Magazine article The Spectator

Football Hooligans Rush in Where Sir Walter Scott Genteelly Trod

Magazine article The Spectator

Football Hooligans Rush in Where Sir Walter Scott Genteelly Trod

Article excerpt

Do I care if the Germans beat us in war? A great deal, obviously. If then beat us in diplomacy, over the EU? Yes again. In culture? Well, they've already done that, haven't they? Think of music, theology, philosophy. So it can't matter all that much. Then what if they beat us at football? Personally, I could not care less. Herbert Spencer used to say, `To play billiards well is a sign of an ill-spent youth.' To which I add, `Enthusiasm for football is primary evidence of arrested development.' Intellectuals who write learnedly about this beastly game, politicians who suck up to electors by pretending they support their local team, financiers who buy clubs to divert attention from their defalcations - all are humbugs who arouse my contempt. Of the institutions we exported to the world in the days of our imperial glory, football is the least defensible. It is now the scourge of the earth, responsible for more violence than Hollywood and TV together. And its reign of thuggery, by my computation, is only just beginning, as more and more nations adopt the game, air flights become cheaper, the media whip up the frenzy, and those who have hitherto held aloof join the scrimmage. It is only a matter of time before the United States scraps its own elitist form of football and submits to plebeian soccer, and by that stage two billion Chinese and Indians will have caught the plague.

I blame the British for smearing a pseudoveneer of gentility over what is naturally a brutal game, and in particular I blame Sir Walter Scott. All the early records of football from prehistoric times to the 19th century testify to its savagery. They played it in ancient Greece, as we know from Homer, who has a lost ball wake the sleeping Odysseus. The Chinese played it long before Christ; so did the Japanese. Balls were inflated bladders or leather stuffed with hair. It was known in pre-Renaissance Florence as calcio or kick. All games produced fighting. All governments tried to stamp it out. The first occasion I can find on which the English authorities introduced anti-footer legislation occurred under Richard II, a finicky king responsible for bringing in the pocket-handkerchief and the three-pronged fork. He found football abhorrent, but maybe his campaign against it helps to explain why he was eventually dethroned and murdered in Pontefract Castle, a dismal Yorkshire hole in what is now the heart of soccer country.

English governments prohibited the game by decrees in council up to and including the reign of Charles II, who loathed this grubby sport reeking of misogyny and exclusively male pleasures. But he seems to have given up in despair. For a time the game had support from the ultraProtestant clergy, as an alternative to the Catholic-style carnivals at Shrovetide, Every town had its own rules about how many could play, but in many there was no numbers limit. Derby, which made a fuss about Shrovetide football, had 500-a-side games regularly, and sometimes more than 1,000, even as late as 1820. Games began with what was termed `civil play', but at a certain stage `rough play' was declared and then the fighting started. Almost the earliest account, by Joseph Strutt, which dates from 1801, notes that in some places the game `hots up', as he puts it; then `the players kick each other's shins without the least ceremony'. The Norfolk variation of this two-style playing was known as `camping', the game starting with `kicking camp' (fair play), and ending in `savage camp', no more than a free-for-all fight. …

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