Sport is the greatest, certainly the most precious of all our inventions, apart from possibly the condom. Similarly to the condom, it saved us from what we might otherwise have become. Or limited us at least. We cannot exactly claim the human race has become a blissed-out no-murder bunch of hippies since Burnley started playing Wigan, but prior to sport being cast as the pre-eminent form of human competition, we were shaping up to be a quite unspeakably violent lot.
It’s hard not to think occasionally of the death toll – total – of humans caused by humans, as compared to pigs caused by pigs, tigers by tigers. Plus, we kill them too.
In the not-recent past, if we wanted to settle a score with a nearby village, we didn’t do it in a particularly nice way. Here’s a description of the old type of football, between villages, obviously prior to having a proper set of rules and Alan Shearer to judge whether anybody would be ‘disappointed with that’: ‘By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder.’
The fact that we arrived at sport, as it is now, to prove that Liverpool is better than Manchester and France has more power than Greece, speaks volumes of the noble human desire to find a better, more elegant solution to things which hurt. Our immunisation program – one of the wonders of the modern world – developed, you assume, from parents feeling they simply didn’t have it in them to bury another five-year old.
The instincts we have remain the same though. We should never forget that. No-one, but the very silly, believes we have ‘new’ instincts; at best we have old ones channelled through new mediums. Tortured through them, quite often.
Because we are getting into that somewhat unsettling period of human development when pretending we are nothing like our origins is all the rage. With that in mind, I miss – as anyone who came of age under its spell probably does – the apex of the Premier League. I put it somewhere around 2003, when the combination of money and professionalism, old and new, seemed set just about right; when a component of chaotic violence was still woven into its fabric. When the thing that sport conceals was not that much concealed. You certainly couldn’t tackle like those thugs who saw Pele as just a pair of legs to break did, but you also could not react to the same kind of nudge you receive from someone checking their bag in a busy lift as if they’d just forced a grenade down your throat.
I recognise that it’s not nice to now feel a nostalgic pang for a bevy of United players, led by lunatic-in-chief Roy Keane, surrounding referee Andy d’Urso; for Dyer/Bowyer; for the loaded hostility and glares of the pre-match Arsenal-United tunnel; for the volatile, borderline-psychotic presence of players like Duncan Ferguson, Dennis Wise, Thomas Gravesen – guys who may have got picked in the first place just because it was too scary to tell them they weren’t picked. Objectively, it’s obvious that the general level of football was less good. But there’s something else, which makes football football and not just a Powerpoint presentation on the glorious art of football.
What’s beyond doubt is that the general tone that foams in the veins of your average Premier League game is less raucous, more synthetic. Less blood, more Optimal Nutrient Vehicle. However much United or Arsenal or Chelsea fans might strain their mental sinews to believe that what they’re seeing is some tangible version of the old United/Arsenal/Chelsea way, in reality, they know that a heavy dose of what they’re doing is being participatory surveyors of a modern corporate exercise. With songs.
Responsibility for this new anaemia, this blunting of the edges, can be placed at a variety of doors – the softening-up process of the products of Premier League academies, where once their experience would have been the opposite. A strange kind of softening-up indeed, where everything is gentle and overweeningly cosseted until suddenly you’re told that all but a miniscule handful of you aren’t good enough to make it here, and you need to sod off to Lincoln City. You could blame it on the better football brains of continental managers who made it abundantly clear that there was a better way to play this game than your Allardyces and your Curbishleys could comprehend. You could blame it, as per, on the money, on the grey, heavy wave of it, washing like a fatty tsunami into every corner of the big league, insulating its organs from the true, raw pulse of life. You could blame it, if you like, on social media. I’m not sure how, but I understand that’s always a good one to include on fogeyish lists of ‘who’s to blame’.
And even that word, ‘blame’, when describing a spectacle that has given us Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, among many others, and afforded them the protection to show off the best of their range, looks quite ridiculous in a certain light. In that certain, murky light, the football is unquestionably better. In that certain light it’s the sweetest of all dreams – not necessarily mine, but someone’s and I play along – that the Premier League provides a perfectly temperature-controlled stage for De Bruyne to demonstrate that he can thread balls through a jungle of rapid this-way-that-way movement like he’s dropping a slice of bread into a toaster. And there is a part of me that loves watching him do it.
But. We are crossing, with this VAR thing, a dangerous line. Softening the aggro factor in football games is one thing, and an understandable thing in some ways. But to make out that actually, the whole point of football is to perfect all of its chaotic, error-strewn elements, to cleanse it, to erase its rough underbelly by pulling out some dweeby geometry set and drawing silly string-patterns around someone’s ankle until you’re convinced you’re seeing whatever you want to see, is to misread what sport is, to a degree that is beyond reckless. I’m sure some of you feel, as I do, whenever the geometry set gets pulled out, violent. Teeth-gratingly frustrated, thwarted, irascible, wanting to break something until all of this nonsense disappears off the screen. Think that’s a healthy feeling for you to keep returning to, week after week?
There’s an essential element of sport which often goes unspoken – that it’s a release, in an artful, civilised medium, from all of the bound-up, functional, synthetically well-behaved ways in which we are expected to live our daily lives. You can’t, upon seeing your boss each morning, give her/him ‘a reducer’ to find out whether s/he is up for it today; that’s not an option. You just have to ask them something moronic about taking annual leave on blah blah blah. We have to have somewhere we can go where we can sense a little chaos in the air. A little goes a long way. But every time the cold, dead, technological hand of VAR descends upon a joyous, chaotic moment of football, to nullify it, to ‘make it correct’, something inside me wants to fight with someone.
I know where that feeling comes from, what its roots are, and I sense, if you want to keep your society upright and in shape, you have to avoid stuff that makes you want to punch someone. You have to, to some degree, let the human condition be, warts and all.