It has been a superb sporting year… but football's only gold medal is for hatred
22:50 GMT, 10 December 2012
Sport can be cruel, Arthur Hopcraft wrote 44 years ago in The Football Man, which remains the most compelling book written about the game in this country. He went on: 'Football can make a man more ridiculous even than drink.' With that arrow the archer split the tree.
Hopcraft's book, written in the afterglow of England's World Cup triumph, can still be read with pleasure for its unrivalled examination of the people who play and watch football, and the author's expertise in placing the English game in a social context. It is a masterpiece.
What would Hopcraft make of the cesspit that English football resembles these days A man from a humble background, who educated himself, he was one of those old-fashioned football romantics who saw the game as part of that education.
Cauldron of hate: Police separate City and United fans at the Etihad and
(below) Joe Hart stops Matthew Stott getting to Rio Ferdinand
Had he been born four decades later would he want to write such a book Or would he conclude that the game is so filthy that it wasn't worth five minutes of his time
At the end of a wonderful sporting year, maybe the greatest year of all, football lies in the doghouse. Our Olympians, led by the magnificent Jessica Ennis, wear their gold medals with modesty. Bradley Wiggins and Andy Murray are champions, and our golfers stand supreme.
At rugby we have just beaten the All Blacks by 17 points. In cricket Alastair Cook is leading his men to a notable victory in India. Yet in football, wherever one looks, there is disgrace.
Pride of Britain: Bradley Wiggins and Andy Murray have enjoyed fantastic sporting years
When players are not diving, they are abusing referees or demanding salaries out of all proportion to their talents. Managers, when not heaping abuse on match officials, prefer to look the other way. The FA, supposedly the guardians of the game, retreat when they should advance.
Then there are the fans. You know the type, those lovely folk who spend every Saturday afternoon and many nights of the week spitting poison at anybody who comes within a coin's throw.
The Manchester derby on Sunday was a rousing affair, won eventually by Robin van Persie's stoppage-time free-kick, but the abiding image was of Rio Ferdinand ending the game in a daze, a bloody cut above his left eye, as a City supporter expressed his hatred in the way he thought best.
Bloody mess: Rio Ferdinand was targeted by City supporters after celebrating Van Persie's winner
The other image that remains is a familiar one, but it supports the view that football is a great game that attracts pigs. Behind the goal into which Van Persie shot the winning goal a photograph revealed rows of police officers separating the opposing fans.
Without that not-so-thin yellow line there would have been a riot, just as there would be riots on other grounds the length and breadth of the kingdom if police officers and stewards were not present in their hundreds.
This season has begun with a cascade of fan-related incidents: pitch invasions, racist chants and the general nastiness that football fans have made their stock in trade since Hopcraft put his pen down in 1968.
Centre of attention: London staged an incredible Olympic Games with a 'human face' which hasn't been transferred over to football
Football has always aroused strong feelings, wherever it is played. But when it comes to hatred inspired by football – and hatred is surely the word – we take some budging from the gold medallist's rostrum.
Even in our spanking new stadiums, filled, we are often told, by a new breed of supporter, the hatred burns on an intense flame. And many of the people doing the hating are those brought up in the Seventies, when grounds really were dangerous places to visit.
They are men (almost always men) in their 50s and 60s for whom the Saturday afternoon ritual remains an imperishable part of human experience.
Some people wondered, after London staged an Olympic Games with a human face, whether that spirit could carry over into the football season. Well, they know now.
Arrest: A fan is escorted off the pitch by police after confronting United defender Ferdinand during Sunday's derby
Don't be deceived by the talk of 'passion', that most over-rated of qualities. The behaviour at most football grounds would not be tolerated in any other sport. In rugby spectators who behaved as they do at football matches would be marched out of the ground, no questions asked.
We are talking here about significant numbers who rejoice in the tribalism that football encourages. In no other sport is hatred endorsed as a way of life.
Consider how often managers and players refer to 'the fans' as if fandom was a benign phenomenon. If they actually had to sit among the people they praise they might change their tune. Or perhaps they wouldn't.
Perhaps football is now so degraded as a public entertainment that the people who work in the game can no longer distinguish acceptable behaviour from the other sort. It's not as if the fans can take any kind of lead from the players they pay so much to watch.
Under siege: Ferdinand was left with blood pouring from his head after he was struck by a 2p coin
It has been argued that football reflects society, and our society is increasingly dominated by self-obsession, instant gratification, and a corrosive celebrity culture. Many footballers are themselves celebrities, whether or not they can kick a ball.
Despite the commercial success of the Premier League we are not living through a golden age of English football. Should you doubt it, consider this barely believable fact: Stewart Downing, a journeyman midfielder, has played more times for England than Tony Currie, Alan Hudson, Charlie George and Peter Osgood put together. And those gentlemen could play.
Yet rugby, league and union, reflects our society as well, and nobody has to segregate fans on their grounds. There are boorish rugby players, and unpleasant supporters, but nobody feels the need to shout obscenities at opposing fans, or make hissing noises to denote the gassing of Jews. In football it is all in a day's work.
We are also told, sometimes by those who have rarely set foot in a football ground, that such 'boisterous' behaviour is part of 'working-class' culture and is something to be celebrated. That is not a view that would find favour with those working-class folk who used to attend matches, and who managed to behave with a fervour tempered by a respect for others. In any case football is hardly a working-class activity these days.
A fan who follows his team throughout the season is likely to spend up to 5,000 in tickets, travelling and booze. Not many people on modest incomes can manage that.
No, today's yobbos are decidedly affluent compared with their predecessors, who wore flat caps and lit up Woodbines over their cups of Bovril. Football could stop it in a trice if the will was there. The FA could close those grounds where people misbehaved, or dock points for persistent misconduct. Managers could use public statements and programme notes to denounce offenders with strong words, not platitudes.
Something else happened in 1968, when Hopcraft's book was published. John Arlott, another great journalist, stopped covering football, a game he loved, because it had become 'seedy'.
It sounds almost polite these days, seedy, like some Bayswater boarding house. Today we are obliged to use more powerful words, and every one holds the game to account: a reckoning that nobody, not the players, not the fans, not the wretched FA, feels obliged to honour.