These days I’m not so well informed about football as I used to be. It was only last week that I learnt the astonishing news (seven months after everyone else) that the Netherlands had failed to qualify for Euro 2016. It was around the same time that I also learnt a very important fact about the upcoming European Championships: that the number of teams competing had been increased by 50 per cent (from 16 to 24), and an additional round has been inserted.
Which means, basically, that once you start watching Euro 2016, you’ll get dragged into a time-altering black hole of footie, from which you’ll emerge a whole month later, surprised to find that all your friends and relatives haven’t died in the centuries that have seemed to pass, the Earth hasn’t become a doomed, infertile dust bowl, and your house hasn’t been knocked down to build an intergallactic super-highway.
I do speak from experience here. I know the way football distorts time if you let it. When I got home from covering the World Cup in France in 1998, it was extremely hard to grasp the idea that normal life had been going on at a normal speed when such momentous stuff had been unfolding elsewhere. David Beckham had been sent off at Saint-Etienne! Dennis Bergkamp scored the best goal of all time at the Vélodrome in Marseille!
Meanwhile, France, as a nation, had started out being a bit sniffy about football, but had been caught up in the romance of a team that included the brilliant Zinedine Zidne (they got so carried away, they awarded him the Légion d’honneur). Such heroic events had surely taken many decades to unfold, but my mum efficiently burst my World Cup bubble on my return by saying, casually, “Oh, you’re back, then. Did anybody win?”
Of course, football championships always feel very, very long to one particular group of people: those who hate on telly. “What?” they say. “Again? Is this on every year? Explain why they keep playing each other? Couldn’t they just settle it once and for all?”
Such people will be in extra agonies this time, I fear, with the new format stretching the number of games from the usual 31 to an unbelievable 51. About ten days into it, they will expect the normal tipping point of such a tournament, where the group stage is over, and the knockout begins and you can start to see an end in sight. This is the point where the earnest football fan starts to feel extremely tense. (It is also the point, incidentally, when the British home teams traditionally pack up their kit and come home, to the gobsmacked dismay of their fans).
But with the new structure, the group stage doesn’t end with half the teams being sent home. Oh no, four of the six third-ranked teams get to play again. Teams will have to lose over and over again before anyone takes pity on them and concedes, “OK, that’s enough guys. Go home!”
I have often tried to start a heated debate on whether sport is just a branch of entertainment that benefits from being taken too seriously by journalists. To me, the expansion of the Euros is the sort of cynical move that completely gives the game away.
Making it bigger in scope and longer in duration does not improve the chances of us seeing the best team win, does it? It just drags it out for bigger ticket sales. It might even work against the best team winning, because by the time the final matches come along, the more starry players will all be homesick, knackered, injured, demoralised, or banned after being sent off.
As for the four-dimensional mental calculations required of the fans, having to work out, say, whether a) England drawing or winning is required now against Slovakia, or b) does it also depend on whether Russia loses to Wales? plus c) how are the third-placed teams doing in every other group – well, let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that, as all their heads will explode.
So I’m predicting a very, very long June. It might not be the warmest or coolest one on record, but it will definitely be the most protracted (stretching to 10 July) that most of us have ever known. For those who don’t like football, this is obviously the opportunity you’ve always wanted to tackle War and Peace at last – or that three-volume edition of Proust that you bought ten years ago.
A trip to the North Pole might appeal – or to Scotland, Norway, Greece or the Netherlands, because (as any fool knows) these countries did not qualify. Or here’s another bright idea: you might organise your own Films of Tom Hardy Home Retrospective, which is something I can personally recommend (many of his performances reward oft- repeated viewings, it turns out).
For those who intend to immerse themselves in football, I do urge you to do a few things: remember to wash occasionally, even if no one is coming round; make a point of speaking to someone who doesn’t care about the football at least once a week; but most of all, pay attention to the passage of time.
Clocks and calendars will help, but if there are flowering plants within easy walking distance, visit them daily and monitor the opening of the buds. The important thing is: keep one foot in the world of reality! If you don’t, the shock of re-entry on 11 July might honestly be more than your little human brain can stand.
Euro 2016 begins Friday 7:15 pm on ITV and 6:30pm on Radio 5 Live