Last summer, as the Pacific sloshed in the middle-distance, and a serviceable Pommard released its bouquet in my cradled hand, I was lost in the deep thought that overcomes a man who is far from home but near to life’s natural glories.
The thought was that Kieran Tierney had just broken Arsenal’s club record for the vertical jump by one centimetre, despite a hernia.
I was apprised of this momentous fact by watching a video of the bushy-tailed left back’s medical. And then slowing it down and pressing the speaker to my ear and playing it again. The event was then parsed for meaning on WhatsApp with friends on three continents, to what we might call the fluent response of my immediate companion.
If I took a more benign view of the lockdown than most, it is because it freed me from the closest thing I have ever had to an addiction. It freed me from football. As stadiums stood eerily dormant, mental space was freed up for other pursuits.
I delved into ever more recondite areas of international cinema (Czechoslovak New Wave). I had more contact with some friends via Zoom than we had ever managed in the corporeal world. As part of my plan to spend every weekend of my forties dossing around the Med, I built up my Italian. If we are what we think about, then I became a different person. I was glad of it. And the change seemed too thoroughgoing to be reversed.
It wasn’t. The return of football has been a personal disaster. Or at any rate a farce. My attention span, and therefore my productivity, is shot. The monastic self-improvement is faltering. As ever, the distraction is not just the games themselves but the surrounding ecosystem of tactical analysis, transfer gossip and sometimes virtuoso #banter, most of which simmers outside mainstream media in podcasts and the “socials”.
It is a world in which fans track anomalous private-jet routes on Flightradar24.com (Leipzig to Lille, say) lest they contain imminent signings. It is also a world formed of people as far west as Portland and as far east as Seoul, which means that, like the forex market, it never closes.
The ease with which this obsession has reimposed itself is humbling. But it is also instructive in a couple of ways. One lesson is that frivolities more than hold their value in serious times. When the mind needs solace from the news, it does not find it in meditative stillness, but in some other subject. Those neurons need to be occupied. “It’s only a game,” wail those who dislike football. “It’s only a game,” repeat those who need it.
It is the other lesson, however, that has implications for the future. It is the resilience of habit. Three months was never going to undo 30-ish years as a football tragic. More surprising is that it did not even register a dent.
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Now, it is possible that I am unrepresentatively bovine and set in my ways. If not, though, I wonder if those who claim to have “broken the habit” of office work or city living should reserve their judgment.
It is one thing to renounce an activity when it is no longer an option. It might even help us cope with its absence, as a jilted lover derides their ex.
The test is whether the renouncement holds when the temptation has tangibly returned. If it never does — in a safe way — then the point is moot. I accept that tracking the Kai-Havertz-to-Chelsea rumours on an iPad is easier than braving an office tower. But the assertion of the broken-habit merchants is that, even if the health risks go away, their new preferences won’t. We’ll see, shall we?
To put it another way, in all the futurology about the post-virus world, there is not enough of the null hypothesis: that nothing, or at least much less than we think, will change. Not because it shouldn’t, but because human habits are barnacle-tenacious. A six-year-long world war scraped off amazingly few. Lots of people are sure that it is different this time. And I was sure that verb tables and Evald Schorm films trumped Juventus versus Lyon.
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