The full official name of 'soccer' (as it is called in the USA and sometimes in Britain) is 'association football'. This distinguishes it from other kinds such as rugby football (almost always called simply 'rugby'), Gaelic football, Australian football and American football. However, most people in Britain call it simply 'football'. This is indicative of its dominant role. Everywhere in the country except south Wales, it is easily the most popular spectator sport, the most-played sport in the country's state schools and one of the most popular participatory sports for adults. In terms of numbers, football, not cricket, is the national sport, just as it is everywhere else in Europe.
British football has traditionally drawn its main following from the working class. In general, the intelligentsia ignored it. But in the last two decades of the twentieth century, it has started to attract wider interest. The appearance of fanzines is an indication of this. Fanzines are magazines written in an informal but often highly intelligent and witty style, published by the fans of some of the clubs. One or two books of literary merit have been written which focus not only on players, teams and tactics but also on the wider social aspects of the game. Light-hearted football programmes have appeared on television which similarly give attention to 'off-the field' matters. There has also been much academic interest. At the 1990 World Cup there was a joke among English fans that it was impossible to find a hotel room because they had all been taken by sociologist!
Many team sports in Britain, but especially football, tend to be men-only, 'tribal' affairs. In the USA, the whole family goes to watch the baseball. Similarly, the whole family goes along to cheer the Irish national football team. But in Britain, only a handful of children or women go to football matches. Perhaps this is why active support for local teams has had a tendency to become violent. During the 1970s and 1980s football hooliganism was a major problem in England. In the 1990s, however, it seemed to be on the decline. English fans visiting Europe are now no worse in their behaviour than the fans of many other countries.
Attendances at British club matches have been falling for several decades. Many stadiums are very old, uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. Accidents at professional football matches have led to the decision to turn all the country's football grounds into 'all-seater' stadiums. Fans can no longer stand, jump, shout and sway on the cheap 'terraces' behind the goals (there have been emotional farewells at many grounds to this traditional 'way of life "). It is assumed that being seated makes fans more well-behaved. It remains to be been whether this development will turn football matches into events for the whole family.
There are two versions of this fast and aggressive ball game: rugby union and rugby league. They are so similar that somebody who is good at one of them can quickly learn to become good at the other. The real difference between them is a matter of social history. Rugby union is the older of the two. In the nineteenth century it was enthusiastically taken up by most of Britain's public schools. Rugby league split off from rugby union at the end of the century. Although it has now spread to many of the same places in the world where rugby union is played, its traditional home is among the working class of the north of England, where it was a way for miners and factory workers to make a little bit of extra money from their sporting talents. Unlike rugby union, it has always been a professional sport.
Because of these social origins, rugby league in Britain is seen as a working class sport, while rugby union is mainly for the middle classes. Except in south Wales. There, rugby union is a sport for all classes, and more popular than football. In Wales, the phrase 'international day' means only one thing - that the national rugby team are playing. Since 1970, some of the best Welsh players have been persuaded to 'change codes'. They are 'bought' by one of the big rugby league clubs, where they can make a lot of money. Whenever this happens it is seen as a national disaster among the Welsh.
Rugby union has had some success in recent years in selling itself to a wider audience. As a result, just as football has become less exclusively working class in character, rugby union has become less exclusively middle class. In 1995 it finally abandoned amateurism. In fact, the amateur status of top rugby union players had already become meaningless. They did not get paid a salary or fee for playing, but they received large 'expenses' as well as various publicity contracts and paid speaking engagements.
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