Last time out, I touched on the irrationality of football fans, with specific reference to the unfairness of using our arbitrary loyalties to determine the professional future of a young man.
Well, I’ll tell you something; you never feel as irrational as when you’re walking through Crawley at twenty past five on a cold winter’s evening, having stood for two hours to watch a dreadful game of football and be on the end of an FA Cup upset.
This is where your loyalty, or your stupidity, is really tested; when you’ve given up the best part of the year’s first Saturday to go to watch an unpleasant side knock you out of a competition you won’t win, spending the best part of £50 all told on the privilege. When you know you’re skint from Christmas, you know there’s more you could be doing and you know you’re going to watch the team play Brighton & Hove Albion in a week’s time anyway.
And what makes you feel stupidest of all is the day or two’s stubble on your chin, the stubble you grew for luck because you’d decided that not shaving has magical properties.
Yes, that’s right, I have a confession to make; I am subject to a weakness called superstition. I find this genuinely demeaning. I’m supposed to be a rationalist, dammit. I watch Brian Cox’s live lectures. I follow the New Humanist on twitter. I have arguments about the scientific method. And here I am, refusing to shave in case somehow this causes a disturbance in the ether allowing Matt Tubbs to latch onto a through-ball and knock it past David James.
The result of all this is precisely diddly squat. Tubbs (and what kind of lower league name is Matt Tubbs, anyway? He’s been scoring in all of their giant-killings and I’m convinced he does it largely out of spite. Being knocked out of the Cup by a supposedly inferior side is one thing; falling to a goal scored by a man whose name guarantees he will never be considered by Fabio Capello really rubs it in) scores despite my prickly chin. It had been prickly on matchday since the away game to Millwall, when I ran out of time to shave and called it a superstition. I knew, rationally, that it had no effect at all but I didn’t dare change it. I wasn’t taking any responsibility, however remote, for a defeat.
This isn’t a new thing. I’ve always been like this. I remember blaming my dad for Argentina’s equaliser in 1998 because he’d gone out of the room with the door open. Four years later I berated my housemate for doing the same thing when watching the same opposition on TV. I was convinced that Sven’s men kept it tight at the back despite my friend’s carelessness, rather than the likelier conclusion that the two events had no connection whatsoever.
So what’s going on? I mean, it’s not just me. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of apparently well-adjusted men and women refusing to go the football without parking in the right spot, without touching the lucky street sign near the ground, without those lucky pants. (Ross actually received a pair of pants with the words “Lucky Football Pants” emblazoned proudly across them. He wore them to the football. We lost. That was that for the pants.) This is all without getting into the players’ superstitions. What are we all doing?
My theory is that it comes from the same place as religion. It’s a desire to feel some measure of control over an arbitrary world, the same urge that led our forefathers to invent a pantheon of chaps in the sky who could be placated or enraged by our acts. I can no more watch City on TV with the door open than an Aztec priest could in good conscience go into the harvest season without making a sacrifice to whichever god was responsible for bounty. Everything else in my life I have some control over. Football, I don’t. I hate to relinquish control, and as such my brain invents these nonsensical connections between my behaviour and what happens on the pitch. Incidentally, this only ever makes me feel bad – as well as cultivating an increasingly eccentric series of tics, I only feel they’ve had an effect when I don’t do them and we lose. I never take credit for a victory but miss a ritual and you bet I’ll feel a touch of guilt for the defeat.
I’m well aware that this makes me sound somewhat unusual. I do think we all do it though. As our chums in the world of religion seize on arbitrary coincidences as proof of some divine plan, we spot the same patterns that aren’t really there. This week, we get “City are an awful Cup team”, and while it’s frustrating to have lost four straight cup ties to lesser opponents, and to have failed to progress in the FA Cup since 2007, that’s a “pattern” based on a handful of matches in the warp and weft of several seasons. It’s absurd; and yet of course at full time at Crawley I felt resigned to the defeat because “we’re a bad Cup team”. Not because we’ve played badly in a single game; but because the Fates have other ideas for us.
You often hear football described as a religion (440m Google results for the search “football religion”) but rarely in the sense that the link is blind faith, irrationality, guilt and desperation. I think that’s where it is though. Forget the surface similarities – the same part of our brain is being activated by both worlds. It may be the part that makes us human, but it’s also the part that makes us so infuriatingly mad.