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Don’t sneer at football, it’s the one and only thing that can unite this nation

PUBLISHED: 10:55 10 July 2018 | UPDATED: 10:55 10 July 2018

Howard Junior School pupils in Gaywood are celebrating England's progress at the World Cup. Picture: Ian Burt

Howard Junior School pupils in Gaywood are celebrating England's progress at the World Cup. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

Football: it’s 22 overgrown, overpaid man-children chasing a bag of air around a field.

Factually, this oft-repeated statement is true. But it really - reeeaaaally - gets on my wick.

Many of those people probably enjoy Wimbledon, which is fine (“fine” is the best I can come up with to describe a rather beige sport).

It is not that I dislike Wimbledon: it’s the juxtaposition of it and the World Cup that I find revealing as they go on at the same time.

Wimbledon is just so twee, polite and buttoned up.

“Let’s go Andy, let’s go” is chanted at SW19 with the sing-song style of nursery pupils singing The Wheels on the Bus or Christian youth workers trying to get teenagers to join in with Shine, Jesus Shine.

If you were at Norwich’s play-off final win over Middlesbrough in 2015, you’ll remember On the Ball, City thundering out with eye-bulging, heart-scudding, emotion-drenched energy. Chalk-(dust) and cheese.

Tennis gives us a phalanx of establishment celebs, perfectly groomed and occasionally animated, in the Royal Box. There’s no sense of the thrill of the action, more the opportunity of the photo.

If all goes wrong, Sir Cliff Richard is waiting in the wings to sing. That is the very definition of all going wrong.

Football gets a topless Ross Kemp roaring into the camera to celebrate England’s win over Colombia, Paddy McGuinness careering into tables as he can’t contain his delight and Eric Cantona singing Three Lions.

Wimbledon is background noise while you read a book, cook a meal or dust your Doulton. The rhythm of ball hitting racquet soothes the soul.

Football demands centre stage. It’s an aggressive, impolite and downright disturbing sport. It forces you to drop your Doulton and embrace the action.

“Oh, I say” is to tennis what “yeeesss, ******* yeeesss!” is to football.

Only one of the sports can make you hug complete strangers, cry tears of joy and despair, and go to work for days with a spring in your step.

When I was a teenager, I wrote one of those heart-on-sleeve, vomit-in-throat secret diaries made popular by Adrian Mole.

For three years I wrote every day - until the day after England lost the 1990 World Cup semi-final to Germany.

Heartbroken, I never again put pen to page.

That’s the power of football. But when Tiger Tim Henman lost a Wimbledon semi-final to Goran Ivanisevic, the nation let out a communal “tut” and put the kettle on.

The UK TV audience for England v Sweden on Saturday was 19.9m. Conservative estimates add a few million to that figure.

When Andy Murray won Wimbledon in 2016 it was seen by an average TV audience of 9.2m.

On the same day, 12.1m watched Portugal beat France in the Euro 2016 final.

So football, even a dull match that didn’t involve England, was of more interest than a British sporting hero’s assault on tennis’s biggest prize.

Stuff politeness, we want to see and feel passion.

Life is full of enough mediocrity, so let’s not be afraid to yearn for and enjoy the moments when raw emotion surges through us.

If you football haters have other things that unleash those moments of unbridled joy, I’m pleased for you.

Just don’t sneer at football, the one and only thing that can currently unite a nation, spreading smiles and a spirit of solidarity.

By the way, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn et al, if England win the thing, have the decency to remain silent.

You and your ilk have long had the task of uniting us and making us happier.

Gareth Southgate and his England squad have done a far better job of it.

Not bad for overgrown, overpaid man-children chasing a bag of air around a field.

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