Sunday, 13 September 2009

Two tribes

Oh, bloody hell, this is ridiculous. I don't even like football that much.

Growing up, I was a bit of an oddity. At my first school, between the ages of four and seven, I was regarded with suspicion and awe. Well, as much suspicion and awe as a group of four-year-olds can muster, I suppose. Quite frankly, when your head is mainly filled with concern about the Daleks invading or whether you're going to get KerPlunk for Christmas, there isn't much room for the deeper emotions.

But I was an odd fish. There I was, a young boy growing up in the English suburban seventies. And I didn't like football. By all accounts this was unheard of. If you were that age, at that time, and in full possession of male genes, you followed football. You watched it, you spoke it, you played it. It was like the tides or the phases of the moon.

I outed myself early on, when asked the archetypal question, "Are you blue, or claret-and-blue?" This may have been on my first day of school, so important was the issue. Yet when I claimed not to like football, my scrutineer was puzzled. This just did not compute. I had to belong to a team.

I should explain. In the city of my birth there are two football teams, Aston Villa and Birmingham City. Aston Villa has been (at least for as long as I can remember) the successful one. They maintain a position in the Premier league, occasionally entering European competition, through the plainly unusual strategy of being able to play football reasonably well.

This approach frustrates and fascinates Birmingham City fans in equal measure. The Blues, as they are known, have not shared the success of their near-neighbours for a long time. Their all-too-brief forays into the upper echelons of the English game are usually interspersed by years out in the wilderness.

As a result we have that whole Montague/Capulet thing going on in my hometown. It doesn't matter if you like the game or not. It's a little like that story of Oscar Wilde admitting, to an audience in Northern Ireland, to being an atheist. "That's nice, dear," replied an old lady, "but is it the god of the Catholics or the god of the Protestants in which you don't believe?"

Regardless of your prediliction for the game, it's important to know whose tribe you're in. So on that fateful day, all those years ago, I went home and asked my parents. "Am I Villa or am I Blues?"

"Son," they said, "this is a Blues house." Had we been having this conversation in New Orleans that response would have been rather cool. But this was Kings Heath in 1975 and I had spaghetti hoops for tea.

And so the die was cast. They bought me the penguin strip, royal blue with a broad white stripe up the front. I was made to disconsolately boot a football around the garden. My older brother tried to get me interested in memorising the home grounds of all 92 league teams. It was never going to happen.

Even now, people will have conversations with me about the game, assuming that I have the faintest idea what they're talking about. "Well, Liverpool are looking strong, as with Gerrard they can play with 4-5-1 and move to 4-4-2 on the break when they get possession." They may as well be describing quantum physics to me. In Albanian.

So what is it that caused me to be so frustrated at the beginning of this post? Lunchtime today found me furiously pressing 'refresh' on the BBC homepage as they gave the text commentary on the Birmingham/Villa local derby. Let me remind you. I don't actually like football.

However, when things are tribal, it gets instinctive.

(PS - for those who are interested, the score was: Birmingham City 0 - Aston Villa 1. Some things are clearly pre-determined).


Tom said...

This sounds familiar. Just this weekend we had the Intrastate rival Universities, Iowa and Iowa State, playing each other in American football and in this part of Iowa it is somewhat heretical to not be an Iowa Hawkeyes fan, which leads me to revolt and despise them. I'm not a big fan of Iowa State either, so it becomes me rooting for whoever is playing Iowa. However, when they play, I like to hear who is winning and will watch when I'm anywhere near a telly during the game. (How'd ya like my use of proper vernacular?)

City Girl said...

Same thing here. In Chicago, it doesn't matter that you don't give a flip about baseball, you have to be either a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan. You can't NOT be one or the other.

When meeting new people, the first three questions you must ask are: What do you do? Where did you go to school? Cubs or Sox? That tells you everything you need to know about a person.

Tom: ROCK that vernacular, Brother!

PS - "In Albanian" made me snort. :o)

Le laquet said...

Football - bleugh!!! I truly know what you mean about tribal but really I'd rather watch tiddlywinks with those Albanian subtitles! *yawn*

fatboyfat said...

Tom & CG - so it's not a British peculiarity then? There is no hope. (And well done on the vernacular, Tom. Absolutely bostin.)

Laquet - as you know I'm actually more of a fan of the oval ball game...


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