Football: fighting minus the fists (mostly)

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In one very specific way, playing amateur football is a lot like travelling on the London Tube network: it’s a miracle the whole thing goes off as peacefully as it does.

Playing football may never involve you in anything as enervating as a busy Monday morning on the Northern Line – one of those days when people no longer bother shouting “Can you move right down inside please?” in a braying self-righteous voice but instead simply push, tutting, into the overcoated crush with a short-arm scythe of the attaché case, shouldering an extra 4cm of floor-footprint in order to frown at a freesheet newspaper while, with the other hand, aggressively asserting control of the yellow pole.

But, like commuting, football also has its own distinct set of rules, an etiquette of concussive self-restraint.

This is a good thing, because the potential for violence is high. In fact, football and fighting have many common elements. Very few activities involve the same wary, cold-eyed calculations of an opponent’s muscle mass and general health.

Who cares if the man next to you can run quickly over 20 metres, if he’s been working out or letting himself go, if he has an appetite for confrontation, if his elbows are sharp and his thighs are unusually powerful? Very few people, in fact, outside of the pub brawler and the footballer (and possibly the sexually active urban homosexual).

Football requires you to make all these judgements. It asks that you enter a world of untutored collisions with other human beings that might, in the normal world, amount to a variety of serious assaults.

I have never really been involved in a proper fight; not a fight that lasts longer than one decisive blow (always received, never delivered) and a few minutes of bewildered after-fight. But I have regularly launched myself at other men feet first from a running start on the football field.

I’ve been involved in a leg-breaking. I’ve been put in hospital and knocked unconscious. I’ve had my nose bloodied and my shin cut open. It’s amazing, really, how much approved violence you can still get through without ever having had a proper fight - but with football in your corner.

Happily all this is held together by a stringently enforced code of on-field conduct that includes the following:

1. Be nice.

Because everyone knows when you’re not. No need to freeze-frame here: it’s already in slow motion. A bow-legged 14-stone 30-something man going “a bit high at the ball”? You’re going to spot it 200 yards away. And so amateur football is still surprisingly well-behaved and unusually tender in its collisions.

2. Only small men ever actually fight.

Always watch for the short-arse. Beware the wiry titch. He is angry. He cannot be laughed out of it. Stay away. Or simply nullify him by hiding behind his much taller team-mate, whose job it is to say repeatedly “Lionel, no. No. Lionel, no,” while you pretend to be just about holding yourself back, but, you know, if this goes on, well...

3. It all stays on the pitch.

You may go briefly forehead to forehead, or paunch to paunch. Team-mates may intercede, making peaceable hand gestures and perhaps saying “Leave it, Dave” or “Easy, easy”. But at the final whistle this will be settled, not with a stern, hollow-cheeked finger-crushing handshake, but with a droopingly apologetic arm around the shoulder and a sense of self-ironising absurdity. It’s a bit like sumo: staggeringly, burpingly collision-based within the white lines – but outside of them, an exaggerate dance of courtly respect.

4. The best fights are in-fights.

I’ve only ever seen two full-on, Western-style mass brawls, the kind that see grown men actually sprinting in order to jostle and wave their arms and launch flabby kung-fu kicks. Both were on adjoining pitches. And both had nothing to do with the opposition. These were team-mate on team-mate fights which, in truth, are the only ones that ever really kick off.
What’s the point in wanting to beat up the oppo anyway? You hardly know them. Team-mates are different. This is the real dark heart of amateur football. As the police are prone to pointing out in the kind of Friday night ITV mini-series that often star a baggy-faced family-friendly actor previously seen in a long-running comedy series, most of the time it’s a domestic. 

This isn’t meant to downplay the importance of violence. In truth, one of the best things about playing amateur football is still its controlled, almost-non-existent, but still oddly attractive sheen of hidden violence.

There are few things better in life than launching a full-on, properly sliding, sliding tackle. When do you ever get to do this, ever, except in football? Football’s violence is still uniquely exciting, and not in a funny way either; instead it’s orderly, disciplined, and even quite old-fashioned.

Previously on The Sharp End:
Why tactics say a lot about humanity
What your kit says about you (and others)
Why shouting and swearing is park football's birdsong
Why winning means nothing and everything
The manager – parent, pastor, secretary, dictator

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