Football ruined my life.
If there was no such thing as football, I'd be happy. I'd be somewhere less tragic than this, doing something less miserable than this. I'd be eating grapes, reflecting on what went right. But here I am, spooning ice cream, patching together a themed life-narrative to diagnose the causes of my inadequacies. This is a blog post written by a graduate who still wants to be a footballer. This a blog post about who I really am and how I'm really nothing.
Like most boys in the country, my relationship with football started in childhood. I loved it. At home, there was enough space in our garden for my brother and I to run around playing fake premier league games, and our neighbours were patient enough to throw our wayward shots back over the fence. At school, wayward shots were usually just underneath the imaginary crossbar, or just inside the jumper-post. Much to my mother's frustration, every lunchtime I would prioritise running around the playing field over preserving my school shoes. But it was worth it, as my school-shoe skills could earn me some serious social currency. I was popular and lunchtimes felt good.
I could do things with a football. I wasn't the best player on the playground, but it often looked like I was, because I had a very flowery style of play. I could weave between players at speed. I could bring the ball from in tow to on toe and then a metre behind a defender keeping him rooted to the spot. Football could make me move without thinking, and it made other people like me. If I scored a goal, I'd win a high-five. Otherwise, I'd get some vocal affirmation that I'd done something good. On the pitch I was worth something, I was valuable. I loved having a football at my feet. But football ruined my life.
At high school, footballs weren't allowed so we'd play with a tennis ball. I could still manipulate it, getting it to do anything I wanted and it still made me feel good. But as we got deeper into high school, football wasn't cool anymore. Suddenly, all the football boys just wanted to sit around talking to girls. But I carried on playing football, and would come to class after lunch unattractive and sweaty. But it was worth it: the feeling of having a tennis ball at my feet could never be surpassed by chatting.
I lost touch with the football boys at lunchtimes, but we'd still play real football together at weekends. It would be cold, muddy, and the midlife crisis dads cared too much if we lost. Football training was fitness training, where we'd spend most of the time warming up or putting down cones. When Sunday rolled around, it would be a long drive to a random village, to listen to an overly passionate team-talk and unsuccessfully try to win a header against a post-puberty teen twice my tiny size. My love of football didn't come from team spirit or winning matches. It came from being absorbed in the ball at my feet and how I could use this to win respect off other people.
At 16 it all stopped. My dad, who had been ferrying me across the county for ten years, got his Sundays back. High school finished and sixth form began. All of a sudden I was meeting people who didn't know I was good at football. This shouldn't have been a problem, but my persona on-the-pitch had become an important part of who I was off-the-pitch. Football had made me notoriously cheeky and dangerously cocky, which are not qualities that go well with someone who's painfully shy. I didn't really realise it at the time, but football was a part of my personality, and I needed it when it wasn't there.
It was around this time in my life I took a disinterest in following football. As a child I'd been a keen supporter who was heavily invested in the game. In adulthood, the emotional investment needed to support a team seemed absurd, and amateur punditry became boring. I could still enjoy watching good football, but I didn't care about player stats or which team won. I don't know if it was part of growing up, or a slip of mental health, but this feeling of malaise was seeping throughout my life, drying out everywhere where there was once passion and vigour. Or maybe it was just just because my team got relegated. I felt distanced from those who cared about the beautiful game, despite the fact that football was what made me happy.
When I went to university, I didn't feel comfortable making football part of my identity. Unlike when I was in primary school, football no longer comprised the majority of my peer interaction. Embracing football was to embrace the culture of sport, and with it, a certain masculine identity that I just wasn't compatible with. When being placed in university halls, we were asked our interests, so to be placed with like-minded individuals. I loved football, but didn't want to be matched based on that fact, so I left that box blank. Incidentally, that came back to bite me. When I was put into a accommodation with 4 flatmates who had put American football in that box, I kinda wished I had written football.
That was 5 years ago. I'm 23 now. If someone asks me what my hobbies are I'll still tell them football, because it's true. But 2 minutes later I have to say that I've no opinion on the ludicrous display last night, if Arsenal were trying to walk in, or if they bought on Walcott far too early. To like football, you have to be a certain way, behave a certain way, and know the scores on a Monday morning. In school, you need football to make friends, but now I need friends to play football. I play 5-a-side only semi-regularly, and it's not easy as it should be to find a team.
So how did football ruin my life?
I clocked 1000s of hours playing football as a child, and I was good at it. I played on my own in the garden; every lunchtime at school; every weekend for a team and round the house I moved from room to room with a ball at my feet. Football was how I socialised; it was how I made friends and how I fuelled my self-esteem. I've always been very shy, and football gave me a way to speak with my feet. Football was my social crutch, and in adulthood it was taken away. Every time I meet someone new, they don't know I'm good at football and it makes me feel inadequate. So maybe football didn't quite ruin my life, but it didn't prepare me for it.