pmLEASE BE GENTLE with e this is a cry from a soul in torment. Stop sniggering, back there in the one-and-nines. I have a bad case of MDS (Middlesbrough Depression Syndrome), a variety of Football Encephalitis (popularly known as SOB Soccer on the Brain) which makes the sufferer's mind go round and round like the maddest of cows. It's at its peak this Cup Final weekend as my club, Middlesbrough, just a week after being relegated into damnation, face Chelsea. We now seek some kind of redemption, for not only would the FA Cup be a nice consolation prize, it will also get us into Europe and maybe, just maybe, we might hold on to some of our key players. For me, and for a whole town in the North-East where I spent my early journalistic years, it is the one slender thread of hope to keep us from an abyss ofwell, despair. De profimdis...
This is a severe test of both Faith and Hope. If Chelsea win, it will an even severer test of Charity. I shall have to grit my remaining tooth and make some utterly unconvincing, sportsmanlike noises. I won't mean them, so the sin of hypocrisy rears its ugly head too, in company with Pride and Envy...
The religious metaphors into which I have fallen and I'm far from alone in this are not accidental. Football, like religion, does some very strange things to your head. There are times when a conversion to either one can put your sanity on the line.To most people Saturday's match is just a game, a wonderful piece of entertainment. But there are those who agree with the late Bill Shankly, who famously dismissed the notion that football was a matter of life and death. "It's much more important than that," said the Sage of Liverpool.
There are even those who think it is more important than the next life. How else to explain the behaviour of Bologna, due for an audience with the Pope on the subject of hooliganism just before a match against Roma? As reported in the Herald, their plane into Rome was delayed and they opted for a vital pre-match warm-up rather than drop by the Vatican for a natter with the Man in White. As a former goalkeeper himself, the Pope, however, is likely to have understood.
Like Catholicism, football is very chic right now. Nick Hornby's excellent best-seller, Fever Pitch, has been translated into a romantic comedy for the big screen and is doing well at the box-office. More and more families are finding their way back to refurbished or completely new stadiums as the sport sheds its hooligan image. True, there are those who rail against the embourgeoisement of football; it has been so invaded by Mammon that working-class worshippers at football's altar can't afford it. But even so it is moving towards a Blairite classless society, unashamedly espoused by a wider cross-section of Britain than ever before.
The sectarianism of yore has faded on Merseyside, for example, Liverpool-Everton fixtures are no longer Protestant-Catholic clashes. Even the green-and-orange bitterness of Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow is losing its edge.
The fervour is still there, however, and its kinship with religion will not have escaped, say, Cardinal Hume (who, along with that near-Catholic, Tony Blair, supports Newcastle United). It is surely no coincidence that in his playing days the Pope especially encouraged games with Jewish teams, harnessing the transcendence that intense soccer involvement can bring, to overcome the antisemitism that pervaded the Poland of his youth.
greatest such as at
Wembley Cup Finals can bring about a sense of losing oneself in a collective consciousness of 80,000 souls. It is the nearest thing the secular world can offer to religious insight. Certainly, that is what I felt a month ago when I, like my team, made my first visit there for a major trophy match, the Coca Cola Cup. It helps me now, in my current agitated state, to look back on that experience as a secular state of grace. In my enthusiasm, I wrote in the Spectator "It is one thing to undergo the joys of an unlooked-for conversion; it is quite another to experience the white-hot intensity of reaching the epicentre of one's newfound faith. It was like being a neophyte Catholic suddenly waking to find himself full in the panting heart of Rome, making eye contact with the Pope." All right, that was a bit over the top, but a fair example of the way it makes you feel.
Perhaps it was unwise to allow myself, after a lifetime of resistance, to catch the football bug at the age of 50. Even more unwise to let it happen at a time of spiritual turmoil, induced in no small part by an eventful spell in the editor's chair at the Catholic Herald. Meditations on, say, faith and rationality tended to be derailed; disconcerting to find a mental image of St Thomas Aquinas transform itself into one of Boro's Bryan Robson, whose managership itself has been a great test of faith over rationality.
Choosing Middlesbrough, of course, was not the most rational decision I could have made. It just sort of rubbed off; a kind of family thing. But any true football fan will tell you that you don't choose your football team, it comes to you as a realisation. Like faith, it's a whole package; you don't pick and choose.
Even stranger (for me as I write) is the knowledge that by the time most of you will have read this, it will all be over. You know what has happened; I writhe here, terrified, wishing I knew what you know (if you think my tenses are mixed up, you ought to see my logic circuits!).
This is a decent metaphor for Purgatory. Not quite Hell, for there is still hope. Certainly not Heaven, for there is such doubt that every time the celestial clouds part in my imagination, the Last Judgment that is Wembley seems to boom forth: "Depart from me, ye cursed..."
In football terms I am a "realised eschatologist" (a term used in a much more serious context by ex-monk Richard Addis, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily and Sunday Express). Roughly speaking, it means that, spiritually, you realise the Last Days are not just upon us but have already happened. 'Why, this is Hell, nor are we out of it," as one of my old English masters was fond of burbling a propos Faust.
That the mind of man can conceive of something as sublime and pointless as football is worthy of meditation. To compare it seriously with religion is to risk sacrilege (or is it blasphemy?). But it is surely neither sacrilege nor blasphemy to make a serious case for it being a meta-religion, because it touches those parts of our being that yearn for something beyond us. I believe that the desire for great art, for great music, for union with our fellow man is programmed into our genes and is related to the religious impulse that drives us towards knowledge of God. For some it may be for the sheer beauty of mathematics or of quantum theory. I claim unequivocally that football too enthuses the spirit.
But let's get a bit of perspective here. We are only talking about football. And in footballtheology, the First Division at least for my dub, Boro cannot be Hell because it is only temporary. You watch we'll be up next season.
This may be a cry from a soul in pain, but it is one which is both bemused and amused that things should have come to such a pretty pass. In this Eliotesque void between the now and the then, making connections between this world and the next, between religion and football, I sing the body eclectic.
There that last sentence is enough proof that this has driven me to the verge of madness, that SOB is a real and dangerous syndrome. So enough of this trans-temporal, pseudo-apocalyptic balderdash it is, after all, only a game.