I have made the case in my latest book, ‘What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths’, that the widely held view, that there are no great films about football, is a myth. And just as there are great football films, there is great football art – and literature and poetry. Football (erroneously, as I make clear in another chapter in my book), has tended to be viewed as a lower-class sport. The widespread, indeed dominant view, is that it’s not high culture, it’s low, popular culture. Therefore, it would come as a complete surprise to most fans that outstanding artists, writers, playwrights and poets have been interested in the game and have reflected this in their work, or indeed made football their central subject matter. But they have.
Artists who have created football works include Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Umberto Boccioni, John Singer Sargent, Eric Gill, L.S. Lowry, C.R.W. Nevinson, Paul Nash, Sybil Andrews, Peter Blake, Nicolas de Staël, Henri Rousseau, John Heartfield, Ithell Colquhoun, David Hockney, Joan Miró and Banksy. And my favourite football artist – Paul Trevillion, ‘the master of movement’! Many more internationally acclaimed and respected artists could be added. There are academics researching and writing about this subject, such as Mike O’Mahony and John Hughson.
All fans know there are a huge number of football books, but most are thought to be little more than quickly produced diaries of a season, or ghosted autobiographies of famous players, often brought out from far too early in their careers. And there are over-detailed club histories for almost every club, at all levels, for the obsessives. But there is high-quality academic writing on football, from a wide range of disciplines, excellent football prose, many fine short stories, and over a thousand football novels, some of which are of a very high standard. Authors on football include – and this is just the British – J.B. Priestley, P.G. Wodehouse, Barry Hines, David Peace, Alan Sillitoe, Bill Naughton, George Orwell and Nick Hornby. There have been two winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature who were heavily influenced by football. For Albert Camus: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.’ According to Gabriel García Márquez: ‘My first journey into real life was the discovery of football.’
Poets on football include, from just Britain: Sir Walter Scott, Wilfred Owen, A.E. Housman, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Roger McGough, Fiona Pitt-Kethley and Carol Ann Duffy. Playwrights on football include Harold Brighouse, Patrick Marber, Tom Stoppard and last but not least, albeit very briefly, William Shakespeare, who will have undoubtedly seen street football in both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and may even have played. In The Comedy of Errors, the slave Dromio complains of his treatment by his masters like this: ‘Am I so round with you as you with me, That like a football you do spurn me thus? You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither. If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.’
Some of this football writing may have reached a wider audience, but the fact that so many great artists have engaged with football seems to have been forgotten. Apart from at the National Football Museum for England in Manchester, you don’t see many of these artworks in mainstream galleries, even though they are held in storage in their collections, behind the scenes. It’s almost as if football is an embarrassment to the art world, something that should remain hidden. It’s a reaction to the global cultural power of football, which irritates many people in the cultural elite. They don’t like the fact that football seems to get everywhere.
At the official opening of the National Football Museum for England in 2012, of which I was then the CEO, a guest asked me if I would like to put on display a Picasso sculpture, called ‘The Footballer’. Of course, I said ‘yes!’ very emphatically on the sport! This became the first item on display that visitors saw as they enter the museum’s galleries. Visitors reacted with enormous surprise – who knew Picasso was a football fan or produced a number of football artworks? – but with great pleasure and interest. Many visitors – and not just the children! – tried to mimic the stance of the player in the sculpture.
There is no aspect of culture that is immune from football, and indeed, all aspects of culture are enriched by engagement with the game. I haven’t even mentioned music! There is great football art, because football is such a powerful, global cultural force, touching the lives of almost everyone. Including Picasso.