I address this diatribe to nobody but the rapidly decaying voice of optimism that inhabits the back of my mind. That little rallying cry that desperately tries to stifle the cynic in me that over recent weeks has claimed an increasingly large area of territory. That last flickering flame of eternal hope that was all but extinguished this week.
You see the rain that fell in astonishing droves on the masses huddled inside Warsaw’s National Stadium on Wednesday felt like the beginning of some great biblical storm, sent by the Gods to punish the heathens for their sins. Its cold, hard force that destroyed the green fields of football was part metaphor, part grim reality.
Because it signalled the arrival of three days of utter insanity. Seventy-two hours in which the soul of the game was sacrificed, sent away to consider its very existence and benefit to mankind.
It left behind a dark and maddening place.
Football demands an almost unparalleled level of dedication and adherence. This week the BBC published its Price of Football survey for 2012, which revealed, amongst other things, that the cost of the cheapest adult ticket in the top four divisions of English football has risen by 11.7% in the past year, a figure more than five times the current rate of inflation. Amazingly, there were many who defended the rises, arguing that fans who think the rates are too high should simply not attend matches. The reality is that many who want to attend simply can’t. They don’t even have the option of choosing to stay away. Football has hooked them in, then cut them loose when it can’t profit from their lust. It has expelled those not able to line its pockets. It is grotesquely greedy.
It perpetuates the most vile of social ills. The disgusting racial abuse endured by Danny Rose in Krusevac should have drawn nothing but condemnation. Yet it prompted a response from the Serbian Football Association that was offensively obtuse. It creates this anger, but is too lazy to placate it. Too self-serving to tackle it.
And these ills lurk on our own doorstep too, despite what some would have you believe. And when football identifies them, and condemns them, it also protects them behind titles (and armbands), too proud to admit its wrongs.
Across the Premier League yesterday several players, irked by a lack of action or even desire to tackle these ills, elected to abstain from wearing t-shirts promoting the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign. Such a decision would appear to be a purely personal one, retaining as we all do our right to freedom of expression. Yet so swollen with its own pride and gluttony is football that one of its pillars condemned his own man for making just such a stand. Football doesn’t care about others.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at Hillsborough on Friday night when, with ten minutes remaining of Sheffield Wednesday’s encounter with Leeds United, an individual clambered from his seat and onto the field of play, where he proceeded to assault the home team’s goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. It was a shocking scene. But equally shocking was the fact that the man in question was tracked by camera back into the Leppings Lane End, where his evil, snarling face was caught on film, laughing like the star of his own sick little hooligan movie. I’m sure he thought he was big and tough. I’m sure he thought he was a hero. He is none of these things, and he is part of football.
I am angry by the ludicrous parade of football’s biggest sins over the last seventy-two hours, and I’ve probably spoken out of turn. I know football is capable of goodness and virtue too. But sometimes that potential seems so distant it makes me think its lost forever.
And that is how I feel right now. I look at football and I can’t see any goodness.
Football is broken. It is a sick, limping and diseased beast. Its soul has been in exile for three days.
Maybe we shouldn’t curse the rain. Maybe we need it to wash away the sins of the game.
Otherwise its soul may be gone for good.