Football vs Rugby: it’s the social divide that splits sport-loving men like the Great Rift Valley. You either worship the beautiful game, leaving the bunch of egg chasers to chase their egg, or you follow the real man’s game, laughing at the prima donna glove-wearers prancing about on their under-soil heated pitches. Apparently there’s no in between. Well, there is – I’m standing there at the foot of the valley, wondering if I’m all by myself – as well as how the hell I’m going to get out of a 1500 metre trench without phone signal. I am literally the only person I can remember meeting who loves both games, and I really don’t understand why. Or perhaps I do. Watch me alienate fans of both sports within two paragraphs…
So, why do so many football fans hate rugby with the same passion they usually reserve for rival supporters and Joey Barton? It could be the memories of school days out on the Somme-esque mudfields, the smirking PE teacher we’ve all tried to erase from our consciousness who gained a little too much satisfaction from encouraging small children to pulverise each other. It could be the posh farm-bred Charlies whose militant PTA mothers drive their Land Rovers like armoured vehicles to their rugger match against St Charlie’s Day Boys. Or perhaps it’s the pitiful Songs of Praise-esque ripple of genteel applause emanating from the Henry’s Organic Eggs Stand that meets every try – or ‘blatant handball’ in football parlance – at the shared stadium, contributing nothing other than a screwed up pitch for the next football match.
And why can rugby fans abide ‘soccer’ with about as much tolerance as when watching Gavin Henson dish out roses on The Bachelor? Well, it may have something to do with the repertoire of pliés, pirouettes and gunshot wound re-enactments on show from the pros in their on-going mission to con the refs, before unleashing a swathe of Tarantino dialogue when things don’t go their way. Or possibly it’s the pouting and toddler tantrums when players are told to spend part of their Saturday earning the week’s £200,000 from the bench. Maybe it’s the poor example being set for our kids about respecting authority and hair gel temperance.
Regardless of my liberal use of poetic licence, my point is this: in most of the conversations I’ve had with lovers of either sport, the chief complaint has rarely had anything whatsoever do with the actual content of the game in question. I can’t remember ever hearing “yeah, I’d like to follow rugby but the rules are a bit of a bitch to follow and to be honest, as far as playing goes, I can’t really be seen with a black eye or shattered nose at work” or “I’d like football if they didn’t spend so long knocking it around at the back, and if I’m honest, I always found it a bit hard to dribble that bloody thing while running. I’m more of a hand-ball coordination man myself”.
I often tell people who claim to hate football because of all the ‘nonsense’ that surrounds the game – many of whom have been girls I might add – that I love football despite the numerous flaws that accompany the game. I love it because I love the sport, with all its mesmerising skill, intricate passing and tactical intrigue; and no amount of bald Swiss fascist dictatorships running the game or indiscriminate use of the word ‘obviously’ in post-match interviews will ever convince me otherwise. Because it’s a beautiful game. Equally, I love rugby because it’s high octane, incredibly skilled (despite what football purists might think) and incredibly satisfying to play. I don’t care about all the above caricatured ridiculing or what other people think; to me they’re both essentially great sports that hold a place in my heart and Sky Plus hard drive.
It’s a pretty deep-rooted cognitive disposition to associate the actual content of something with the stuff that accompanies it. Think of eating in a restaurant; if you’re surrounded by a bunch of loud-mouthed tossers on a stag do flicking grapes at your girlfriend’s chest area, it’s unlikely your dining experience will be remembered with great fondness no matter how good the food was. Likewise, I’m pretty sure if your main experience of football has involved enduring groups of wankered Stoke fans (club chosen at random, I promise) sing-shouting on the train home from an away match then you’re unlikely to tune in to watch Gary Neville dissect Aston Villa’s tactical flaws. Or, if your most prominent association of rugby is witnessing g the entire university first team rugby squad piss into each other’s pint glasses before doing all kinds of homoerotic things to each other in the middle of the student union, then equally you might not feel compelled to sign up to the next game of touch-rugby on offer.
There is a further point as well: for many, the rugby or football decision is a tribal thing. You’re either in one or the other. Many liken the passion with which they follow their chosen game to religion, so to take the analogy further; you’re either one thing or another: you can be a Catholic or a Jew, but you can’t be a Catholic Jew. Perhaps this is where my disdain for organised religion informs my position on the matter. Whatever your view though, all I’m saying is that it’s a shame if we end up disliking something for the wrong reasons. If you hate football, you hate football. But don’t hate it because Cristiano Ronaldo makes too much money. And don’t hate rugby because you once returned to your unattended pint to find it tasted decidedly questionable.