Football is our national game. But like many things that are "national" -the national anthem? the grand national? National Express? - only a minority of people actively get involved.
There's something oddly cliquey about football in the UK. By the time school starts, those kids who've grown up with sporty parents have already been keepy-upping and keeping goal for years. That leaves the wimps and weedy feeling left behind already, at the age of five. Most children's experience of the game begins and ends with a cold, wet football in the face.
The game also suffers from a macho image and a complex secret vocabulary. I've often been left frozen in confusion as a team mate screams "Man on!" or "Go to!" - expressions that left me feeling like a confused tourist at a sheepdog trial.
If you can't already play football, then there really is no opportunity to learn. Lots of workplaces have teams and matches but, in my experience, the standard is too high for a complete novice to get involved. Even when colleagues insist that it's just a kickabout and that no one is any good, you usually find yourself shoulder-barged, harangued, and hopelessly out of position within two minutes.
I think secondary school PE has a lot to answer for here. At my school at least, PE involved playing games, not learning them. As the sporty boys sprinted about the frozen, stud-pocked football pitch, I stood glumly by in too-small football boots and cheap white t-shirt hoping not to be noticed, and awaiting the inevitable football in the face.
Cricket at school was no better. Our PE teacher "taught" us to bat with a pithy two-sentence speech. "If the ball is heading for the wicket, boys, " he said, miming a defensive stroke, "you say 'well bowled mate!' And if it's not," he continued, now miming a spectacular six, "you say 'fetch that!'" That is all the cricketing education I ever had. The humiliation of trying to get through six successfully bowled balls when our rag-tag school team went to play the honed poshos at the local private school (one ball straight up in the air, one down on the ground at my feet) stings to think of to this day.
It's humiliations like these that made me launch Kickr Academy, a football school for complete beginners, men and women. I wanted to bring a bit of inclusivity back into sport. I wanted to properly learn how to kick a ball, where to stand when I wasn't kicking the ball, how to avoid being tackled by my six-year-old nephew. And I wanted to do that in a way that focused on fun, rather than the usual sporting machismo.
Minority sports and women's leagues do a much better job of this already. Of course if you go to a Korfball session, they don't expect you to perform a perfect three-point-Korf on your first go. (Apologies to aficionados: I don't know anything about Korfball.) And women around London are happily enjoying the sociability of the beginners' netball and roller derby leagues which have sprung up recently. But I really don't see the need for sport to be gendered, particularly not at a beginner level. And I don't see why you should have to learn a game no one has ever heard of if you want to start playing team sports as an adult.
Here's to the adrenaline of exercising for fun. Here's to the sociability of being in a team. Here's to never being mansplained the offside rule again.
And here's to no more footballs in the face.
The first Kickr Academy starts Monday 12th June at 7pm in Finsbury Park and runs for 10 weeks. Absolute footballing no-hopers welcome!Suggest a correction