An article by Rae. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachydivanerd and also read more of her excellent articles by visiting her blog.

An oft-repeated Bill Shankly quote goes something like this: Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I can assure them that it is much more important than that.

I reckon that any half-decent football fan, regardless of which team he or she supports, would struggle to argue with Shankly’s line of thought. The last day of January was also the last day of the month-long transfer window. Speaking for the majority of Liverpool supporters on Twitter, the entire day – and much of the evening – was spent obsessively following every tweet and retweet of each scrap of information, speculation, rumour, outrageous offer made, outrageous offer accepted, stupid sports journo ‘source’, etc ad nauseam. Needless to say, the day was not a productive one.

So, in between my own obsessive checks of the Twitter timeline, I’m wondering what it is about football that has made it so central to the lives of its casual followers, outright fanatics and everything in between.

Melvyn Bragg‘s wonderfully entertaining, enlightening and profoundly erudite book, Twelve Books That Changed The World, includes a slim tome known as The Rule Book of Association Football (1863).  Essentially, a bunch of public-school types sat around a pub table one afternoon and thrashed out rules for a game that had been played for centuries. As Bragg points out, football has been around in some chaotic form or other since 500 years after the Romans left this sceptred isle (well before sodding rugby, that’s for sure); the Book of Rules didn’t create anything new, per se, but rather represents a successful attempt at codification and harmonisation. Combined with ‘the proselytising enthusiasm of British sailors and merchants and adventurers on their expeditions around the planet’, football is played worldwide by over 1.5 million teams and 300,000 clubs. Think about that for a second. Oh, and that includes over 20 million women players, the numbers of which continue to grow from year to year. So much for us not understanding the offside rule, right?

That’s all well and good – cheers, Melvyn. Doesn’t quite answer our question, though, does it? Perhaps personal experience will shed some light on matters…

My own burning passion for football really flared some ten years ago. Coming from a Scouse family in which the few Bluenoses were probably cast out into the wilderness (otherwise known as Wigan), I suspect that close scrutiny of my double helix would reveal the presence of the odd L and F accompanying the Cs. As children, my brother tore around in his Candy-sponsored LFC strip and bullied his bookish older sister (me) into playing football and watching Liverpool videos with him. I was pleased if we won, sad if we lost, deeply upset over Hillsborough… but nothing like the zeniths and nadirs of emotion that I feel now and will feel until the end of my days.

That escalated to a whole other level when I first went to Anfield in late 2002. I was pretty passionate about football and my team by then, but going to Anfield… Words fail me. I will never, ever forget the thrill of arriving at the ground, seeing the Kop, weaving through the throngs of fellow supporters, the sense of belonging to a tribe, singing at the top of my voice until I thought my lungs would burst. We played Arsenal that day. We lost 2-1. Pires curled the winning goal around the wall and Dudek couldn’t do a thing about it. My then-boyfriend was a Gooner (grounds for divorce right there, surely) and delighted with the result even after 90 minutes of sitting on his hands in the Main Stand. I, on the other hand, felt like someone had reached into my abdomen and torn my intestines out with their bare hands. It took several pints of Carlsberg at The Park and a week after the game to get rid of the sour taste in my mouth.

My next visit was for the same fixture the following season. The Gooner boyfriend was history, but the bitterness of defeat remained even twelve months later – none of which dulled the sheer, unadulterated excitement of being at Anfield. It was bitterly cold in the Main Stand that night. 1-1 on 90 minutes. Neil Mellor nets the winner in the 92nd minute. The away supporters, who’ve been very vocal up until this point, fall silent. Anfield erupts with a titanic roar which quickly becomes a spontaneous rendition of that timeless classic, ‘Who the fucking hell are you?’, before seguing into ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Pints of Carlsberg at The Park were celebratory – not to mention plentiful – that night, we spotted Stevie G in town (not in a scrap or punching DJs in self-defence, incidentally), and it took a full fortnight for my wrecked voice to return to anything like its usual dulcet tones.

