In the light of a recently published celebrity battle of the sexes, Roger Titford defends football against the influence of its TV manifestation and consider the emotions the game stirs up

Way back in 1992, when the Premier League and Sky’s Super Sunday were but weeks old, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch came to symbolise a defence of supporting football in the face of a hostile media and uncomprehending middle-class women. For many commentators this was a tipping point in favour of the game. We now may be entering an era when the scales are tipping the other way. Alongside 50 People Who Fouled Up Football another fresh title you can find in the bookshops is A Matter Of Life And Death: Or How To Wean A Man Off Football by Ronni Ancona and Alistair McGowan, the impressionist comedy duo.

This is a self-confessedly “banter-fuelled” battle of the sexes, a piece of verbal candyfloss but nonetheless containing a few razor-sharp edges. Its basic argument is that football is a drug that affects only men and that it would be a good idea for a concerned woman to detoxify the chap concerned before his life is destroyed. Football widowers, and there are many, are conveniently ignored. Ronni Ancona taps into the increasingly public tensions within the man-woman-football triangle. Last year the Times reported on a lovelorn woman issuing her Villa-supporting husband an ultimatum on a bedsheet hung at a roundabout: “Are the Villa really more important than our marriage? It’s over.” We don’t know as yet the response to that, or to the “United, Kids, Wife – In That Order” banner frequently seen at Old Trafford.

The novelty of Ancona’s approach is to treat football not as a religion, the most common modern metaphor, but as a harmful substance, a generator of unhappiness. “It is an addiction. A drug. And Sky more than anyone are the pushers.” The analogy occasionally startles: the idea of football as a growing menace, an epidemic surging uncontrollably. There is the notion of passive football consumption through the all-pervasive action, comment and names on TV, print and people in the street. Football has indeed swallowed up the space occupied by other sports. I used to know who the British middle-weight champion was and who had won the Emsley Carr mile. Go abroad, to provincial France for instance, and you will notice the absence of football in the air and on the clothes.

Alistair McGowan turns out to be a bit of lightweight as an addict. He’s got no online presence or activity, doesn’t play football any more, isn’t involved in any supporter organisations, doesn’t do away games, even switches clubs for reasons of geographic convenience. But he falls continuously for the most commonly available form of football, that which is peddled on TV and is probably most intrusive on others.

Peddled may seem like a quaint word to describe how the televised game is promoted nowadays. Football-on-TV is ideologically forceful, ideological in the sense of trying to pre-form the follower’s response to it. The broadcasters don’t actually use the fan’s own phrase for commitment (tellingly it’s “hooked on the game”). However, we’re told how much it matters, even more if you bet on it apparently and what our roles are. If you’re shapely, gorgeous and Brazilian you’ll be featured jiggling; if you’re overweight, tattooed and Geordie you’ll be crying – and never vice versa.

But this is all conditioning, not chemical addiction. I can resist the ideology of the lifestyle. My television receiver is still grossly low-definition and cuboid. There is a distinct absence of bestubbled, pizza-eating, twentysomething metrosexuals drinking premium lager responsibly on my TV couch. What is harder for us to resist is the football itself: Thursday night and you can’t keep yourself from watching the Europa League and knowing it’s wrong, wrong, wrong – but oddly compelling. If it’s not this external, ideological, persuasion what is the internal, personal, basis of this addiction?

There are four candidates. There’s Belonging or Community, the species-old need to feel part of a gang against the world. But that’s more about match-going. There’s Hope, almost in the National Lottery sense of one day it could be you and your club. There’s Victory, the candidate with the momentum behind it. The biggest clubs win the most matches and therefore create the most happiness and thus attract the most ardent followers. But none of these three explain the lure of any football on TV.

Perhaps the chemical key to understanding football as a drug lies in Excitement. John Bunyard, an expert in neuroscience and mass behaviour (and a Maidstone United fan), hypothesises that the answer lies in the way dopamine is released and acts on our mental processes. Dopamime is a neurotransmitter closely associated with reward-seeking behaviours like addiction and consumption. In his hypothesis, crudely paraphrased, our football-watching minds are constantly and almost subconsciously predicting what will happen next (will that cross reach Rooney? will his shot go in?) and being rewarded if we are right (pleasure) and over-rewarded (utter joy) if the outcome is better than was reasonably predicted (coming from two down to win). Your mind/brain/body likes it when your predictions are borne out by reality yet manages to readjust if the outcome is less favourable than predicted (drawing at home after being two down is not so bad).

All of this incessant “too much, just right, too little” activity, thousands of times a game, is much more rewarding for our brains than staring at a cow in a field or putting up shelves. Football, in particular versus other sports, has the capacity to offer sudden danger at both ends, be unpredictable and swerve in the nature of its final outcome. This may be why a 4-3 win, with the lead changing three times, is exhausting, exhilarating and lives in the mind for decades with the hope it can happen again. Even in the Europa League.

Well, it’s more of a theory of addiction than Ronni Ancona manages. And unlike alcohol and drugs dopamime is something natural acting naturally. Should it be encouraged? Ultimately our attachments to the game are more complex than any simple drugs analogy will allow. McGowan attempts cold turkey in the 2008-09 season – no involvement whatsoever – and is tormented when news of Hull winning at Arsenal to go third in the League accidentally slips through his football blackout. He’s desperate to know more. In the end it’s a compromise. He decides to cut down consumption and Ancona puts the blame on “the complete and utter overkill of what is essentially a decent and exciting game”.

The great irony is that this struggle between Ancona and McGowan only gets published because they are celebrities. And the growth of celebrity culture is the only phenomenon that matches football in the scale and contemporaneity of its addictive spread.

From WSC 274 December 2009

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