Football has played a huge role in my life. I grew up in Enfield, four miles away from where Tottenham played at White Hart Lane and not much further away than that from Arsenal’s Highbury home.
Being working class and so close to two of the biggest clubs in Enfield, football was in my blood - my maternal granddad had been a football obsessive. As a young man in the 1950s, he was walking every other weekend from Chingford to Islington so he could see his beloved Arsenal. If Arsenal were playing away from home he would watch Orient or even Spurs, so desperate was he to see a game.
My dad went to Spurs games from a very young age, his feet often not touching the ground so packed and, frankly, hazardous was football spectating back then. He watched one game at White Hart Lane when too small to see over the crowd, through a toilet window, only seeing about a third of the pitch. He wouldn’t just watch the first team either – he would regularly attend friendlies and reserve team games.
When I was a child, I played football constantly. Along with virtually every boy in my street, we would play in the road, using front gardens as goals, errant shots constantly pinging off cars and front windows. Only the threat of getting run over by cars driving down the street would, with great reluctance, pause our game of football. I would then play football every break time and lunch time at school.
When I wasn’t playing football, I was watching live games on TV, Match of the Day or videos my dad bought from the charity shop. If I wasn’t playing, watching, talking or reading about it I was fantasising about football - at one time bursting the pipes of my bedroom radiator by constantly kicking a football against it, pretending it was a goal. My dad on another occasion bought me red and yellow cards. I marched around with these, brandishing them with alacrity to anyone who annoyed me. My parents, sisters, even neighbours would be booked or sent off.
Football meant so much to me because, being autistic, it was what allowed me to be accepted by others. I was shy, awkward, confused, and often lonely and would be for many years after. But football transcended such barriers. A ball, some inanimate objects that could be used as goal posts and a dose of enthusiasm was all that was needed and suddenly, I would be in a game of football.
When playing football, being autistic did not matter. I was just like everybody else. Socially too, I had fewer shared interests than my peers but the one thing we shared was enthusiasm for football. Nothing generates conversation quite like those immortal five words: ‘What team do you support?’
We still live in a society that, in my view, fundamentally does not accept autistic people. While awareness is improving, society still dances to a neurotypical tune. In the autistic community we have to scrap, campaign, start petitions to get the most basic provisions and facilities so we can live in less distress. Football gave me, as an autistic person, the acceptance all autistic people deserve and only a few get.
I have been very fortunate. Football’s ability to overcome barriers may be a cliche as old as time but, in my case, was certainly true. How better to celebrate the capacity of football to embrace the excluded than the World Cup?
Nothing brings countries and expatriate communities together, or conjures the sheer excitement, like the World Cup. Football is the world’s greatest sport, watched by billions. The mood of a nation is transformed by what happens in World Cups. Countries at war cease hostilities to watch games. Elections get decided by the World Cup’s effect on national morale. If England are playing on a weekday, we’re usually allowed to sack off work early and go the pub.
That’s what I am most looking forward to ― not just watching the great football, but being in pubs and bars, with my mates, watching the games and generating those feelings of bonhomie and camaraderie that football is rare in its ability to initiate.
Enjoy the World Cup everyone.
This blog first appeared on the National Autistic Society’s website and can be found here