I’m not for a second suggesting that attending a game is a criterion to be met in order to qualify for ‘true fan’ status (if, indeed, there’s a standard set of criteria mouldering on a shelf somewhere): that would be hugely offensive to millions of supporters who have never had – and may never have – the opportunity to go to Anfield or wherever their respective teams play (alas, there are teams other than Liverpool, much to my (possibly feigned) disgust). The feelings of most supporters run far deeper than that, much in the same way that football is far more than just a game. Why does it inspire such passion?

I spoke above about being part of a tribe. The kind of mass attachment that’s in evidence between a team of eleven men and thousands of supporters is, to my mind, a reflection, a tangible manifestation of an atavistic tribalism (oh for fuck’s sake, hark at me) that probably lingers in our genome without any other outlet in these modern times. We choose our team for any number of reasons; whatever the reasons are, they are undeniably there. A wonderful blogger Fydsy speaks of identification, and that has to be true (he explains it far more elegantly than I ever could, so I urge you to read his post). For ninety minutes every week (with those all-important fifteen minutes for a pie at half-time), all of our hopes rest on the shoulders of the ‘warriors’ who go into battle against a hated enemy. All of our deepest passions are awakened; we don’t quite bay for blood, but some matches demand that we do – and do we ever. A poem from the 18th century speaks of “the Forces of the Football War“, and not a thing has changed there, has it? We bask in the reflected glory of victory; we rage against the misery of defeat; we travel distances great and small to follow our heroes; we dissect goals, set pieces, fouls; we debate the great wisdom or base stupidity of linesmen’s calls and referees’ decisions. But, beyond all of that lays this: we love our team, our players unconditionally, and with far greater devotion than we do some – most? – of our relatives. We feel that bit more alive for it, too.

The Torres transfer is a case in point. Here was a young, talented striker desperate to play for Liverpool. He claimed to identify with the city, the club, its supporters. In turn, we opened our arms to and held him close to our hearts. We sang our love in songs for him; we bounced in the stands for him; some of us (ahem) started supporting Spain over England in international matches. He got us, and we got him. Or so we thought: signing for Chelsea – fucking Chelsea, mortal enemy of Liverpool after the dirty Bluenoses and the even dirtier Mancs – felt still feels like the worst betrayal of them all. Now, I don’t want to get into the whole ‘was he the victim of poor advice or is he a money-grabbing whore’ discussion, because that’s beside the point. It’s more a case of “But… but… but… we loved you! You said you understood us! We thought you loved us! How could you?!”. He’s gone over to the enemy, the dark side of the football force, and there can no forgiveness for that. Cue the ritual burning of the ‘Torres 9′ shirt.

When a player deserts us, it’s akin to a bereavement. And football, like life, isn’t without its deaths. Legends pass away after long illnesses; supporters die in stadium disasters that are never investigated properly. We share the burden of grief and the bittersweet pain of remembrance simply because we are a tribe – more than a tribe, we’re a family. We are bound together by our individual and collective attachment to the team, to the club; we are each a part of the community that springs up around the club, regardless of where we live.

The internet has brought us all that much closer to other supporters and the clubs themselves; it fosters that sense of community that I mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph. We have immediate access to news and to each other. We devour every new scrap of information available, express opinions (ill-formed and otherwise), vent our spleen, read blogs (hem hem). Our shared passion for football transcends social ‘class’ (whatever the fuck that means in this context), professions, personal politics and just about everything else that would otherwise divide us – even the teams that we choose to support. Football is a core value shared by supporters generally, an inexhaustible topic to bond and bicker over. And it’s one of the easiest things to discuss with an overly talkative London cabbie, which is a blessing in itself.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Melvyn Bragg’s chapter on The Rule Book of Association Football. He cites the Labour Force Survey Quarterly of 1863, which reads (with my own emphasis in bold):

‘…the fascination of this gentle pastime is its mimic war, and it is waged with the individual prowess of the Homeric conflicts… The play is played out by boys with that dogged determination to win, that endurance of pain, that bravery of combative spirit, by which the adult is trained to face the cannon-ball with equal alacrity.’

I don’t know about facing a cannon-ball with alacrity, but I wouldn’t say no to a pie at half-time.

