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the square ball week: don’t get involved

the square ball week: don’t get involved

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An unexpected way of dealing with England’s unwanted exit from the European Championships is to point out, to people who know you have a deep and enduring love of football, that this is exactly why you hate football and would never recommend loving it to anyone.

If you’re looking for a hobby without anguish, or with highs that are plentiful and easily achieved, then football is not the one. Try, I dunno, crochet? Politics?

Anything but football. Anything but English football, anyway. One thing I think I picked up on, that informs my outlook and that the casual every-two-years-a-tournament England fan may not have noticed as they sobbed into their forty years of tears towel — that reeks no less for only being dragged from the dresser drawer at tournament time — was how fantastic it must have been to support Iceland through their game with England and into the post-match team/fans roaring session.

If you’re only an occasional football fan and purely an England watcher, you’re probably used to sighfully switching off as soon as the full-time whistle blows on the knock out, so you don’t know how it feels to be part of what Iceland had going for themselves after that game; and when you see the clip version on the news the next day, or being shared on Twitter, it just looks like smug Nordic triumphalism, the unseemly celebrations of an opponent, to be viewed, and remembered, bitterly.

In fact, Iceland’s football fans and players had in their possession on Monday night everything I love and hope for myself in football, and that’s why I hate this sport so often, so much: it’s stuffed full with people always taking their ball home and not letting you play anymore, so you can only stand at the end of their drive and imagine what a great time they’re having in their back garden. As a long-serving football fan, language was not a barrier to my understanding of the Icelandic celebrations: the surge of adrenalinic players into their supporters’ corner, the unified slow war chants that echoed around the stadium during the game now being led by the players. I know better than any casual couch supporter how great it can feel to be part of something like that; and so I know too well, too, the sore pain of being not only excluded from it, but of being left on the canvas vanquished so that it can happen for other people.

And that’s why I never recommend to people developing a passing interest that they take up anything as stupid as watching football with any seriousness. If you’re not invested, then England being dumped from a summer tournament is just a blip on the way to the Olympics taking their place on the telly, a distraction at the water cooler from heavy Brexit chat. But if you’re a football fan, a follower every week, then those blips are a near permanent state of being.

I’m not even a real football fan anyway. As the old joke goes: I don’t like football, I support Leeds United. That brought different perspective again to watching England wash themselves out of France in hot floods of their own melted drizzle. There has been popular surprise that the multi-millionaires in white and grey sleeves, the stars of the Premier League, could play so abjectly against Iceland. Unable to trap a ball; unable to think of anything to do with it when they did have it; missing tackles, missing kicks, out run, out thought; it was just like watching Leeds. And some of England’s players, despite their pay packets and their status, aren’t so far ahead of the players at Leeds United as those at the top of the Football Association would like to delude themselves into believing.

The rapid rises of Jamie Vardy and Dele Alli from the lower leagues to the England first team have generated much giddiness; John Stones, the next centre-back lion in waiting, is barely out of Barnsley. Clubs like Bournemouth, burning through the divisions to oblivion not long ago, create heartwarmth by becoming comfortable in the top-flight, plucky underdogs succeeding among the big dogs in the Premier League. Leicester City, lately of League One — with Leeds — won the whole bloody thing.

This is either a permanent upending of the hierarchy, a Revenge of the Nerds upon the Premier League’s ruling jocks; or it’s an erosion of standards in English football such that it’s never been easier for the average to succeed. That’s double-edged. For Leeds United, it’s nice to think that we don’t actually have to travel as far as we might have thought to get from Bellusci-at-the-back status to the privileged Premier position of, like, Watford. But for England, it’s troubling to be selecting players from a top tier where someone like Bellusci — a world away from his own nation’s defence — would be able to hold his own.

All this is while countries like Iceland not only catch English football up, but overtake it and run away with it, diving into a geyser with the ball your mum bought for your birthday and told you to look after. The dire state of England on Monday reminded me of watching Leeds last season (remember Bellusci trying to pass fifteen yards to Silvestri, and giving away a corner? Yeah, all of that); watching Iceland reminded me of the times when an actually decent team would come to Elland Road and play football against us properly.

I always struggled to articulate this in match reports, and could only explain it by saying that the other team were kicking the ball harder, and to each other, and running around a lot faster than our players. Watching Leeds United was like hypnosis a lot of the time, as the players lulled the fans into watching the game in the same somnolent state they were playing it; looking at these visits from fast-moving, hard-kicking teams with their intensity and intentions was like an awakening shock.

That’s what Iceland delivered to England on Monday. Technically better? Innately more talented? It’s arguable. But they seized on every loose ball, in pairs or threes; they moved the ball swiftly upfield from player to player as if it was something they practised and become good at. It felt unfair on England, as it felt unfair on Leeds United last season, to be up against a team that knew how to play football.

Which is the feeling it comes down to, really: it’s not fair. There will be more cogent think pieces than this delving into the structural reasons behind the differences between English and Icelandic football, but I’m beginning and ending my analysis at the feeling: it’s not fair, and I hate football.

Well. Do I really hate football? Nah. It’s not hate that drives me away from the game I love, dragging naive bystanders with me to save them from getting involved. It’s more like envy. It’s understanding what there was in the Icelandic performance on Monday night for their fans to appreciate; knowing how good those fans will have felt this week. And not being able to feel it too.

And knowing, as well, that I don’t have an escape route. I don’t like football, I support Leeds United, and pre-season training began again this week. That’s supposed to be a good thing; on Twitter the club has been sharing photographs of our players in their newly sponsored kit, training in the sunshine, alongside their multi-million pound new team mate, to flog a few more new blue shirts, sell a few more season tickets, and generate a bit of optimism.

But coming so soon after England’s knock-out, I can’t see the beginning of Leeds United’s pre-season as anything other than a reminder of the months ahead in which I’ll not see what Iceland’s fans saw, not feel what Iceland’s fans felt. Like the fans of 90% of the clubs in every division, I’ll see the fun, and I’ll be aware of the feelings, but I won’t be taking part.

Unless, that is, Marcus Antonsson hits Elland Road scoring; Chris Wood finds his sophomore season scoring boots (and forehead); Lewis Cook blossoms and Bellusci stays away. Unless Garry Monk brings in good players to close the gap on the Premier League, if not all the way to Leicester, then at least as far as Burnley or Middlesbrough. Unless our players start kicking the ball harder, and to each other, as if they’ve practised it; unless our team scores lots of goals and wins lots of games.

It always happens to someone. Only, normally, most of the time, it happens to someone else.

And that’s football. The hope is for everyone; the fun is for someone else. Did you watch the England game? Yeah, it’s always like that. I love football; but it’s best not to get too involved.

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