I was sceptical about a certain strain of middle-class fan, but now I know the thrill of belonging to the football tribe
II've spent much of this week following a leadership crisis, aiming to read every news item and key tweet, calling the odd well-informed source, gripped by the drama of the story. Don't worry, you haven't missed some fresh challenge at the top of the Liberal Democrats or Tories – that treat is in the diary for next week, after Eastleigh. No, the crisis I have in mind has been played out on the back rather than the front pages. At its centre is Arsène Wenger, manager for 17 years of Arsenal football club.
Non-football fans needn't turn the page just yet. Until not long ago, I numbered myself among you. I tuned in for the big international tournaments but stayed indifferent to the rest. Yet steadily, over the last two or three years, I've undergone a change. Like the man who waits till middle age to discover rock'n'roll, I have now, in my mid-40s, become a convert to the beautiful game.
Until this transformation, I confess I was sceptical about a certain strain of middle-class football fan, suspicious most of all of political types' boasted enthusiasm for the terraces. Among the New Labour crowd, I always thought it reeked of faux populism, a pretended connection to working-class culture, equivalent to the Blairite glottal stop and dropped "t". At best it seemed a pretty lame form of social icebreaker, the permitted masculine form of small-talk before getting down to business. (For Gordon Brown, a genuine Raith Rovers fanatic, football was indispensable. He mistakenly had one national newspaper editor down as an Arsenal fan, beginning every encounter with a long analysis of Wenger's men, with the editor in question bluffing wildly, too polite to tell the PM he'd got it wrong.)
Now I think I might have judged them all too harshly. The passion was probably sincere, perhaps all the more so because they were involved in high-tension politics, for reasons I'll come to. After all, I see what's happened to me. I now read this paper's football writers almost as closely as I read its political correspondents. I check the New York Times and Haaretz websites as regularly as ever, but now sneak a peak at the excellent Gunnerblog and Arseblog. Arsenal's fixtures are in my diary; I have found myself organising travel plans around home games. I own a red and white scarf. I have become a fan.
I usually blame my sons. Now aged eight and 11, they became hooked before I did. I encouraged it: Arsenal were our local team, the Emirates stadium within walking distance, and I knew from experience that being a football know-nothing is no fun for boys their age. I took them to the odd match when I could. And when a friend of a friend had season tickets going spare for a year, I took them. (I know: not the best season to start watching Arsenal.)
But those are just the circumstances, not an explanation for what has become a mild addiction. In conversations with those who've been at this much, much longer than me, the first reason offered is the simplest one: that football offers a thrilling spectacle rarely matched anywhere else. "It's all-consuming in a way that theatre, film or fiction can never be," David Baddiel told me. Remember, Baddiel is now a respected writer of fiction himself, albeit one who admits his devotion to Chelsea is so great that when he sees his eight year old play the Fifa 13 videogame, a kind of Pavlovian reaction kicks in, forcing him to watch – and support – even the virtual, pixels-only version of his team. Baddiel concedes that ballet or dance might offer similar awesome, gravity-defying feats, but not in the same spontaneous, unscripted way – a sequence of moves "that will only ever happen once" and which are, because born of competition, inherently real. Look no further than Sunday's Capital One Cup final, pitting Swansea against Bradford City, the giant-killers from football's fourth tier. "You couldn't script Bradford at a cup final," says Sunder Katwala, founder of the British Future thinktank and an Evertonian. "It would be too schmaltzy."
That certainly captures some of the hold the game exerts, but not all of it. Earlier this week Arsenal fan Piers Morgan tweeted that he had spent ten and a half hours on a flight from London to Los Angeles seething about Wenger. Yet Morgan is not short of action in his life, interviewing ex-presidents and the like. Why obsess over 11 men on a football pitch? "Escapism," was his answer.
Many will identify with that. Plenty of people, grappling with either personal heartache or the cares of the world, find a couple of hours absorbed in football a refuge. I know of several people steeped in the endless, apparently futile search for Middle East peace who stop everything to watch their team – Arsenal, as it happens – even if that means finding an Amman or Cairo cafe with a satellite dish at odd hours of the day or night. It's obsessive and sometimes painful, but it's a break from carrying the usual weight on their shoulders. Which is why the football enthusiasm of the New Labour folk was probably real rather than fake: they needed the escape.
Most fans will admit that other, more serious, things are going on in the world. But, as one put it to me, the serious stuff feels remote, separate from their lives. But when they're at a game, they are part of the crowd, part of the spectacle. This, surely, gets closer to it. Supporting a football team is about belonging to a tribe.
This is what surprises me most about my own new enthusiasm. For I'm not short of affiliations and identities, all of them strongly felt. But now, relatively late on, I have added another one. I might admire the beauty of a Barcelona or Madrid, but it never matches the thrill of seeing my own team score, the kinship I feel with my fellow supporters at that moment.
Tribalism tends to get a bad press, especially when applied to football. Often for good reason: witness the repulsive violence of Lyon-supporting thugs directed this week at travelling Spurs fans, although that episode appears to owe more to an alarming upsurge in French antisemitism than to football. But tribes can be open as well as closed, welcoming in as well as shutting out.
Katwala credits football for much of the change in British attitudes to race. As a boy he remembers being surrounded by fellow fans chanting, "Everton are white". But as fans saw black players score for their clubs every Saturday, they were confronted with a choice: either drop the racism or stop supporting their team. They couldn't conceive of doing the latter – and slowly this society changed.
I know I've come to this party late. But as I prepare for tomorrow's game, I'm glad I'm here.