I'm a white man living in a small city in the UK. One aspect of my privilege is that I'm allowed to blend in. I can go about my day without anyone judging me, worrying about me, or making inaccurate assumptions based on my appearance. I can pass unimpeded. Security guards don't check me out when I enter shops. Pubs don't go quiet when I approach the bar. I'm not the kind of person that makes taxi drivers nervous. At least, I'm not until they start to talk about football:
‘Did you see the match last night’?
‘Who's going to win the league then’?
‘I have no idea’.
‘What about that goal’?
These conversations rarely go well.
If I try to bluff I end up sounding like Alan Partridge's infamous countdown to World Cup '94. I'm all: ‘Twat! That was liquid football’; ‘He must have a foot like a traction engine;’ and, ‘Oof, eat my goal’. Last time I tried to talk about the mechanics of the game I think I said something about someone being a ‘good kicker’.
If I don't bluff, it's worse. ‘Who do you support’? I'm asked, and I say that I don't support any one and I see the driver glancing at me in the mirror with new understanding. I see him realising: I am actually a freak.
In the awkward silence that generally follows, I imagine him wondering: If I don't fill my days by talking about football, watching football or playing football, what do I do? With what pretentious and deviant activities do I fill my time? How do I avoid thinking about mortality? Maybe I don't...
The truth is that even though I look unremarkable my life is probably quite strange to many of my fellow citizens. Instead of sport, my head is chock-a-block with weird fragments of avant-garde prose. I work as a publisher and like to edit works of challenging and subversive fiction. Which I suppose makes me just the kind of person the Daily Mail is always warning people about: A member of the dreaded metropolitan elite... Although few people get to know that - unless they get me onto the subject of football and start to realise that I Am Not One of Them.
Sometimes, I'm glad to be unusual, even if that makes me unable to communicate with a large proportion of my fellow British males. I think resentfully about flag-waving. That the unthinking tribalism of following a team is just a localised form of nationalism. That these ‘teams’ are often just cynical commercial operations. That FIFA is one of the most corrupt organisations on earth. That the next World Cup is in Russia, lending legitimacy to Putin's kleptocracy. That I have nothing in common with the people who will play there. Why should I care about these preening millionaire hair-gels who have been shut off from the world from the age of 11, brought up to a world of obscene wealth and power? They sure as hell don't care about me.
But once, when I was floating away on this cloud of self-righteous indignation, a taxi driver said to me: ‘So you were no good at school then’?
And yes, thanks for asking. I was rubbish. Mal-co-ordinated. I could barely see the ball let alone arrange my limbs well enough to kick it with any purpose or direction.
‘It's always the crap ones who hate football’, he said. ‘If you hadn't been picked last all the time, you know, your life might have been entirely different’.
Yes, I thought. I could have been like you, driving a taxi in Norwich late at night in the rain, grinding out a conversation with some snotty publisher... But then, I had a flash of uncomfortable insight. The driver was right. A good proportion of my life had been defined by my reaction against football. Most of my friends at school had been almost as hopeless at team sports as I was. I had retreated inside to read books at break times. I had practised with words because I couldn't do keepy-uppys. I had made my heroes Bob Dylan and Beat writers because I didn't care about David Beckham...
...And if that realisation weren't unsettling enough, I've recently had to do an even more unexpected reckoning with my own prejudices. While I was vaguely condemning football as Brexity tribal nonsense, actual footballers were making far more astute and compassionate political comments than just about anyone else in the UK.
‘If everyone decided to go their own way, where would the world be’? asked the former England international John Barnes in a fierce interview with Sky News, pointing out Britain's moral duty to stand in solidarity with our friends and neighbours. Liverpool Manager Jurgen Klopp has also spoken eloquently about the need for a new referendum on the terms of Brexit. Gary Lineker, meanwhile, has not only been Twitter war on Brexiteers and related nationalist thugs around the world, he's been hilarious when he's been doing it. ‘I must say your ability to continually tweet from deep inside Trump's bowels is rather impressive,’ he told the Orange One's chief UK apologist Piers Morgan. ‘I was wrong when I called Farage a dick and I apologise’, he also wrote. ‘He's much worse than that’.
Perhaps I've just replaced one set of prejudices with another. Maybe I only admire these political footballers because they comfortably reflect my own beliefs. But I've also had thoughts about football that take me outside my comfort zone. Like the fact that the sport has been better at supporting and making the most of a diverse range of talents than UK publishing. I who claim to be bookish and to know nothing about soccer can name far more people of colour who have been signed to major football teams than have received good publishing deals. The truth is that in spite of its faults, the big world of football has done some things far better than my own small and self-celebratory scene. So perhaps I should take the plank out of my own eye before banging on about the motes in footballers'. Heck if I did that I might sometimes understand what's happening on the pitch. Although I'm never going to try to be able to talk about it...