All is dream: why the fantasy world of football doesn’t need real-life villains

by , November 27, 2014

I don’t mind confessing that I shed a tear last weekend as Lewis Hamilton ended a titanic season-long battle to secure his second Formula One World Championship. With Forest recording an emphatic win at Wolves to bring us back into play-off contention, it made for a pretty perfect sporting weekend. But even when I’m not so emotionally invested as I am with Forest and that brilliant boy Hamilton, there’s something about sporting trophy ceremonies that always has a lachrymose effect on me.

I’m not usually one for outward displays of emotion, but show me a sportsman or woman – even a foreign champion in an event I don’t particularly care for – lifting a trophy that represents the realisation of their life’s dreams and dedication, and I’ll be welling up quicker than a hormonal teenage girl who just broke up with her first love and is watching The Notebook while peeling onions.

What is it about sport, which the rational side of me realises is completely trivial compared to so much in the melancholy world that really ought to warrant tears, that brings out my sensitive side? I honestly think that sport’s power to make a grown man reach for the tissues is the fact that it is as close as we ever get to make-believe coming true – at its best, sport is a real-life fairytale.

I’m something of a film buff, but very few movies get me choked up. I’m more likely to make an insightful comment about the lighting effects than blub during the big kiss scene. Actually, I’m more likely to make some derisive remark about how this clichéd happy ending has been telegraphed since the implausible ‘meet cute’ 90 minutes ago.

It’s very easy to be critically detached, never mind downright cynical, about football too, but personally I wouldn’t follow a football team if there wasn’t an emotional element – perhaps an emotional element I’m incapable of expressing elsewhere in life (but that’s one to discuss with my therapist… once we’ve got 20 minutes of small-talk about the weekend’s sport out of the way, naturally).

There is no rational reason to follow a football club unless you have an emotional attachment with that particular side. For a start, the highs you’ll feel when your club eventually wins a piece of silverware, or even just a regular league match as Forest did on Saturday, will be made all the more exhilarating because of the miserable times you’ve endured before (and the miserable times you’ll endure again). Edgar Allen Poe once wrote, ‘The memory of past sorrow – is it not present joy?’ Without the lows, there would be no point in the highs of football, but why would you put yourself through those lows unless there was some irrational, emotional attachment?

Football is mostly fantasy – during those bad times, as we watch our hapless first XI getting stuffed at home on a freezing afternoon for the umpteenth time this season, we dream that in the future, when all is well, it will be our club taking the place of United, City or Chelsea, hoisting the big trophy at the end of the year. For most football fans, doomed to support a mediocre club for reasons they can’t properly explain, that fantasy will never become a reality. But Forest fans, more than most, should know that sometimes – just sometimes – it does.

That’s why football makes me cry – unlike Frodo flinging that pesky ring into the fires of Mount Doom or Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence finally realising they are meant to be together after two hours of skirting around the issue, it’s hard to scoff and sneer when the scoreline ‘Manchester City 0 Wigan Athletic 1’ is being flashed around Wembley Stadium at the end of the FA Cup Final.

When you understand how imbalanced modern football is and you consider how impossible such a result seemed, not only at the start of the season but even 90 minutes into the match, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the sheer bloody fact of it – the impossible just happened, the fantasy just came true.

Complete indifference to Wigan prior to that moment mattered not a jot as Emmerson Boyce lifted the famous trophy aloft and my eyes filled. Even f***ing Liverpool’s comeback from three goals behind in Istanbul in 2005 had my cheeks wet. Even Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, despite me finding televised tennis (not to mention Murray himself) incredibly tedious, had me sobbing. The bloody London Olympics fortnight was a write-off – shares in Kleenex must have gone through the roof.

The sheer impossibility of these remarkable people, who decided in childhood that they were going to be the best at something, then, despite the staggering odds against them, actually went ahead and became the best at that thing, is fantasy in its purest form. What can happen on a sporting field makes the very best literature, cinema and theatre seem utterly trite.

Sadly, what started me off thinking about sport as the ultimate fantasy experience was not the prodigious Lewis Hamilton crossing the finish line or even the Mighty Reds recording a fine win, but events of recent weeks that have cast a shadow over the world of football.

The discussions about Ched Evans and Malky Mackay’s respective returns to the game after their recent disgraces have been fascinating, but also a little tragic. It has been argued that both were people who had made mistakes and deserved another chance. Normally I’d be inclined to agree – being a pretty liberal person, I accept that Evans, loathsome creature that he is, has nevertheless served his time and now must try to be rehabilitated – but football, the fantasy world that it is, exists on a completely different plane to everyday morality. Why should his rehabilitation from such a repulsive crime sully our beautiful game?

