The debate is never-ending. It divides opinion. Loyalties are divided too. Is it an honour and if so, how much? Is there the same passion, the same feeling, the same desire? Is there the same level of interest, intensity and meaning? And we are not just talking about the players …..
For many of the Rangers faithful at Loftus Road, supporting their club is their life. Nothing tops it. It’s like a drug or a religion, just as it is for hundreds, thousands, millions across the land, supporting their own clubs. Indeed, it could be argued that for the more traditional smaller clubs, like the R’s, with their more traditional supporters, the feeling is perhaps stronger than for the ‘Johnny come lately’ bigger clubs, but that’s a story for another day.
For the real fan of whatever persuasion, it is all about tradition and habit, the pre-match routine, the drive, the train, the walk, the chat, the banter, the same seat, the same faces, the familiarity of it all. One common purpose, one common goal, one club. All in it together. For all its travails, life at Loftus Road epitomises this feeling.
But just a few miles down the road, the contrast could not be greater. They come in their thousands, yet the chat is a million miles away. No discussion about line ups and shape, other than of those lining up for the next contract or the shape of big Johnny, or perhaps the new employee on reception. Work colleagues or clients often thrown together rather awkwardly for a Tuesday night at the football, the game largely an irrelevance to many, with little sense of community or spirit; more a corporate jolly, a binge bonanza. Smart phones to the fore, tweeting, texting, messaging and facebooking – the match an innocent bystander in a social media haze. The seats are spacious and comfortable, yet occupancy is limited and fluctuating, the call of the half-time beer clearly preferable to the goings on outside.
I am talking about Wembley and England, of course – and the overwhelming impression left from being one of the 75,751 inside the national stadium to see Roy Hodgson’s men continue their so far perfect qualifying campaign for Euro 2016, with a 2-0 win over Switzerland.
And yet maybe they know best? Maybe the footballing diehards are too long in the tooth? For the group who re-emerged from their half time refreshments a good 20 minutes into the second period immediately to see the opening goal in a largely forgettable match, their timing was impeccable. Give it the big one, a fist pump, a rendition of Rule Britannia, happy days. And as ‘Wazza’ broke the record with 5 minutes to go, their night was complete. Nice one, and all recorded on camera too. Get in! Crucial photographic evidence and a bragging story for their not so fortunate work colleagues the following morning. And with that they disappeared into the night, their work complete, their stories made. Loyal supporters? Real supporters?
The post match chat is a continuation of the lager fuelled bravado and stifling oneupmanship. The only analysis seems to be comparing the price of the Burj Al Arab with the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the only penalty chat related to the cost of returning the hire car a day late; and the closest anyone got to the byline was reading the small print on the ‘all inclusive’ drinks menu.
This is what it has come to. We can but observe and smile. Football is the nation’s game, its favourite game, and one size doesn’t fit all. The FA rubs it’s hands in glee as it counts the tills from another bumper night, easy money as the corporates flock to the HQ. But we mustn’t mock it. The National Stadium is an edifice of which they can rightly be proud, irrespective of the cost. It has presence and mountains of history. It stands alone, it is iconic and the arch a brand of its own. Illuminated in St George’s red and white, it shone like a beacon across the capital, visible from far and wide, as if proudly signifying another victory. The facilities are of the highest quality too, yet it comes at a price. International prices, but if the punter pays….
For the heart and soul of our beautiful game, we need to look further down the footballing pyramid, where football arguably has greater feeling and meaning. Livelihoods often depend on it, you can touch it and feel it; where there is a real sense of belonging.
Yet for whatever anyone says, there is a place for them both, club and country. We don’t need to choose, they both co-exist happily. They always have done and always will. Indeed, the club game needs the international game and vice versa. They feed off each other’s success and this cannot be underestimated.
A successful national side is arguably more important for a nation’s footballing health than a few successful club teams, as it really galvanises a nation. Try telling that to a true diehard but it has to be true. The Lionesses are a case in point – and the ladies game is now flourishing after their successes in the recent World Cup. And, like two overlapping circles there are some, indeed the lucky ones, who are actors or viewers on both stages.
So as the international stage is cleared away for another few weeks, we are back with our clubs again this weekend, our bread and butter, our lifeblood. Our excitement builds again, the routine returns, this is what really matters to us, this is what we read about, dream about and care about most …..bring it on !