Martin Amis once said that “every British male, at some time or another, goes to his last football match. It may well be his first football match”. I mention it because we are entering now into a month of Total Football and the World Cup, and it seemed the right occasion to make the heretical, borderline-treasonous argument that there are other sports that are much better than football to occupy our collective consciousness. But first, this is what happened at my last football match.
It was Nottingham Forest against Wolves at the City Ground in Nottingham. At the time, the new manager of Wolves was David Jones who had left his previous position to defend himself against charges of molestation, of which he was eventually (and completely) cleared. I remember sitting in a sweltering section of thick-necked, bulging-eyed partisanship nearest to the away fans as the managers walked out to the dugouts. The Forest fans rose in unison, singing: “There’s only one David Jones. There’s only one David Jones”. How heartening: a decent welcome for an apparently decent man, recently recovered from an unjust calumny that nearly destroyed his career.
A woman leaving a rugby match is unlikely to be accompanied by a group of slavering lads, asking loudly whether she takes it up the arse.
The song continued, alas: “With a packet of sweets, and a cheeky smile, David Jones is a fucking paedophile.” To my left, a pot-bellied, chain-laden guy in a Forest shirt had hoisted his young lad onto his shoulders, all the better to get involved in the broiling scene surrounding them. The child was about 5; he had his hands in the air, a Damien-glint in his eye as he got to the punchline, which he sang loudly along with his Dad. There was real venom in the stadium; no-one wanted to be considered a soft-touch, a paedophileophile. “You fucking lesbian”, came the elated shout behind me directed at Jones, from an excitable bloke so covered in Burberry he looked like he was making a satirical point about Chav culture, and who was evidently happy to toss about any sexual slur of which his testosterone-raddled, thought-vacated brain could conceive.
All this made me think that rugby is better than football, for instance. One immediate advantage is that you can go to an England rugby international without becoming a complicit participant in a BNP march. People at rugby tend not, as a group, to muse on that ticklish question of whether it is better to be a Paki or a Turk. A woman leaving a rugby match is unlikely to be accompanied by a group of slavering lads, asking loudly whether she takes it up the arse (and not only because proper rugby boys would rather slaver over each other in a naked, drunken celebration of their own masculinity, with all the arse-taking which that implies).
But an argument solely based on crowd behaviour is probably insufficient and certainly rather snobbish. Rugby crowds are more middle-class, and if you are middle-class like Martin Amis (or me) then you will probably prefer them. And, anyway, politeness is not necessarily the defining quality you want in a sporting spectacle. At a Leicester Tigers match I was once cautioned by an owlish old duffer for inappropriately tapping my leg too loudly while I nervously watched the game. Of course, if I had been at the football, I could have told him to fuck off, the old cunt, and felt much better. But I wasn’t, so I didn’t, and felt worse as a result.
Some would argue that rugby is more satisfying a spectacle because it is more tactically-involved. For all the puffed-up punditry, football can be seen as just eleven guys kicking a ball around.
Rugby is also better than football because it is more honest a test of strength and courage; it is more honestly physical. The heroic England captain Martin Johnson highlighted the comparison, noting that rugby players spend 80 minutes trying to pretend that they are not injured, whereas footballer players spend 90 minutes pretending that they are. Rugby is better too because there is greater equality among the top teams, due to a stringent salary cap. So, while Leicester Tigers have the biggest ground and fan-base and make the most money, they can attract no higher a number of big players than Sale, who have to play in a wind-thrashed, gloomy ground to a couple of thousand hardy Northerners. The result is that Sale were able to hammer Leicester to become the champions of England, the equivalent of Wigan toppling Chelsea to win the Premiership.
Some would argue that rugby is more satisfying a spectacle because it is more tactically-involved. For all the puffed-up punditry, football can be seen as just eleven guys kicking a ball around. Rugby is more complicated, with more set-pieces and pre-designed moves. But perhaps too much so; critics call rugby the kick-and-clap game: two groups of fat men pile into each other; the ball is passed to a marginally slimmer man, who kicks the ball into touch; and everybody claps.
Surely, what would be perfect is a game that combines the best features of the two sports: the accessible skill of the football players with the physicality and bravery of rugby players; crowds that are vocal but not vicious; a game that is not the product of the middle- or working- class but can appeal across the social spectrum. Happily, the game does exist, and it is called Rugby League.
Rugby League is rugby union without the stoppages, without the kicking-and-clapping. In England, there is the Super League, which is exciting enough, but for real rugby you have to watch the Australian NRL. The ball is always in play, except when the player with the ball is sat down so hard the ground shakes beneath him.
The players are not the milksop millionaires that flounce across football pitches; in rugby league, you can only pay twenty players in the squad more than twenty thousand pounds – or the cost of five suits for David Beckham, or a thousand scally prostitutes for Wayne Rooney – as an annual salary.
So – in the coming month – while you are forced into the shared bonhomie of sweat-soaked pubs, supporting a group of overpaid nancy-boys who would run you over in their Chryslers as soon as look at you, pause for a moment and think whether there might not be something more in the sporting firmament. And when the England team return home – quarter-finals, unlucky on penalties – let’s turn Rugby League into the national sport, celebrate the athletic ability of real men, and go over to Australia and give those ex-cons a damned good licking. All together now: English till I die, I’m English till I die…