The Game of our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football
By David Goldblatt
Don’t be fooled by the St George’s cross and three lions on the paperback cover; The Game of Our Lives is high-brow, academic stuff. In seven chunky chapters, Goldblatt explores English football from a range of social science approaches – economics, sociology, urban studies, politics, anthropology, race studies, gender studies. With a reference section spanning seventy pages, this truly is an exhaustive look at our nation’s favourite past-time.
‘How has English football changed in the last 25 years?’ Despite dips into deeper history, this is the central question in The Game of Our Lives. Goldblatt is interested in ‘the intersection, where Britain’s deep-rooted cultural relationship with football met the arrival of new media and new money’. His findings, as you’d expect, evoke a unique blend of pride and shame. Cosmopolitanism, collective ownership and crowd safety fight to float above a murky world of greed, mismanagement and sexism.
While the early chapters on the financials of the Premier League era (player/agent power, club ‘growth without profits’) and the fight against racism may feel like fairly well-trodden territory, they’re written with the finesse and detail that you’d expect from the author of The Ball is Round. ‘Keeping it Real? Match Day in the Society of the Spectacle’, meanwhile, makes nice use of the blow-by-blow live football experience to theorise on the ‘longing for the communal and the public in an individualized and privatized world’.
The later chapters offer up more distinctive insights. ‘English Journey: Football and Urban England’ delivers an absorbing lesson in cultural geography. Bristol, Goldblatt argues, ‘perhaps more than any city cleared its inner urban neighbourhood of football’s traditional working-class social base.’ Working from north to south and from east to west, the conclusions are hard to refute. ‘Football at Twilight: Britain’s Endgame’ is a fascinating look at the ‘domestic fragmentation’ through the lens of football. Goldblatt starts with the shifts in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland before moving on to discuss ‘the English football nation’ and the fans’ rejection of the Union Jack in the late 1990s.
Perhaps even better is ‘Last Man Standing? English Football and the Politics of Gender’. ‘Is there any other realm of public life where prominent figures proclaim the essential, enduring maleness of their world?’ Goldblatt asks rhetorically. What follows is a study of both the slow, fettered progress made by women in the game but also the rise of the sophisticated foreigner and in particular the metrosexual man, embodied by David Beckham.
As you’d expect from what is essentially a series of intellectual essays, The Game of Our Lives can feel a little dry at times. However, there are certainly moments of crackling wit from Goldblatt, such as the description of TalkSport as ‘the saloon-bar bear pit of sports radio’ and his character assassination of the FA in Chapter Six (‘a hybrid of the punctilious provincial town hall and the clannish rotary club’).
As the sum of its scholarly parts, The Game of Our Lives puts football where it belongs – at the very forefront of our society. ‘The Church, the theatre, festivals and soap operas – football has acquired a place in British culture that exceeds them all, for it alone is the equal of each in their domains of ritual, performance, ecstasy and national narrative.’ At times, Goldblatt may seem a little serious, but his point is that the role and meaning of modern British football is no joke at all.
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