An oft-repeated Bill Shankly quote goes something like this: Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I can assure them that it is much more important than that.

I reckon that any half-decent football fan, regardless of which team he or she supports, would struggle to argue with Shankly’s line of thought. The last day of January was also the last day of the month-long transfer window. Speaking for the majority of Liverpool supporters on Twitter, the entire day – and much of the evening – was spent obsessively following every tweet and retweet of each scrap of information, speculation, rumour, outrageous offer made, outrageous offer accepted, stupid sports journo ‘source’, etc ad nauseam. Needless to say, the day was not a productive one.

So, in between my own obsessive checks of the Twitter timeline, I’m wondering what it is about football that has made it so central to the lives of its casual followers, outright fanatics and everything in between.

Melvyn Bragg‘s wonderfully entertaining, enlightening and profoundly erudite book, Twelve Books That Changed The World, includes a slim tome known as The Rule Book of Association Football (1863).  Essentially, a bunch of public-school types sat around a pub table one afternoon and thrashed out rules for a game that had been played for centuries. As Bragg points out, football has been around in some chaotic form or other since 500 years after the Romans left this sceptred isle (well before sodding rugby, that’s for sure); the Book of Rules didn’t create anything new, per se, but rather represents a successful attempt at codification and harmonisation. Combined with ‘the proselytising enthusiasm of British sailors and merchants and adventurers on their expeditions around the planet’, football is played worldwide by over 1.5 million teams and 300,000 clubs. Think about that for a second. Oh, and that includes over 20 million women players, the numbers of which continue to grow from year to year. So much for us not understanding the offside rule, right?

That’s all well and good – cheers, Melvyn. Doesn’t quite answer our question, though, does it? Perhaps personal experience will shed some light on matters…

My own burning passion for football really flared some ten years ago. Coming from a Scouse family in which the few Bluenoses were probably cast out into the wilderness (otherwise known as Wigan), I suspect that close scrutiny of my double helix would reveal the presence of the odd L and F accompanying the Cs. As children, my brother tore around in his Candy-sponsored LFC strip and bullied his bookish older sister (me) into playing football and watching Liverpool videos with him. I was pleased if we won, sad if we lost, deeply upset over Hillsborough… but nothing like the zeniths and nadirs of emotion that I feel now and will feel until the end of my days.

That escalated to a whole other level when I first went to Anfield in late 2002. I was pretty passionate about football and my team by then, but going to Anfield… Words fail me. I will never, ever forget the thrill of arriving at the ground, seeing the Kop, weaving through the throngs of fellow supporters, the sense of belonging to a tribe, singing at the top of my voice until I thought my lungs would burst. We played Arsenal that day. We lost 2-1. Pires curled the winning goal around the wall and Dudek couldn’t do a thing about it. My then-boyfriend was a Gooner (grounds for divorce right there, surely) and delighted with the result even after 90 minutes of sitting on his hands in the Main Stand. I, on the other hand, felt like someone had reached into my abdomen and torn my intestines out with their bare hands. It took several pints of Carlsberg at The Park and a week after the game to get rid of the sour taste in my mouth.

My next visit was for the same fixture the following season. The Gooner boyfriend was history, but the bitterness of defeat remained even twelve months later – none of which dulled the sheer, unadulterated excitement of being at Anfield. It was bitterly cold in the Main Stand that night. 1-1 on 90 minutes. Neil Mellor nets the winner in the 92nd minute. The away supporters, who’ve been very vocal up until this point, fall silent. Anfield erupts with a titanic roar which quickly becomes a spontaneous rendition of that timeless classic, ‘Who the fucking hell are you?’, before seguing into ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Pints of Carlsberg at The Park were celebratory – not to mention plentiful – that night, we spotted Stevie G in town (not in a scrap or punching DJs in self-defence, incidentally), and it took a full fortnight for my wrecked voice to return to anything like its usual dulcet tones.

