It’s difficult to justify eschewing social engagements just because 22 strangers are kicking a ball around on a field thousands of miles away, or because an array of non-British women are about to jump over a collection of hurdles (literal hurdles mind, not puny figurative ones).
It’s irrational, really. But if you’ve looked forward to the big sporting tournaments for your whole life, it’s a difficult thing to just turn off. That’s why I virtually disappeared during Euro 2012 and have gone to ground during the Olympics.
Sport was a huge part of my childhood. I played football, but my obsession was about more than the thrill of scoring the odd goal, and it was about more than just watching. To me, it presented an alternate universe as compelling as the likes of Star Wars.
I read and re-read books full of football statistics. I read and re-read and re-read an ITV Sport-produced tome about the history of the Olympics (football and athletics were – and remain – my favourites).
I drew pictures of goals being scored. You know those playbook-style diagrams you see in newspapers, where they illustrate the movement of the ball leading up to a goal? I was drawing those – loads of them, uselessly illustrated using colouring pencils and felt-tips – on a daily basis. I used Star Wars figures as footballers, kicking a Subbuteo ball around on the carpet and trying to score past my brother who would be holding Darth Vader as a goalkeeper (Subbuteo itself was always too frustrating for us, so we invented our own, more free-flowing variation).
I watched and re-watched videos of league goals and, in the absence of any other useful information filling up my brain, knew the home and away score for every match, for every team, throughout the season. You could have asked me what the score was for, say, Everton v. Derby 6 months ago, and I would know. I would also know who scored all the goals.
When I think about the time I now spend commuting, ironing, washing dishes, cooking, socialising… all of this time, when I was a kid, was spent obsessing over sport. There was nothing, nothing more exciting than the prospect of a new World Cup, European Championships, FA Cup or Olympic Games. So actually, I think I’ve done pretty well to emerge from such an all-consuming obsession a relatively well-rounded human being. Sure, I spent, cumulatively, a full 24 hours watching football during the opening week of Euro 2012 – but at least I still made it into work and somehow managed to feed myself (with awful, unnaturally-hued food – but no matter).
Of late I’ve been thinking about what sport taught me during my formative years. I’m not talking about ‘teamwork’ and ‘determination’, or any of that life-lesson pishposh. I’m talking about practical, tangible, how-do-you-spell-Mönchengladbach general knowledge. Because following football means more than just watching a ball being kicked around, and the Olympics is about more than chucking a stick into a field.
There’s always a context there, and it’s from these contexts that I think my childhood education was actually improved by sport. I’m not saying I learned more than I did in school, but my awareness and knowledge of the world was definitely enhanced. Not with semi-ironic stuff like the fact that, ha ha, the Germans never miss penalties – I mean actual, semi-useful facts and figures.
I’ve had a bit of a think about this, and here’s some of the stuff I learned as a result of being a sports-nerdlinger child.
While children are undoubtedly chocolate-mouthed idiots who can’t even say ‘helicopter’, I got a huge head start when it came to pronouncing unfamiliar names and places. I was exposed to the peculiarities of numerous languages thanks to early exposure to people with names like Zbigniew Boniek, Preben Elkjær Larsen, Said Aouita, Heike Dreschler and Emilio Butragueño; and teams called Widzew Lodz, Fiorentina, Shakhtar Donetsk, Rotor Volgograd, Fluminense and Stenhousemuir.
At an early age I’d acquired the Spanish madre due to its tendency to be mouthed – preceded by puta – by Spanish-speaking footballers when they missed a sitter, and thanks to my Dad’s glee at pointing it out and explaining what it meant. And just in case I was in any doubt as to what the Spanish for ‘goal’ was, Football Focus’s occasional highlighting of over-excited South American commentators soon cleared that up. Growing up in Wales and watching Italian and Spanish football on S4C’s Sgorio (the only way to access such exotic matches back then, pre-internet) also helped improve my Welsh; even now I can remember that ‘offside’ is camsefyll.
Finally, when it comes to my mother tongue, I’m fairly sure I can thank football for introducing me to words like aplomb, temerity, efficiency, ruthless, blistering, aggregate, incisive and tenacious. Of course, using any of these words in the playground was a surefire short-cut to a chinese burn, but I had my eye on the long game.
If you’re going to be a real football fan, you can only avoid the intricacies of goal difference for so long – and once you’re aware of what the For and Against columns mean, you’re basically a little footballing accountant. Two-legged cup ties, meanwhile – with the added confusion of away goals – meant that I couldn’t hope to maximise my UEFA Cup final viewing experience without indulging in some arithmetic.
Watching athletics, and trying to get my head around the fact that world records could be broken by hundredths of seconds, didn’t prevent me from having to resit my Maths GCSE – but I don’t blame the sport for that.
My biology knowledge was never harmed by early exposure to the fallibility of tendons, hamstrings, groins, cartilages and ligaments. I’d still have no idea what lactic acid is if I hadn’t seen runners tie up in the home straight and been thusly informed by commentators. Throw in plenty of performance-enhancing drug scandals, and I’d also gained a considerable insight into what the human body could achieve with a little modification. Plus: steroids make your eyes go a funny colour and can turn women into men.
When it came to physics, Diego Maradona’s domination introduced me to the concept of a low centre of gravity. He was like a particularly skilful weeble. (Diego also contributed to my lack of personal ethics thanks to his getting away with the ‘Hand of God’ goal. It’s his fault I cheat at cards.)
Oh yeah, and I think wind assistance in athletics is probably something to do with physics, isn’t it? No?
Sports fans since childhood will have a geographical knowledge far beyond people who spent their formative years playing with Meccano and stuff. By the age of 12 I reckon I knew where Montevideo was, the capitals of every country worth knowing about (that is, the ones with decent football teams); that Finland existed (that’s where Lasse Viren is from); and the fact that Mexico City (did you know it’s over 2,000 metres above sea level?) had one mother of an earthquake in 1985.
At the age of 12 I had but one reason to be aware of Bulgaria: Yordanka Donkava, the supposedly female 100 metre hurdler with only eight fingers.
Jesse Owens v. the Nazis in 1936; terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics; Black Power salutes at the 1968 Mexico Olympics; Zola Budd and South African apartheid; Russian and American boycotts – I’m pretty certain my Olympics history book taught me more about social and political history than any lesson I ever took.
And the fact that my football stats books had no FA Cup winners between 1939 and 1945 let me know that something reasonably important must have been going on during this period.
So there you go, you see. If your little one shows a weirdly obsessive interest in sport, it doesn’t necessarily mean he/she is doing so at the expense of learning stuff.
It might not be the right stuff, but it’s better than nothing.