Like most sports fans when I found out children were on the way I was keen they follow in my football-rugby-cricket-kabaddi watching footsteps so that I could cunningly combine one of my favourite pastimes with childcare.
Sadly my firstborn has failed me completely in this department, which is why I'm not taking any chances on the next two and will be implementing a strict and rigorous regime of indoctrination. With that in mind here's my guide to creating a fellow sports nut.
Step one: Begin the process in the early months of a child's life. Sunday morning's repeat of Match of the Day is a good place to start: your child will love the brightly coloured kits – not to mention the sparkle in Gary Lineker's eye – and you'll get brownie points for getting up with the baby. Remember not to mention you actually want to get up.
A word of warning: some younger viewers may find Alan Shearer's choice of shirts extremely distressing.
Step two: Play ball. As soon as your child can pick things up you should throw balls at him (or her, there's no room for gender stereotyping here) at every opportunity. Not at his head, unless he can catch, along the floor so he can stop the ball and, possibly, roll it back to you. Even if he simply watches it bounce off his chubby knees before going back to chewing something inappropriate, celebrate wildly. You want your children to make positive associations with sport.
Step three: Before they have a chance to develop their own thoughts and feelings about the merits of supporting a mid-table team with limited trophy winning potential, share a photo of them dressed in the kit on Facebook. Later in life point to this and say: "Look you've been a fan for years. Start supporting Chelsea and I'll never talk to you again."
Step four: Children love shouting, usually at inappropriate moments such as weddings when the vicar asks "if any person present knows of any lawful impediment..." Everybody laughs: what a hilariously mistimed piece of toddler noise making! But actually small kids have a sixth sense for relationships that aren't going to work out.
Anyway, the point is sport provides an environment in which shouting is permitted. Even if they have no idea what is going on, toddlers will jump at the chance to bellow and screech with such excitement you'd think an actual talking dinosaur had just entered the room. If you support a team you can teach them to boo the opposition too – obviously you'll need to explain that irrationally hating another group of people is only acceptable in a sporting context.
Step five: Don't attempt to over-complicate matters. They haven't learnt to read yet, they're not going to understand the offside rule or the role of the false nine.
Step six: Small children hate losing – which is why they are such incorrigible cheats – so try and suppress your competitive dad instincts. God knows sending a four-year-old the wrong way with a clever dummy or rasping a dipping, curling shot past him into the top corner of a child-sized goal is ridiculously satisfying, but really it's only going to put him off football.
Step seven: At some point, if you're doing this right, your child will want to join a team. When he, or she, does it's important to remember that relentlessly bawling instructions at him during a match adds very little to his experience. Arguing with the referee or starting fights with opposition parents won't help much either.
Step eight: The first World Cup a child consciously interacts with is a formative sporting experience. A true fan-in-the-making will become intensely involved; you can encourage this by supplying wallcharts, sticker albums and a steady flow of stickers. They'll soon be hooked. Try to resist filling all of these in yourself or becoming irritated when your child notes down the Paraguay-Ivory Coast score incorrectly.
No future World Cup will ever compete with the first of course, but your carefully crafted sports-nut offspring will watch each one that follows in the hope it will. I'm still waiting for the tournament that resuscitates the spirit of 1990, complete with Gazza-esque tears, tiny shorts and thighs that could eclipse the sun (Stuart Pearce that was you), but I know I'll be waiting a long time. Not because those things can't happen again but because nothing is as exciting when you're an adult. And England are highly unlikely to get to a semi-final any time soon.
The final test: If you can send your child to the park with a football, dressed in nothing but polyester and shin pads, and don't see him again until the sun starts to set, you can give yourself a pat on the back and think "my work here is done".
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