Page 16, 31st August 2007

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Page 16, 31st August 2007 — The Premiership is the Catholicism of football
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The Premiership is the Catholicism of football

By Patrick West

It is often said that football is like a religion . With the season upon us once more , and with the game's troubled state seeing reports on soccer appearing on the front as well as the back pages of formerly respectable newspapers, I came to wonder: if football is a religion what denomination is it?

It depends, I concluded, on what type of football you follow. The Premier League might be compared to Catholicism, in that going to, say Highbury or Old Trafford, one is seated in a quiet environment, in which one has to repeatedly stand up and sit down for the ensuing ceremony. Supporters are famous for venerating individuals, their ersatz saints; the posters of Frank Lampard or David Beckham on their bedroom walls are the equivalent of images of Padre Pio or Therese of Lisieux hanging in one's living rooms. Football has its martyrs, too, as Tottenham and England's Paul Robinson found out last week; and, like at Mass, many succumb to the temptation to leave the match early if things are getting a little dull.

Lower league football, which I have to endure, is akin to traditional lowchurch Anglicanism, in that there is little veneration for individuals, or even the ostensible object of worship, because players come and go at a far greater rate and because (as a Brentford supporter, I speak with authority) our teams are usually undeserving of any respect. League Two football is more about interacting with one's fellow congregants: in this case, enjoying the banter and heaping abuse upon our appalling teams.

It is less deferential to authority figures and more egalitarian. As many lower league teams still have terraces, you are not forced to sit down but retain the right to mingle freely. The boundary between worshippers and objects of worship is less rigid. Players past and present happily mingle with the fans: one of my greatest claims to fame is that I had an evening in a pub with Stan Bowles at the Royal Oak in Brentford.

One might observe that the World Cup mirrors the act of worship performed by Charismatic Evangelicals, in that it is loud, bordering on hysterical, even apocalyptic. For the duration your whole destiny appears to lie in your hands. Rugby Union football would be Judaism because its participants are always attacking each other; Rugby League is Methodism because it is popular in Lancashire and Yorkshire but no one pays much attention to it in the south; and American football would be Orthodox Christianity, in that it involves watching men dressed in elaborate clothing and the ceremony goes on for hours and hours.

Last week the BBC accused the Vatican of tinkering with the pages of Gerry Adams's entry on the website Wikipedia, of removing the reference to allegations that the Sinn Fein leader's fingerprints and handprints had been detected on a car used in a double murder in 1971. Elsewhere, Whitehall is reported to be on the hunt for the mischief-maker who tinkered with similar online biographies by inserting fake details of criminality and drug addiction. Gordon Brown's entry was one of those that fell foul; insiders have traced the culprit to Whitehall.

Wikipedia entries can be altered by users, and there lies its problem. It can contain sheer falsehoods, whether they be entered deliberately and maliciously, or be mere errors. I remember reading once that Tony Blair's had to be corrected by the site's hosts dozens of times each day, what with pranksters inserting references to the fact that, as a boy, Blair had posters of Adolf Hitler on his wall. For professional purposes, I once tested how swiftly Wikipedia would remove my assertion that a senior and controversial Westminster MP supported Queen's Park Rangers. I was (partially) relieved to see its removal 20 minutes later.

As a rule, however, we journalists are advised to steer well clear of Wikipedia, although I do find myself referring to it, but only if it has reliable footnotes for reputable sources. It can be useful in that it attracts amateurs (in the old, non-pejorative sense of the word); those who have a passion and deep knowledge of something will go to great lengths, and for no payment, to divulge what they know.

Umberto Eco once compared Apple Mac computers to Catholicism and the PC system to Protestantism: with Macs everything's done for you and with PCs you have to work it out for yourself. I think a similar observation can be made vis-à-vis the Encylopaedia Brittanica and Wikipedia. While having a paid, didactic elite telling you their truth all the time can sometimes be a pain, leaving truth in the hands of the rank and file has its perils, too. Although the demise of Bill Deedes was indeed sad, I was actually cheered in one respect. It made me proud to belong to that coterie of Fleet Street's unsung heroes: obituary writers. In the Daily Telegraph and the Times (for which I write) obituaries go unsigned and thus their authors unknown to the public and to the majority of their colleagues. But this is why the Times and the Telegraph's obituaries are the best in the business. They tell you the truth and aren't afraid of hurting the deceased family's feelings, or starting a nasty row. Our readership is also more amenable to exciting matter, such as Second World War heroes or drunken, reactionary Soho eccentrics. Social workers from Bradford or worthy campaigners in Nicaragua — the stuff of obituaries pages in liberal titles — simply fail to muster much interest beyond friends and family.

The strange thing about being an obituary writer is the reaction you get when you tell people you prepare them in advance: especially, and perversely, from young people (who have plenty of time to worry about their own end) and from some clerics (who should understand the meaning of death better than us all). They look at you as if you're an undertaker or even a hit man.

As Mr Gormally, my RE teacher, told a class once when I was 15: "Every single one of you in this room will one day be lying cold on a mortuary slab." Strangely, whenever I remember these words it feels good to be alive.




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