In a departure from my usual subject matter, today I’m not writing about conflict or war or death or politics. Instead, to paraphrase the late great Bill Shankly, I’ve decided to write about a subject much more important.
I’ve been reflecting recently on what it is about football that is so utterly compelling (for at least 49% of the population anyway), and I thought I'd share my thoughts with you.
The catalyst for this bout of reflection is the strange but endearing behaviour of my football-daft 6-year-old son. To say he’s football crazy doesn’t quite capture it. Every night this week, despite my protestations, I have found him in bed with his football kit on.
By way of explanation, he is currently attending a two-week summer football camp. Such is his enthusiasm, he surreptitiously puts his kit on the night before!
He is at football camp from dawn, when I drop him off, until dusk, when I collect him. A pause for lunch, two showers a day and some ping pong during any occasional idle moments. But, in the main, it’s football. All day long.
Now, you’d think this would satisfy his appetite for the beautiful game. You’d be wrong.
On Tuesday, we cycled home from camp and he played another hour in the garden. Dinner was followed by more football, this time on television. He watched the first hour of a rather turgid encounter between Italy and Portugal before finally, at around 9.30 pm, succumbing to sleep. I carried him off to bed and watched the last 30 minutes of the game myself, without his relentless stream of childish commentary. Later, when I went to his room to switch his light off, I discovered that he’d put on his kit, dreaming, no doubt, about football!
But where does this obsession come from?
Now, I love football as much as the next man. I have a season ticket for the local team (Hellas Verona) and I play five-a-sides every Tuesday. On average, I probably spend around an hour a day playing football with Leo and, although I don’t have Sky television, I will watch just about any match I can find on the telly. In an effort to broaden his mind beyond Serie A, this year we’ve started watching MOTD together on a Sunday morning. It’s one of the highlights of my week.
So, I suppose, I must take some responsibility for my son’s interest in the game. But, I’ve never forced him to play. In fact, it’s usually the opposite.
His nonno (maternal grandfather) and Zio (maternal Uncle) must also take some responsibility. They are fanatical followers of the Italian game and to watch a televised match with them is an unforgettable experience. Extravagant gestures, colourful language, tears, tantrums and endless theatricals. His uncle is even called Pelle for goodness sake!
Leo, of course, is not alone in his passion. Some, but not all, of his peers share his fanaticism. In a male heavy classroom, football is the playground lingua franca. When the business end of the Panini sticker season arrives, fathers (and mothers) hunt down elusive stickers with a determination bordering on the maniacal.
But is this obsession with football healthy?
In a wonderful article, Gary Linekar describes the damage caused by pushy parents screaming abuse from the sidelines. I myself know many parents in Italy who have consciously steered their children away from the murky world of childhood football, concerned about poor standards of coaching and the unsavoury culture that surrounds the game in Italy (corruption, hooliganism, racism, vanity, unsporting behaviour), they prefer rugby, tennis or basketball.
I grew up in Glasgow, which has its fair share of ugly prejudice and blind fanaticism (and that’s just the Partick Thistle fans), so I know all about the darker side of the game. Growing up playing football on the oversized red blaze fields of the Glaswegian hinterland (Bishopbriggs, Cumbernauld, Summerston), I remember the absurdity of kids playing on full-sized football pitches and the meglomaniac coaches with little beyond a long ball, win-at-any-cost mentality. Of my many talented contemporaries only Steven Thompson enjoyed success as a professional player with spells at Crystal Palace, St Mirren (including two memorable goals as they thrashed Celtic 4–0 in the SPL in 2010) and Falkirk. With better youth coaching, perhaps some of our equally talented team mates could have shared his success?
I was never in their league though. The perennial substitute, I was occasionally awarded a starting berth at left back, but years of disappointment on the sidelines eventually drove me and my brother towards rugby.
Perversely, I find that years of good quality rugby training from skilled coaches have improved me as a football player. How to exploit an overlap, how to use my body to protect the ball, how to time a run and, above all, how to play without fear. That is why I hope that Leo enjoys a range of sports, not just football.
Thankfully the pitches Leo plays on are small. The goals likewise. The clear objective, thanks to a great team of coaches, is to have fun, to encourage participation and to improve technical skills. Retaining possession (a principle I don’t think I really understood until my late 20s) is key.
But there are signs, usually from opposition parents, of the unpleasant atmosphere that sometimes pervades youth football. As a spectator, I have made it my policy never to shout anything other than encouragement from the touchline. I hope I can honour this commitment as Leo gets older.
Anyway, he (a tireless midfielder with a decent goal-scoring record) is far better than I was at his age. Hopefully he will never have to endure the disappointing realisation that enthusiasm is not always matched by ability.
That said, a week younger than Luca Toni, my own football career is enjoying something of an Indian summer. As fit and healthy as I’ve ever been, I’m enjoying playing football now as much as I ever have. Balmy late summer evenings on the local five-a-side pitch with a group of 40-something dads who play a friendly-but-competitive game. That’s as good as it gets for me.