Reading of the allegations of racism in football, it struck me as the more sad, that, over the years, football has been for me the great leveller, the international language which speaks across countries, class and gender.
It was 1986, my husband and I were on the cheapest of cheapest jolly holidays in Tunisia, packaged into a Hamammet hotel along with thousands of working-class English and German tourists. It was all sun, sea, bazaar and camel trips in the sand dunes and no contact with the ‘natives’ except to enter into the street haggling that the tourist guide instructed was culturally expected. And then the bus taking us back to the airport broke down in the middle of the night, in a small town. And as the warm wind swirled around us, we found a lit up shop window where one of the world cup matches was being replayed on the TV. Suddenly, we were not alone, the driver, the relief driver, the men from the petrol station, where there was a phone, all joined us outside that window – exclaiming, sharing jeers and applause, clapping my husband on the back as we watched the silent match.
The next time was yet more bizarre. I was on a women’s delegation to Palestine during the first intifada. Every day was packed with formal visits – to nurseries, hospitals, human rights groups, women’s committees, collective farms – but next to no direct human contact. Our hotel was, as normal in east Jerusalem, staffed entirely by men, who served us correctly but distantly. Until, that is, they found out that we, too, were interested in football. The next world cup was on and they and we watched the one TV set in the hotel, yelling long into the night together. The divisions of westerner/local, visitor/servant men/women, all forgotten.
During the next world cup, I was holidaying in eastern Sicily with two women friends. We went off the beaten track – to find no trains, no buses, no taxis willing to pick up three older ladies. With great difficulty and no Italian we got the manager of our hotel in god-forsaken Porto Palo (where nothing happens except bodies of would-be immigrants washed up in fishing nets) to come some distance to Noto to pick us up. We were embarrassed and could not express our thanks. And then came football to the rescue. With sign language, the names of countries and players, we managed a whole conversation with our driver across those thirty minutes, deciding who should win which round and be in the final. When we reached the hotel, we were somehow less in his debt.
Jimmy is coming to paint our small bungalow. Ex-military, east-ender, white – how will he get on with my Asian and leftwing husband? Obvious … through football. Jimmy Greaves, Stan Bowles, Pelé or Georgie?. Maradona, he was a one. No one can beat Fergie as a manager. And it was not just that they could share memories of individual talent, it was also through football that they found a shared sense of values – over sportsmanship, wealth, team spirit. Absurd and trite as it sounds, they could recognise each other then, in the mirror of football.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Racism: on the pitch but off the agenda’