I had decided well before it all kicked off (ahem) that I wouldn’t be watching the World Cup matches this year. In fact, I could have told you that this time last year. It’s not that I despise my country, it’s not that want to bring down popular culture, I just have absolutely no interest in football. However, much to my disappointment, the footie is somewhat unavoidable. It’s on the news. It’s in my RSS feeds. It’s being talked about in church during communion. And it’s on Twitter.
On that note, I was mildly amused (and at the same time mildly annoyed) by a couple of friends giving a running commentary on Twitter as the most recent England match was being played. I wondered who exactly those tweets were for the benefit of. If I had actually been interested in the football, I would have been watching, and wouldn’t have needed the commentary. As it is, I chose not to watch the football, because I’m not interested. So you give me a running commentary anyway. Is there no escape??
As it happens, my natural tendency to shun all popular sports stems from years of denial, conscious and sub-conscious decisions not to follow the crowd, and embarrassment.
To explain, let me share with you a particularly memorable incident at primary school. I think it was year 5, or thereabouts. Back then the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles were in full swing, and everyone had the action figures. Everyone except me. I pestered my mum endlessly to get me one, and eventually she relented and bought me the orange one, whatever he was called. Actually, she bought two, one for me and one for my younger brother, so that we didn’t fight over them (I think he got the red one). It was such am amazing feeling of justification and self-worth, and I proudly took my Turtle into school the next day.
That day, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles went out of fashion. No one had them but me. No one was interested in my new toy. After all that fuss, it was essentially worthless, both in monetary terms and also (arguably more importantly) in terms of what would then have been called “street cred”. I wasn’t cool for having a Turtle. I was “gay” for having such a childish toy that everyone else had grown out of. I must stress that it wasn’t as if months or years had passed – the day before they had been all the rage.
My pride deflated, I resolved never again to be a sheep, never again to follow the crowd, never again to do or have anything at all that was ‘popular’. If it was truly special, it would last long enough for me to be able to get one the following year when the hype had died down. In all honesty I still have that opinion when it comes to technology, but that’s another story.
So, back to sport. You see, I wasn’t actually particularly terrible at football. True, I wasn’t the best, because I didn’t really have a passion for it as a sport, but I was small and light and nimble and could very easily weave in and out of other people to get to the ball. I played at Boys’ Brigade quite frequently, in fact. But I made a point of hating it, out of principle. If it was something everyone else enjoyed, I’d enjoy something else. The other boys liked to play football, but I liked unihoc. Just to spite them.
In secondary school, I got in with a crowd of other misfits (apologies to any of those friends of mine who are reading this and never saw themselves as a misfit). We were clever without being outstanding boffins. We were mildly naughty at times without being out-right rebels. We were immature without getting into trouble. We were a team of friends without actually being popular. And when it came to P.E. and games, on the whole we were totally unsuited for physical activity. If we could have got out of playing rugby in the freezing cold, we would have done. If we could stand by the sides of the pitch and avoid the football completely, it was a good day. In cricket, fielding was much more favourable than batting because you got to stand around and not run. As a group, we were all like-minded in our resistance to popular culture.
And then, one day when we were running our weekly cross country route, a revelation hit me. I had become a sheep again, this time for the other side. All my friends expected me to be just as unenthused by sport as they were. They expected me to be rubbish at football. They expected me to stay with them at the back of the cross country pack, walking wherever we could get away with it, claiming to be critically unfit. The trouble was, I cycled to school every day, I had good strong leg muscles and a fair dose of stamina. So I left my friends behind, ran a bit faster, a bit harder. I ran until I was out of breath, and then carried on some more. I ran until my legs shouted for mercy, and then ran some more. I ran until my throat was dry, until my breathing was painful and wheezy, until the sweat poured from my face, until my vision was blurred by dehydration, and then ran some more. I got a personal best that week. And the following week I did even better, because I ran like that right from the start. It was my act of defiance, spitting in the face of the new popular culture I had become a part of, rejecting the expectation of lethargy, and stepping out on my own for once. Turns out I was pretty good at physical exertion after all.
So when it comes to the World Cup, or the tennis for that matter, part of me refuses to take any interest solely because everyone else is. It’s not so much that I don’t like football, it’s more that I don’t like that everyone likes it. If it fell from popularity, I might be more inclined to take an interest. I think that’s unlikely, somehow. I would much rather watch the World Rally Championship than the Formula One. I would much rather watch a short documentary on opera singers than watch The X-Factor. I would much rather watch videos of people doing clever stuff on YouTube than watch Britain’s Got Talent. I would much rather sit and look out the window at the beautiful countryside than watch the World Cup.
But here’s the rub – am I falling into the same trap as when I was at secondary school? Am I following a different crowd now, of people who don’t like football out of principle, without considering whether I do actually like it? And can I be true to myself and recognise my own genuine interests without then putting myself into another box with another bunch of people? It is a pickle.
Maybe I should just take up knitting.