The main objection to Evans stepping back onto a football field is the example it would set to younger fans. But in the modern game, where footballers are generally regarded as overpaid playboys and not the valiant men-of-the-people we like to think they were in the past, is there such a thing as a role model? What parent could honestly say they would be happy to hear their child describe any of the recent England captains as their hero? Rooney, Gerrard, Ferdinand, Terry – all have black marks on their record when it comes to morality. Even David Beckham, of whom there is much to admire personally, cheated on Posh Spice – the swine!

The tragedy is that we accept this state of affairs (in some cases, literally a state of affairs…) – we accept the fact that amongst today’s footballers, convicted rapist Ched Evans and foul-mouthed bigot Malky Mackay are not particularly egregious figures. It’s hard to say Evans should categorically be banned from football when other ne’er-do-wells like Luke McCormick, Lee Hughes and, most pertinently, Marlon King have been allowed to resume their careers after serving time. It’s hard to say Mackay’s texts were any worse than things said or done on the field by John Terry, Luis Suárez or Nicolas Anelka.

Football today, rocked by match-fixing, racism, bribery, corruption and all kinds of other unpleasantness, is in the gutter. But with Evans, the authorities in this country at least had a chance to pull themselves out of the scum and breathe some fresh air for a change. It was a big enough case for them to take a stand against immorality (if such a word can even come close to describing the offence of which Evans was convicted).

The FA has several codes of conduct, one of which asks adult players to declare that ‘on and off the field’ they will ‘display and promote high standards of behaviour’. If what Evans was found guilty of does not constitute a low standard of behaviour, I don’t know what does.

Why was this not enough grounds to exclude Evans from re-joining Sheffield United? It would have saved that club from having to weigh up the cost of losing a player they paid good money for against the adverse publicity his return would bring – even if the side public opinion would fall down on should have been obvious from the start.

Meanwhile Wigan, a team at last mention I was shedding an emotional tear over, have hired Malky Mackay midway through an FA investigation into racist texts he allegedly sent. By hiring Mackay, Dave Whelan has effectively said he doesn’t care what the result of that investigation will be. The evidence we’ve seen so far suggests the possibility that Mackay’s prejudices affected his work, and this at a time when football is trying to prove it doesn’t need a US-style ‘Rooney Rule’ to help ethnic minority coaches and mangers make their way to the top.

Under the current rules, it seems Dave Whelan can hire who he likes. But the current rules are a sham because they don’t support football in what it should to be – a fantasy world of heroes, quests and impossible feats. And yes, a good fantasy needs villains too, but pantomime villains like Mario Balotelli, Robbie Savage and Vinnie Jones. The villainy of Evans and Mackay is all too real for the make-believe of the football field.

It’s time football said enough is enough. It’s time football said: ‘This is our game and we don’t want rapists, racists, homophobes, misogynists, drug-takers, philanderers and thugs anywhere near it.’ Playing professional football in the country in which it was invented should be a privilege, but something is only a privilege when it can be taken away. Footballers treat their place in the game as a god-given right, and with the laissez-faire attitude of the powers-that-be, who can blame them?

Has it never occurred to our footballing authorities, who continue to pay lip service to anti-racism and sexual equality campaigns, that it is their responsibility to set the bar high? If football is a fantasy world, they are the D&D Dungeon Masters, holding the power to decide who is worthy of the adventure. They have the powers to strike down the villains and cover the heroes in glory, but they shirk that responsibility, so what is the deterrent against ‘low standards of behaviour’?

Ultimately it will be to the detriment of the game if I watch Wigan take on Man City and am forced to chose between rooting for a side managed by a racist and one owned by the ruler of a country that punishes homosexuality by death. I accept that there isn’t much the FA, Football League, PFA and LMA can do about Sheikh Mansour and human rights in the UAE, but there is something they could do about Malky Mackay.

In the end it was up to the public to force Sheffield United’s hand on the Ched Evans issue. In the end it will be the public who force the footballing authorities to get their houses in order, because if football carries on down this road, the road towards real-life villainy and away from the fantasy, the dreams, the escapism, then more of us will find ourselves unable to get emotionally involved, unable to shed a tear when a team we’ve barely given a second thought to before pull off the FA Cup upset of the century. If the majority of football fans are like me – repressed and cynical, only able to get their dose of sentimentality via the fantasy of sport – the more the grim reality of the everyday encroaches onto the beautifully unreal game, the more of us will switch off and shed our tears elsewhere.