With the Six Nations tournament underway, it is time, once again, for some rugby fans to openly express their disdain for those of us whose experience and enjoyment of ball games does not stretch beyond the realms of the spherical. Once again, it’s time for football fans to endure Guinness-fuelled rants against the ‘girly’ footballers who don’t match up to the hyper-masculine ideal so perfectly preserved in the hulking bodies of those who play rugby. Once again, we must listen patiently as members of the red chino brigade bang out the old cliché about hooligans and gentlemen. Once again, it is time to be shamed.
Increasingly, as I’ve got older and moved up the social ladder, I occasionally find myself in drinking establishments frequented by those of the oval-ball persuasion. It’s what comes from living within a stone’s throw of places like Twickenham, Richmond, and Guildford. I enjoy rugby. I largely don’t have a clue what’s going on, but it’s a great game and one I wish I’d pursued as a youngster. But there is something that increasingly nags at me: it’s the fact that for some rugby fans, their preference for rugby above football, is worn as a huge flashing badge of superiority. And this badge, it isn’t pinned purely to a love for the game, but upon a toxic resentment for the working class.
Although codified and organised by the upper classes (football’s first rules were drawn up by Cambridge University), football quickly became a working class sport. The men working in the industrial towns of the North, where conditions and geography were optimal for the development of the textile trade, formed football teams as an alternative to their weekly dealings with cotton, steel, and coal. As more men started playing football, more men started watching it. Stadiums such as Hampden Park in Glasgow, made to hold 180,000 standing men, sprung up around the country to cater for those for whom, going to watch the football quickly became an integral and essential part of working class male life.
The nostalgic romance for the world of flat caps and rattle clackers was destroyed by the hooliganism of the 1980s. For the university-educated people who run the mainstream media, this world of tribalism and violence was one that they were rightfully prepared to condemn. However, there was never an attempt to understand the root cause of the reason so many young men turned to violence. As Anthony Ellis explains in his book, Men, Masculinities and Violence: An Ethnographic Study, ‘many of the historical sources of working class masculinity-heavy industry, manual work and unionised politics – have become increasingly less relevant for young men,’ and as a result, ‘personal reputation remains a “surviving facet of masculine credibility…”’For many disaffected young working-class men, football hooliganism provided a means of ensuring a reputation: an indicator of masculine power that was becoming increasingly hard to find in every day working lives. The impact on football generally, was disastrous. As Andrew Hussey states in an article for The New Statesmen, ‘By the end of the Thatcherite 1980s …. To be working class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed…was to be scum.’
Rugby league, a sport largely played by working class families in the North is a different matter entirely, but in the south, where the Union code dominates, it’s hard not to feel that for some rugby fans, their contempt for football is masked contempt for the working class. Many football fans will have observed rugby fans mocking with glee the ostentatious displays of wealth, (in the forms of chrome-plated Bentleys and gold watches that could anchor the QE2), displayed by working class boys for whom such wealth was once inconceivable. They’ll be familiar with the mocking of players such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney as stupid, purely because of how they speak. They’ll be familiar with the way the tattooed names and birthdates of beloved children, inked across a forearm m or neck, are talked about as branded indicators of the footballer’s place on the lower rungs of the social ladder.
What these critics of football need to remember is that for many working class boys, football is the only sport available to them. Rugby is the province of the public school. Public schools with the funds to provide fitness suites that can help in building the rugby-ready body needed to perform on the rugby field. It’s not just about access either. It’s about desirability. As is perfectly rational, many boys don’t want to be smashed to pieces every time they commit themselves to the sports field.This idea that rugby is somehow noble, just because it involves enduring a battering is another example of a toxic expectation that men should be physically strong in order to be, well…men. Sceptical too, am I, of the belief that rugby players are somehow paragons of virtue to which all young boys should look to for guidance on how to live their lives. In his article criticising Rugby for the hypocrisy of the ‘superior tone’ it takes with football, Robert Kitson references players dishing out homophobic abuse, death threats and punches at referees. Hardly the behaviour of gentlemen, and that’s before we even begin to discuss the appalling antics of England rugby teams of previous trips abroad. Which I won’t discuss, by the way.
I think it’s time that some rugby fans think about who they’re really criticising when they launch into their diatribes against football. After all, sport is a leveller. It can propel people, whatever their background, to moments of glory. On the rugby pitch and on the football pitch, where you’re from doesn’t matter. It’s how you conduct yourself. The sooner fans realise this, the better.