I live near Stamford Bridge, so their scarves are blue and white and rather new, and their clothes are a kind of stylish yet rugged outdoor-wear worn by urban professionals everywhere. During the season they are here almost every week, filling the streets and the train stations and kebab shops. It’s hard for me not to think ill of them. The mere physical fact of thousands of strangers occupying space in my neighbourhood is enough to set me on edge, as if somehow this is my place, and that I understand it and love it in a way they do not and they are only using it to get to their stupid football match.
Which is, of course, a foolish way to think.
Just as foolish as my old snobbery to football. When I was growing up in Queensland, everyone followed “the footy”, by which they meant Rugby League. The Brisbane Broncos were winning almost every game they played and held the Winfield Cup, as it was then called. I affected not to like it, simply because I wanted to be different, or perhaps to show everyone how different I was. Sources differ.
As I grew up a little more, somehow it became less important to show that I was different and more important to show that I was one of us. So I started to watch bits of games on the telly with Dad and James, slowly learning about tries and conversions and dummy-halfs and being off-side. The game grew on me, slowly but surely.
At its worst, League is a dull, grinding game. One man runs for five metres before hitting a wall of solid meat. Everyone stops. Repeat this four more times. Then kick the ball as far down the field as you can. The other side picks up the ball and does the same thing in the opposite direction. Repeat.
At its best – the kind of football you see played at Origin – this same stodginess and linearity provides the structure for some amazingly creative and exciting play. You have to be tricky if you are going to get past the opposition.
And once you do … there’s hardly anything as exciting or gripping as watching Alfie Langer wearing maroon and speeding down the wing of the field, untouchable, to score a try for Queensland.
Even so, I never became a passionate fan. I’d always watch Origin and watch the occasional Broncos game, but the sports pages just bored me, and I didn’t see any point in watching two New South Wales teams play each other.
When we moved to Tasmania, we stopped watching League. Down there, “footy” means Australian Rules, and the game I grew up watching is mocked as “thugby”. Tasmanians care deeply about the footy and most that I know are passionate supporters of their teams. I tried to get into the game, and to an extent I succeeded – I won’t go out of my way to watch a game, but if I’m given the choice between that and Masterchef I’m watching the footy – but I’m never going to care as much about the Brisbane Lions as I did about the Brisbane Broncos.
Now I’m here in the UK, and football is different yet again. Aussie geeks are supposed to like soccer, I think, and I even played a little when I was nine or ten, but I can’t seem to actually watch a game all the way through. I can’t find a way in, so it just sits there perfectly spherical, somehow managing to be at this same time both polished and dull.
I’m missing out, I know that. I don’t get to join in on those crisp Sunday afternoons when well-heeled, rosy-cheeked, and eager families tramp into Stamford Bridge. Even the shared misery after a 4-0 thumping has something communal, some sense of belonging, that I’m outside.
Happily, London is less of a monoculture than Tasmania or outback Queensland: to be apathetic about football here doesn’t make a statement in the same way that it does back home. And although I still do stupidly, pathetically care about what people think of me, I hope I’m letting that master me less.
If I could just convince the Chelsea fans to stand on the right at Earls Court, then everything would be rosy.
Next week’s word: guard.