As someone who finds Test Match Special almost as dull as The Archers, I should not be too distressed by reports that cricket is not as popular as it used to be in some parts of the world. But listening to Radio Four’s World Tonight broadcast on Tuesday evening about the troubles of the gentleman’s game in India, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of depression.
For while the game is still hugely popular in India, the youth of the country’s burgeoning middle class is becoming increasingly interested in, yes, you guessed it, football. Visit any Indian city these days, apparently, and you will see fewer of the games of street cricket that used to be a breeding ground for so much Indian talent, and more young men wandering around in the familiar strips of Manchester United, Arsenal etc.
True, this might be of succour to diehard fans of England’s cricket team, which might start to beat India on a regular basis if the subcontinent’s vast talent pool gets a bit shallower. But for those of who still cherish the idea that the world is a rich and varied place, it is yet another sign of soccer’s ever-encroaching influence, spreading a globalised monoculture that’s arguably far more powerful than MacDonald’s, Starbucks or Coca Cola.
While I can live with finding Coke, Big Macs and skinny lattes in every remote corner of the planet, I am less than happy about bumping into Premier League football bores everywhere. Especially when they are droning on not about their own local teams, but those tediously successful global brands, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Lest you think I am crying foul unnecessarily, here is a few examples I have picked up during my time as one of The Sunday Telegraph’s foreign correspondents. For the last five years, it has been part of my job to travel to all kinds of remote, little-known and unloved countries – the Leyton Orients and Stenhousemuirs of the League of Nations, as it were. Yet be it in Chad, Guinea Bissau, or Belarus, these days neither geographical isolation, civil war or crazed rulers are any match for football’s relentless cultural imperialism.
Take my unfortunate trip to Somalia in 2008, for instance, when I was kidnapped while investigating the country’s piracy problem. For six weeks, I was held in a cave in a remote mountain range, prisoner of a gang whose spoke barely any English at all. I didn’t learn much about them, but I did find out – appropriately enough, perhaps, given their AK47s – that they were all Gunners fans. Our sole communication, other than the odd mime of a death threat, was grunted pidgin English chats about Arsenal strikers, along with occasional references to other important world figures, such as Barack Obama, Tony Blair and, er, Paul Scholes.
It isn’t just the caves of northern Somalia where you will find Arsenal supporters, however. A few years ago, we reported on how a group of Masai warriors in Kenya had formed an official Arsenal fan club. Not because they particularly admired the men of the Emirates Stadium, but because, in the words of one resident, “we were sick of Manchester United fans dominating the village”.
And Chelsea fans, do not despair, your reputation has likewise strayed far and wide. In the wilds of northern Albania in 2010, while reporting on the ancient phenomenon of families stuck in blood feuds, I came across a boy who had spent 14 of his 17 years in forced isolation in his home. How did he spend the time? Weightlifting, watching TV – and, yes, following Chelsea.
I should, admittedly, declare an interest here – or, rather, a lack of one. I am one of those rare men who find football boring, and who feels it is no longer just a national obsession, but an unhealthy one. After all, we now have saturation coverage not just of our own footballing affairs, but other nations’ too. Sports bulletins and phone-in shows have become simply mind-boggling in their scope. Should Blandchester Rovers accept a bail-lout by Russia’s Sergei Oligarchovitch? Will Francisco Racisto of AC Corruptus apologise for his remarks during the Cameroon friendly? How will Ukraine’s Industrio Sputnik fare in their tour of Germany’s Lower Ruhr Valley? If people put half the effort into discussing politics that they put into discussing sport, our rulers would be truly held to account.
Which makes it all the more depressing to see the less fortunate corners of the world succumbing to the same mania. While it may not matter that much if the average Brit wastes all his intellectual energy on the Five Live football phone-in, the average Somali or South African has arguably more important things he could be discussing.
And in the cultural imperialism stakes, following a Premier League side is a far bigger deal than consuming the odd Big Mac or Coke. The latter asks only for one’s cash and one’s stomach, the former lays claim to one’s time and one’s mind. No Iraqi cabbie, after all, ever bored me rigid talking about Starbucks or Nike trainers.
But where is the moral outrage against the spread of this global monoculture? Should the Left not be up in arms, lamenting the influence of these wealthy corporate sporting entities, with their overpaid stars and vast profits? Should Naomi Klein not be busy writing a footballing version of No Logo?
And last of all, bear in mind this chilling prospect for your children’s generation. In a few decades, China may be the new world superpower, with the leisure preferences of 1 billion Mandarin-speakers dominating the planet. And what is one of their fastest-growing spectator sports? Snooker.
Read all Colin Freeman’s Telegraph Blog posts here