As another European club season gets under way, I’m reminded of the days in Montreal when my football following was something of an ascetic exercise. When the Premier league moved into the decisive December-January junction, not only would I have to rouse myself from a warm bed embraced only five hours earlier from the local student pubs, I would have to trudge through three feet of snow in temperatures hovering near minus thirty degrees Celsius, stinking of stale Quebec lager, to my local café. After peeling off three layers and settling down to some hot coffee, I would then prepare myself to convince the owner to flip the TV to the right channel, and then to put the sound on. Not too loud — I didn’t need to feel like I was there, especially in my fragile state – just audible enough to hear the tell-tale roar at the decisive strike.
The possibility of this snowy ritual taking place a world away wasn’t foremost on the minds of the moneymen who collected tickets from tens of thousands of British working-class men, women and children most Saturday afternoons in the late 19th and early 20th century. The three o’clock kickoff was meant to accommodate the Saturday half-day. Workers exhausted from a week of toil in the ‘satanic mills’ of industry were more than happy to be “Lords of the Earth”, as J.B. Priestly once wrote, for a couple of hours at the football ground.
Today, with the advent of satellite television able to provide instant live coverage around the globe, viewers are able to watch live matches five or six timezones away. The ‘three o’clock’ kickoff is a moveable feast, and European football’s unique popularity means many have fans grown up watching Serie A, the Bundelsiga or the Premier league at odd times of the day. Afternoon games are enjoyed in the Middle East over supper, in North America at the crack of dawn, in Australasia in the late evening. These time differences can have a subtle but intriguing effect on how local audiences enjoy the game.
It may seem daft or pretentious to think of something like the time of day when talking about football. Surely it doesn’t matter when the game is played — it should just sit there like a one-size-fits-all, universal absolute. Yet the circumstance of how and when we watch football can influence what we take from it. Making plans with friends, choosing the right pub, planning on the fly if your club crashes out of a cup competition when you’re stuck miles from home in a unfamiliar city, often it’s these rituals that make the memory – think Colin Firth rolling around on the apartment floor at the end of Fever Pitch. And as any Cistercian monk will tell you, rituals revolve around time.
For example, depending on where you live in North America, European club matches start anytime from 7 to 10 AM. Games are watched over coffee, eggs, toast, and bacon. Traditionalists will wait an agonizing hour or two at the local pub eyeing the flat screen until beer can be served, but most of the time, matches are enjoyed at home in the quiet of a Saturday morning. For this reason, European soccer in Canada and the US tends to be a more solitary affair. The sobriety of the dawn helps reveal the game’s many idiosyncrasies. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine something like Brian Phillip’s Run of Play getting written in the haze of a laddish, alcohol-fueled English afternoon.
I would also imagine that, for many Australians, watching the Roma or North London derby at midnight must have some sort of doomsday quality, the coda to a long night out. Like Saturday Night Live, it’s something you have to stay up to watch, and can also for that reason be a big letdown– the dull outcome to many a ‘Grand Slam’ or ‘El Clasico’ is probably felt with a sharper tinge of regret. While I wouldn’t pretend to know the experience, I do remember that, during the 2002 World Cup, the midnight start time turned ho-hum group round games into titanic epics, half-blurred by one or three pints too many.
It’s therefore hopeful that, for all of globalization’s milquetoast sameness, it hasn’t yet found a way to conquer the peculiarity of time. I enjoy the haughty distance the five-hour difference gives me from the mad-rush of the European soccer machine. Richard Scudamore’s vision of European football as traveling circus takes that away, which is why I’d rather stay at home and watch the bustle of a St. James Park or a San Siro comfy on my chesterfield with a hot cup of coffee at ten in the morning than witness the same thing at my local park at three in the afternoon. It may not amount to much, but the myriad ways time affects the ‘football ritual’ may be European soccer’s most underrated asset, and the modern-day football moneymen and women, who once used the clock to great exploitative effect, may have missed it.