side of the world.
Maybe people that are new to the game don't realise that there's a lot of waiting around in football. The summer is the worst. For months you read rumours about who your team will buy and then discover they've blown money on a player you previously despised but now have to try and like. By the time the guy is "blooded in" you've already been told the club are interested in someone else. The season isn't much better. Being a fan is a bit like being a musician on tour. It might sound fun but most of your time is spent just waiting around.
Then there's the game itself. There's a reason Match of the Day lasts for little more than an hour. Most games are forgettable. And most of the "action" in any game – even the very best ones – could be cut out. Any self-respecting film-maker could cut a Premier League game into five minutes of footage without harming the spectacle.
The last time I attended a match some fans acted like they'd rather be anywhere else. One guy spent the entire game abusing the linesman with an anger that probably warrants medication. But he had spent a small fortune to be there. When Carlos Tevez failed to make it from the Manchester City bench to the pitch in Munich, commentators sympathised with the poor City fans who paid upwards of £1,000 to be there. Anyone who pays that much money to attend a match should be embarrassed, not queuing up to be vox-popped by TV reporters.
Football is trumpeted as some sort of escape for the working man – that supporters go to the match on a Saturday to forget themselves and their worldly concerns. It's a corny line you hear from people who have never been fans – namely players and managers. No sane employee would put up with the rules imposed upon football fans. At least you can choose where to work. You don't get to choose your football team. If your work is dull, you can look for a new job. Switching football teams isn't quite as easy. And if things are going badly at work you might be able to speak to your boss.
To be a football fan is to be powerless. You're at the mercy of players who often don't seem to care and managers who seem to take perverse pleasure in defying common sense. I spent last week waiting nervously for Manchester United's game at Anfield to be told before kick-off that Alex Ferguson had picked four centre-backs in his team. All that hope for a win was worth nothing – the man who makes the decisions about the team I support only wanted a draw.
I was happy with a draw in the end – I made it through unscathed. I'd prefer these games to be declared draws than actually have to experience the stress of watching one. The sheer awfulness of losing to Liverpool is much more intense than the greatness of beating them. Even if you support a successful club there's a downside. All those wins might look fun, but repeated success quickly breeds a fear of defeat. Sheer unbelieving joy is replaced over time by the fear that it will leave. Worse than the fear of failure though, is the fear of failing at the hands of your rivals. Last weekend was survived without a defeat to Liverpool but, football being football, there's no shortage of potential misery. As the fixture list would have it, table-topping Manchester City come to Old Trafford today. The 600 million viewers might enjoy the spectacle, but they'll regret it in the end. Paul Campbell