All too often, people who do not like football – and even people who do – write it off as trivial. This completely misses the point: football is grounded in irrationality, but that is its beauty. It is not lost on me that being extremely invested in whether eleven men I’ve never met can put the round thing in the net might not be the most logical or intellectual endeavour. But this is what I’ve always loved about football. It’s an escape from everyday life, where I’m constantly required to think about things that actually matter, whatever that phrase even means.
The idea that football’s silly because you can’t change the outcome has always been amusing to me. To use a trite example, when you’re watching Friends, do you not care what happens to Ross and Rachel because neither of them are real? Or do you lose yourself in the show because caring about something irrationally is fun?
Reminiscing with my childhood friend about years of spending every Saturday together only confirmed what I already knew. Of course football matters. How much that is related to the actual game is hard to say, as the sport’s social and political aspects are inextricably linked with the match you’re watching or playing in.
Football does, of course, have immense social and political meaning. In a positive sense, you only have to look at France’s World Cup winning black-blanc-beur generation of 1998, or fundraising campaigns that transcend bitter social divides like the one for the terminally ill Sunderland fan Bradley Lowery in 2017. On the other hand, even a cursory glance at the way police and mass media vilified working class football fans in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster shows just how destructively the game can be manipulated to serve insidious agendas.
When I think about the amount of time I’ve spent playing, watching and following football over the years, I realise how much of a disservice it has always been given in my mind. Not only in terms of its social and political force, but also its impact on my mental health. As a wayward, depressed teenager prone to overthinking, football was a lifeline. Having something so irrational to invest myself in offered me an escape that I desperately needed, a chance to lose myself in something that had no tangible impact on my everyday life.
Whether playing or following, football has always been something into which I can channel my energy. This is obviously true on a physical level: it’s hardly breaking new ground to say that playing football twice a week is a great means of expending excess energy.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve also realised just how important it is for me mentally. Even a short five-a-side game offers a total escape from everyday reality, a chance to become disproportionally invested in something that manifestly doesn’t matter. The more I talked with my friend, the more I realised how little results actually matter in football, at least for me. This will sound immensely hypocritical to anyone who has had the misfortune of playing or watching football with me, witness to how unhealthily competitive I can become. But this investment isn’t simply about the end result. It’s a means of getting lost for ninety minutes, a chance to throw myself into this alternate universe where I’m overly passionate about trivial things – a welcome change from everyday life.
The same goes for following a team: my happiest years following Woking aren’t the ones where we had the most on-field success, but those where we played the most elegant football, where I would go with my friend week in, week out.
I’ve always found the joy and despair of live football so therapeutic, not only as a means of escapism but also as part of a routine. It involves an intense emotional investment into something over which you have little control: it has inevitable ups and downs, but also a continuity that is so hard to find elsewhere. Whatever is happening in my life, there will always be a team to be invested in nine months of the year. Series get terminated, artists stop making music, people come and go. But Woking were there long before I was born and will be there long after I die. And however often players and staff change over, I will always be grateful for that.