Whilst the oft quoted (tongue firmly in cheek) Mr Bill Shankly stated that football is more important than matters of life and death, I would seriously say that football is a whole lot more.
It’s more than just a game and it is this area that highlights the difference between a sport being one of several football codes or just another sport played in Australia and the sport that pervades many countries and societies and is often central to many people’s existence.
There have been many articles and discussions about the growth of football, whether it will ever become number one in Australia and areas connected such as why there is a disconnect between grassroots and A-League, or player numbers versus spectator numbers but rarely do we look beyond the game and examine culture to find the answers.
The term “football is in his blood” is well used and mainly directed towards players and families with ambitions to play at a professional level. However, when you grow up in a country where football rules, that expression can be directed at almost anyone old enough to wear a piece of merchandise – never mind kick a ball.
It isn’t a modern phenomenon although, admittedly, it has grown enormously in the past few decades as the marketeers have really come to grips with potential sales.
But start at the beginning: the birth of a newborn: If you grow up as I did in the UK, it is likely that someone will buy a teddy bear in club colours, a small ball will be given as a gift, a baby size shirt, nappy covers, romper suits and so much more will be given as presents from day one.
In houses where support is divided, the question will be asked “who will he/she support when they’re older?” That is just the beginning.
Once a child can walk, some “well-meaning” relative will be lifting the toddler up helping them to kick a ball and doubtless the child will be decked out in a tiny version of one team or another. Once at school, the questions will be asked about which team is supported and who the favourite player is. Quite often by five years old, the child may well have been totally bored for 90 minutes watching a professional game whether it be the EPL or Division 2 stuff.
By the time a child is about eight or nine, Christmas is a time when all manner of football related gifts appear courtesy of Santa and an army of helpers. Pyjamas, doona covers, lamps, stationery, cups, mugs, glasses, underwear, outerwear, sports clothing and even the humble football.
When you see what is sold inside such club shops as owned by the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, (they are the size of a large supermarket) you begin to understand the scope of the project.
Meanwhile, at school, kids are collecting football cards along with bubble-gum or the latest trend and are busy pronouncing all the difficult surnames and swapping for their heroes or missing stars. A trip to the newsagent will provide the latest weekly array of football magazines and comics (Roy of the Rovers lives on) and there are magazines for all fans of all ages.
There are television programs aimed at different ages, maybe live games to watch, podcasts to listen to; sports news that is totally dominated by one sport and then there are newspapers and many of them, all carrying salacious gossip, rumours and gossip and many only require a reading age of about eight so most can participate.
I haven’t even mentioned playing the game. Unlike Australia, the UK is more of an exclusive market rather than inclusive as it is here that allows everyone to play. In the UK, you trial for a team and if you don’t make it, you follow the time-honoured tradition of throwing your jacket or jumper on the ground to make posts and you play with friends in the local park.
You can always play the latest version of FIFA or PES on your games console or perhaps you like playing some of the many football games that have been released down the decades.
None of this may be startling news and some will argue that some of this takes place here as well or perhaps it does for NRL or AFL. However, what I am suggesting is that in what we often refer to as footballing countries, this is all on a much larger scale. Even television programs make references to the games.
Soap opera stars such as EastEnders follow their local team and wear the kit and have photos on the walls. When you go into a bar, even if you are on your own, you can start a conversation if you watched whatever game was on the television the night before and you know and can use a few key phrases.
It is more than a game, it is ingrained into the culture and is a way of life for many and often more important than other aspects of life. I made sure I did not get married during the football season so that I didn’t inconvenience anyone who would want to be at a game.
While it might just be big business and the opportunity for companies to make money, I’d still argue it runs deeper than that and it is all pervasive and that is what makes it number one in so many countries around the world.