The Debate: Let’s ban football

Justin Webb says we should replace football with a "noble game" like rugby - do you agree? Share your thoughts here...

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My dear late mother combined, in her politics, the ethics of Quakerism and the zeal of Chairman Mao. She was all for folks being good, but she would define good and she would judge goodness.

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In most respects her idea of decent behaviour probably accorded with yours. But in one area Mum was an iconoclast, or at the least just a little ahead of her time. She wanted to ban football.

The World Cup and the English league. The fouls and the faking and the score draws and the prattle. The over-payment and over-hyping of young men of little talent. Kevin Keegan’s hair (this was the 70s). The lot.

And then she wanted to go much further. She wanted to ban all round balls. None in playgrounds. None in schools. None on posters and none on TV. A Cultural Revolution, no less. She knew people would go to jail but – just like Chairman Mao – she had her eye on a bigger goal: a society in which a new reality had been created. Football-less. Free at last.

How I would roll my eyes. I never liked the game myself but it always struck me, the prematurely middle-aged moderate son of a radical parent, that banning it might be impractical.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself telling my son that I had reached a moment in my life when the time had come to make my own stand: Mum was right. It must be banned.

The exact moment was some godforsaken contest my son was watching between a Scottish and Swedish team. 

The Scottish fans had been banned from attending the game as some kind of weird collective punishment. At one point a Scottish player fell over a Swedish player and then threw the ball at him in the manner of a ten-year-old upset at having to go to bed when it’s still light outside. The Swede, glanced slightly by the ball, writhed on the ground as if the victim of a roadside bomb.

This is a game? It’s little more than institutionalised fecklessness. Televised tawdriness. It is a Lamborghini crash of cowardice and fakery and petulance.

We should stop doing it.

And in its place? Ah, well, funny you should ask. Because live on ITV for the next six weeks the answer is staring us in the face.

Rugby union’s World Cup is quite simply a celebration of anti-football. The players are, for the most part, modestly paid. The injuries are (all right: Blood-gate apart) real. When a player is unhurt he carries on playing. Often he plays on when he is hurt as well. 

Although the hits are brutal, the men are not – Lewis Moody, the England captain and one of the most bloodied players in world rugby, is a modest, gentlemanly presence in the flesh. He is not unusual.

I wandered into the beautiful Bath ground the other day to watch the second team playing and found myself sitting next to England winger Matt Banahan. He had wandered in with his toddler in a pushchair to support the junior players. 

Isn’t such decency – such commitment to the game rather than money – what we worry we have lost in wider society? Well here it is, in Bath and a hundred other clubs week in and week out.

And decent people watch it, too. When I take my son to see our team Bath play we are not segregated like animals at a zoo. We can stand with people supporting the other team. Where the experience of watching football tells us we are base and violent and imbecilic, rugby tells us we are brave and strong and know the difference between a game and an obsession.

Rugby is a tonic: for kids, for adults and good for a nation.

Should we ban football? Is rugby a better, nobler game? Or is Justin misguided? Post a comment below and tell us what you think.

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Justin Webb is a presenter of Today on Radio 4. His book on the special relationship, Notes on Them and Us, is published this week