I’m not for a second suggesting that attending a game is a criterion to be met in order to qualify for ‘true fan’ status (if, indeed, there’s a standard set of criteria mouldering on a shelf somewhere): that would be hugely offensive to millions of supporters who have never had – and may never have – the opportunity to go to Anfield or wherever their respective teams play (alas, there are teams other than Liverpool, much to my (possibly feigned) disgust). The feelings of most supporters run far deeper than that, much in the same way that football is far more than just a game. Why does it inspire such passion?

I spoke above about being part of a tribe. The kind of mass attachment that’s in evidence between a team of eleven men and thousands of supporters is, to my mind, a reflection, a tangible manifestation of an atavistic tribalism (oh for fuck’s sake, hark at me) that probably lingers in our genome without any other outlet in these modern times. We choose our team for any number of reasons; whatever the reasons are, they are undeniably there. A wonderful blogger Fydsy speaks of identification, and that has to be true (he explains it far more elegantly than I ever could, so I urge you to read his post). For ninety minutes every week (with those all-important fifteen minutes for a pie at half-time), all of our hopes rest on the shoulders of the ‘warriors’ who go into battle against a hated enemy. All of our deepest passions are awakened; we don’t quite bay for blood, but some matches demand that we do – and do we ever. A poem from the 18th century speaks of “the Forces of the Football War“, and not a thing has changed there, has it? We bask in the reflected glory of victory; we rage against the misery of defeat; we travel distances great and small to follow our heroes; we dissect goals, set pieces, fouls; we debate the great wisdom or base stupidity of linesmen’s calls and referees’ decisions. But, beyond all of that lays this: we love our team, our players unconditionally, and with far greater devotion than we do some – most? – of our relatives. We feel that bit more alive for it, too.

The Torres transfer is a case in point. Here was a young, talented striker desperate to play for Liverpool. He claimed to identify with the city, the club, its supporters. In turn, we opened our arms to and held him close to our hearts. We sang our love in songs for him; we bounced in the stands for him; some of us (ahem) started supporting Spain over England in international matches. He got us, and we got him. Or so we thought: signing for Chelsea – fucking Chelsea, mortal enemy of Liverpool after the dirty Bluenoses and the even dirtier Mancs – felt still feels like the worst betrayal of them all. Now, I don’t want to get into the whole ‘was he the victim of poor advice or is he a money-grabbing whore’ discussion, because that’s beside the point. It’s more a case of “But… but… but… we loved you! You said you understood us! We thought you loved us! How could you?!”. He’s gone over to the enemy, the dark side of the football force, and there can no forgiveness for that. Cue the ritual burning of the ‘Torres 9′ shirt.

When a player deserts us, it’s akin to a bereavement. And football, like life, isn’t without its deaths. Legends pass away after long illnesses; supporters die in stadium disasters that are never investigated properly. We share the burden of grief and the bittersweet pain of remembrance simply because we are a tribe – more than a tribe, we’re a family. We are bound together by our individual and collective attachment to the team, to the club; we are each a part of the community that springs up around the club, regardless of where we live.

The internet has brought us all that much closer to other supporters and the clubs themselves; it fosters that sense of community that I mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph. We have immediate access to news and to each other. We devour every new scrap of information available, express opinions (ill-formed and otherwise), vent our spleen, read blogs (hem hem). Our shared passion for football transcends social ‘class’ (whatever the fuck that means in this context), professions, personal politics and just about everything else that would otherwise divide us – even the teams that we choose to support. Football is a core value shared by supporters generally, an inexhaustible topic to bond and bicker over. And it’s one of the easiest things to discuss with an overly talkative London cabbie, which is a blessing in itself.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from Melvyn Bragg’s chapter on The Rule Book of Association Football. He cites the Labour Force Survey Quarterly of 1863, which reads (with my own emphasis in bold):

‘…the fascination of this gentle pastime is its mimic war, and it is waged with the individual prowess of the Homeric conflicts… The play is played out by boys with that dogged determination to win, that endurance of pain, that bravery of combative spirit, by which the adult is trained to face the cannon-ball with equal alacrity.’

I don’t know about facing a cannon-ball with alacrity, but I wouldn’t say no to a pie at half-time.

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