Left back in the changing room

I have a somewhat complex relationship with football. First conscious realisation that the game existed, and was of some importance to others, happened at 6 years old. Colin, who would later become a good friend, asked me who I support. Flummoxed about how to answer, I asked the same question of him.
“Me too,” I capitulated.

And then he queried the boy standing next to me.
“What football team do you support?”
“West Ham.”
“West Ham are rubbish.”

At age 8, I had just about managed to grasp the difference between a corner and a goal kick. A 1992 Luton Town shirt was my attire of choice, featuring Universal Salvage Auctions’ sponsorship – a neat red, white and blue ‘USA’ logo. Age 9, for some unknown reason, I was in the school football team at left back with good friend Gareth. Age 10, I joined his local team and we travelled to the away games together. And yet, throughout all this, I have only one recollection of kicking a football – a goal-line sliding clearance that brought great acclaim from team-mates.

This seemingly irrelevant background information serves to suggest that I’m not so interested in football itself, but the rituals and relationships that it facilitates. Which leads to the main course of this piece.

The 1994 World Cup in the USA was the first one that I remember. In the months immediately preceding the first games, my parents’ shop began stocking a variety of USA 94 merchandise and associated POS advertising. The official logo was everywhere, reminiscent of that 1992 Luton Town shirt. An intriguing visual that seemed out of place amongst the newspapers, sweets, and videos. Nowhere was football mentioned, though, and it was not until my dad drew my attention to the fact that, in the USA, football is predominantly called ‘soccer’ that the connection was made. He informed me of a poll of Americans asking how many halves in a game of ‘soccer’. One fellow had apparently answered “four”, and this made me feel marginally knowledgeable about the game.

Either the 1994 World Cup final was not televised or, more likely, was on too late for my brother and me, aged 8 and 10 respectively, to be allowed to watch. So we sat in the middle of my bedroom huddled around the radio, on the red, white and blue striped carpet, listening to the penalty shoot-out. Both of us hoping that Brazil would triumph. Celebrating quietly when they did.

Following our enthusiasm for the 1994 World Cup, dad took my brother and me to Luton’s opening game of the 1994-5 season at home to West Brom. 1-1; goals by Scott Oakes and Stuart Naylor. We didn’t see either goal because the crowd around us excitedly stood up en masse at the crucial moments. We missed the start of the second half after heading off to buy hotdogs.

During Euro 96, my brother, myself and our friends watched all of England’s games together, gathered closely around the TV. We developed a ritual of, whenever England scored, running outside barefoot, screaming at anyone who might happen to be there, and disappearing back inside before they knew what had happened. England scored and the sun shone.

Growing up, my brother and I didn’t get on well. In particular, I feared arguing with him as he would always get the last word. Even if I had the most cohesive argument and couldn’t possibly be wrong, he would stoically refuse to compromise under any circumstances. So it was a great relief to be on his side for these footballing occasions – to support the same team, whether Brazil, Luton, or England. Any other arrangement would have seen me on the losing side, whatever the outcome of the match.

Lee Broughall – July 2010


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