If you come from certain countries, football is in your blood. For some it’s just light entertainment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others will be in the stand even at the height of winter, in rain, snow or a howling gale. Some discuss the latest match politely over dinner; far too many punch each other in the street and set metro cars alight. Some gamble on match results and others only watch the world cup. I know which group I belong to; but which one are you?
My First Football Match
When I was about 5 years old, my father decided to introduce me to ‘proper’ football (as opposed to kicking the ball around in the street). He was an amateur footballer himself, playing in the national third division when he was young and continued playing in his free time afterwards. Opposite the house where we then lived there was, (in fact, still is) a football stadium belonging to one of the first division teams. You could hear the crowd roar every blessed Saturday afternoon. And on one of those Saturday afternoons, when the team my father supported came to play there, it occurred to him to take me along to the match.
As it turned out, my introduction to ‘proper’ football was not quite what he had intended or even imagined, as within about five minutes I got bored with watching tiny figures running around in the distance below chasing a minuscule ball and wandered off collecting cigarette butts from under the seats. He only noticed I was missing at half-time by which time I was at the other side of the stadium with an excellent collection of cigarette butts. And… unspeakably dirty. (My mother thoughtfully and mistakenly dressed me in a white summer dress for the occasion.) After he managed to recover me, my father frog-marched me straight home and vowed never to take me to another football match again (nor did he).
Although I thought watching the match in the stadium was less interesting than collecting cigarette butts, I continued to play football with the boys in the street until they suddenly realised that I was a girl and refused to play with me any more. This was when I was about 8 or 9, and I never kicked a ball in anger since. The fate of many a girl, I suppose, or at least it was in those days…
But this is a book blog (as I sometimes have to remind myself).
Many years later I read a book called Fever Pitch – the main reason why I read it many years later being that it wasn’t published until many years later – which tells the author, Nick Hornby’s obsession with football in general and his particular team, Arsenal – for those of you who are football challenged, that’s quite a famous football club based in North London. It is actually a really interesting book, even if you’re not particularly into football. (Or you are, but god forbid, you support Tottenham Hotspur.) The story is told entirely in a series of football matches, among which, somehow, Nick Hornby manages to live a life. If you think this makes for a poor sort of a story, go away and come back when you thought about it.
As it happens I read the book at a time when I hardly paid any attention to football any more as I was just getting obsessed with cricket, and I could recognise all the symptoms of a beginning mania, as described by Hornby, on myself. (Should be a prescribed reading for psychiatrists, really.)
Many people will remark at this juncture that it’s impossible to be obsessed both by football and cricket. It’s one or the other they say: football fans will tell you that cricket is insufferably boring – and cricket fans will tell you that football is insufferably boring. Well, I’m the walking and talking evidence that they’re both wrong: the two things are simply not comparable. Football is like an Alistair MacLean novel – say Ice Station Zebra – and cricket is like the collected plays of Shakespeare. I defy you to meaningfully compare the two. I also defy you to claim they aren’t both good. Although nowadays certain football matches do rather remind you more of Thomas Hardy (on my bookshelves that reads boring).
The Golden Team
Nick Hornby of course is not alone in the world with his obsession. Once football enters your blood stream, it stays there. And so in Hungary football continues to be the national religion despite the fact that the Hungarian national team has been, quite simply, a disgrace for decades. But believers are blind to facts; they’ve got legends. And so the country manages quite successfully circumnavigating the sad facts by calling upon the glorious memory of that London 6:3 and the Golden Team of the 1950s: you know, Ferenc Puskás and his ilk. The team that only lost one match in four years.
But that one match was the world cup final.
And the Germans have been calling that world cup final ever since the Miracle of Bern – possibly owing to the fact that as the Hungarian team did, in fact, beat West-Germany in the group stages by some considerable margin (8:3), the Germans never expected to win. The restored match clock is installed, so I’m told, in front of the Stade de Suisse (successor to the stadium where the match was played) showing the final score. They say the riots in Budapest lasted for three days afterwards and twenty years later when I was a child, the Communist Party was still rumoured of having sold out the game to West-Germany for Mercedeses for the party leaders. Soon afterwards of course Hungary had the 1956 revolution and that was the end of the best football team in the world ever.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Still. You can gauge how great the Golden Team was by this simple fact: that more than 50 years after their heyday, when my English father-in-law found himself seated next to my father at the dinner table without a mutual language between them, he initiated a conversation by starting to name the players of the Golden Team: Puskás, Bozsik, Hidegkúti, Kocsis… My father returned the courtesy with Bobby Moore and David Beckham. They’ve been the best of friends ever since (although they still can’t talk to each other). But football is the language we all speak.