Whenever football is criticised, it is usual for the game’s authorities to spread their palms wide, and declare with a shrug that it’s not their problem, guv, soccer is merely a reflection of society. I have always thought this hard on society, but now I’m not so sure.
A well reported incident during a recent game at Stamford Bridge strongly suggests that football is indeed a microcosm of the broader social structure.
For those who may not recall what happened, the Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler waggled his bottom provocatively in the face of the Chelsea play Graeme Le Saux, who responded by viciously elbowing Fowler to the ground.
What is of interest is neither the fact of provocation nor the subsequent fouling, both of which are common features of the beautiful game, but rather the singular nature of the provocation. It would seem that in waggling his bottom, Fowler intended Le Saux to understand that he (Fowler) thought him (Le Saux) a woofter. It was also reported that, lest Le Saux misinterpret the physical gesture of the rotating buttocks, Fowler reinforced the point by verbally accusing him of being “queer”.
None of this would be worth commenting on were it not for the post-match exegesis provided by the game’s scholars. Le Saux, they explained, is seen by his fellow players to be not as they are, and, like every black sheep, he is tormented by the flock. What makes him different and a target of abuse is that he is middle class.
The Football Association, as is its wont, responded to the incident by accusing both players of “bringing the game into disrepute”, a phrase so steeped in irony that it never fails to amuse. For how is it possible to bring into disrepute that which is inherently disreputable? The genius of football is in its disreputableness. It’s what gives it its charm.
However, on this occasion, the FA may have a point. If Graeme Le Saux is indeed educated and middle class as accused, he is in danger, albeit unwittingly, of bringing the game into disrepute by the very fact of prejudicing the discreditable reputation for which football is so widely admired.
It would seem, then, that in football, as in society, there are two middle classes. There is New Middle Class, which, according to the Prime Minister covers everyone and must therefore include Robbie Fowler, and there is Old Middle Class, which New Labour wooed so assiduously before the general election but secretly despises, and which, if rumour is right, embraces Graeme Le Saux.
It is to the New Middle Class that the BBC (now known in media circles as VanessaVision, in recognition of its exciting new interpretation of public service broadcasting) addresses most of its programming. It is in response to the tastes of the New Middle Class that pubs are designed, music created, fashions devised, speech patterns modelled, university courses prepared, newspapers and books written. The Old Middle Class is being suffocated by the hegemony of the New. So what happened on the field of play at Stamford Bridge a couple of weeks ago was a parable for our times.
Le Saux, it is said, is paying the price for “daring to be different from the stereotypical image of the modern day professional footballer – a Ferrari-driving lad with a liking for beer and an eye for anything in a skirt”. Le Saux is married to an arts graduate, which is bad enough. Heaven only knows what else he gets up to in his spare time. A glass or two of Chardonnay, maybe, while listening to Radio 3 and browsing through his beloved Proust?
Small wonder that Fowler acted as he did. One rotten apple can quickly spoil the barrel. It is perhaps surprising, however, that New Middle Class should see Old Middle Class as characterised predominantly by homosexuality. It is true that an excessive refinement of manners in a young man – indicated perhaps by lifting the little finger while raising a bottle of lager to the lips – might be seen as effeminate, but to be married to an arts graduate and to decline the drinking companionship of Robbie Fowler is surely to offer an inadequate depiction of homosexuality.
In truth, neither New Middle Class nor Old Middle Class care much for homosexuality; it is only in the inner circle of New Labour that it is prized.
Then again, Fowler may be being wronged. Danny Baker, as New Middle Class as you can get and therefore a Times columnist, draws on his knowledge of the lower primates: “In the wild, some members of the ape family will brandish their hind quarters at intruders as a final warning or sometimes simply raise the moon in order to insult the older, weaker members of the pack.” It is, he adds, “the most natural of gestures”.
This is something the Old Middle Class must learn to accept if it is to survive in the new order. What is natural to apes is acceptable to man and will in due course gain respectability too.
That, though, brings us full circle. When it becomes the done thing to brandish one’s hind quarters, anyone seen doing it on a football pitch will be summoned to Lancaster Gate and charged with bringing the game into disrepute.