Nearly all of us enjoy one or more sports, as participants or observers or both. Born in Northern England shortly after the end of the Second World War, I was brought up among people – men, at least – who were avid followers of cricket and football at local and national levels. As I grew up I learned to play cricket to a reasonable level and I remain enthusiastic about the game. I was pretty hopeless at football (known across the Atlantic as ‘soccer’) but I still like to watch well-contested matches, mainly on television these days.
Just as most of us enjoy at least one sport, so many of us become followers or supporters or fans of a particular team or (in sports such as golf, tennis and cycling) particular individuals. I’m no exception. In football I’m a follower of one Premier League club and of course of my national team, England, and I support our local youth team financially. In cricket I’m an England supporter and I’m on our village cricket team’s committee – one of the teams I played for when I was young. This sort of involvement promotes camaraderie, the sharing of successes and failures, even among non-players, and it encourages friendly rivalry and banter with the followers of other teams. Provided such camaraderie and rivalry remain within the bounds of decency and restraint they’re good for everyone, players and supporters alike.
Among the crowd at an international cricket match you immerse yourself in the singing and cheering, the applause and cat-calling, and with the aid of a few drinks you become louder and more boisterous. It’s all good fun and there’s seldom any trouble. I’ve never seen anything worse than the occasional short-lived fist-fight at a cricket match, and on big occasions the stewards jump on that sort of outburst pretty quickly. Some fools who’ve drunk too much make spectacles of themselves by running on to the playing field, but they’re soon rounded up and cause no more than a minor nuisance, apart from embarrassing themselves and their families. I’ve never seen vandalism during or following a cricket match. And by and large, the players and coaches are modest, articulate and sportsmanlike during press interviews. I believe those qualities are a good influence on young people, and they probably foster civilised behaviour among the supporters.
The football World Cup 2018 has just ended and the young and inexperienced England team performed better than expected, in the end losing a closely-fought semi-final. In contrast to England football performances during the past several decades, this was applauded and praised by the press and induced a feeling of pride in the country as a whole. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the team manager, Gareth Southgate, is a gentleman: modest, unassuming, articulate, quietly accepting responsibility for errors, making sure his team members talk openly to the press and behave in exemplary fashion on and off the field. He was pleased by England’s achievement but pointed out that despite reaching the semi-final they’re not one of the world’s top four sides and there’s room for (and a reasonable prospect of) improvement. Success or failure aside, all this is admirable. I only wish more football managers, and more people in general, behaved like Mr Southgate.
But a small percentage of England football fans remain a national embarrassment. There’s no excuse for drunken, loutish behaviour, for racist chanting at opponents, for attacking Swedish-owned shops at the time of the quarter-final victory over Sweden, for wrecking bus shelters, vandalising shops and damaging an ambulance. The percentage might be small, but they explain why although I (and many others) can enjoy joining the crowd at a cricket match, I’m reluctant to join a football crowd. At a cricket match I can relax. At a football match I’d be in a state of anxiety.
I can only hope that our national football supporters will follow the example of the cricket crowds, or at least take inspiration from Mr Southgate.