I’ve never been anywhere close to a die-hard football fan. I’ve never followed a team passionately for season after season and have been to fewer football games than I have fingers on my hand. I wasn’t brought up on it, it’s never been the bread and butter it is for many up and down the UK.
Yet, I have loads of mates – at home and at uni – to whom the game is their secular religion. The starting eleven at my local Preston North End are my mates’ divine pantheon on earth; heralded, exulted, and praised.
Because of this, I have grown to understand the beautiful game a bit more as I’ve grown up. I’ve slowly but surely discovered the essence that makes football so exciting for so many people. I could even describe to you the offside rule if you liked.
I’ve therefore paid more attention to this year’s Euros than any other international football championship that I’ve been alive for. I watched a few of the group stage matches with my housemate and whilst pulling pints in my local pub for England’s quarter- and semi-final matches, have been getting far too engrossed in the game for my usual liking – I nearly dropped two beers during the uproar following Simon Kjær’s own goal.
There’s something quite magical about the way international football can grip even the most unlikely of supporters and get them in a frenzy. That’s because it has a unifying power and, as the media has been right to suggest lately, no England team in recent history has had this power to unite as Gareth Southgate’s squad. With the philanthropy of Rashford, the humility of Kane, and the trims of Foden and Phillips, the team has managed to capture England’s imaginations, making all of us proud to have them representing us, in all their strength and diversity.
We admire them, we respect them, we almost worship them.
So for me, a football outsider, the beautiful game has become a replacement for traditional religion, as our population grows more irreligious. This is because it affords us a sense of community and of liberation; two key tenets of traditional religious society. In the context of Euro 2020, football gives us a common purpose and shared belief to unite around, it gives us some solid meaning in a chaotic world. In terms of liberation, it gives the country an opportunity for release after more than a year of stultifying regulation.
Euro 2020 has allowed people to express emotions – within a collective, as a national community – that they haven’t been able to for sixteen months because of the coronavirus pandemic. We allow the animalistic, carnal urges to take over, which we see when fans jump atop telephone boxes and launch pints into the air in celebration.
Of course, there are those fans who allow these liberating energies too far. For example, those who boo players taking the knee, or who shamefully shined a laser into Schmeichel’s face during Kane’s decisive penalty. This is where the emotion is taken too far.
However, it is healthy to allow our emotions to lead us at times. When we do this, we purge our emotions in a world that commands we remain stoic. This practice has been part of our cultures for centuries, and celebrating football is only the continuation of this: the beautiful game has become a version of the medieval carnival, or one of Shakespeare’s comedies, where intense emotion upturned the social order, and you find affinity with people who you don’t usually associate with. That’s something magnificent, that’s something to be cherished and celebrated, that’s why it’s called ‘the beautiful game’.
This leads me to conclude with hope that football still retains that core unifying essence that makes it the country’s most popular sport, despite the sport in recent years being drowned in technology, data, and statistics.
The Euros haven’t turned me convert or persuaded me to watch a footie game weekly either on my couch at home, or at Deepdale. Nevertheless, the magic of the Euros will mean that on Sunday, between pulling pints in the pub, I’ll certainly be on the edge of my seat as Southgate’s squad take on Italy in their attempt to put 55 years of hurt to bed.