They often say that at the time of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal there were three pillars of the regime: Fatima (or Faith), Fado and Football. And upon moving there in 1999 I quickly realised that if I wanted to learn to communicate with people, I would have to learn not just their language but also how to express opinions about a sport that, since the age of about 11, I had had no interest in whatsoever.
In fact in Portugal, football is such a ubiquitous topic of conversation that it really should be awarded the status of a second language. I soon discovered that I could hold a very basic conversation with taxi drivers and cafe owners by just making reference to different teams, learning the numbers from nil to five and chucking in a good few recently and proudly acquired swearwords. It was taken deadly seriously by some; the one club in town, Vitória de Guimarães, sometimes questionably claimed to be Portugal's fourth 'grande', had two dedicated 'claques', something like a cross between a fan club and a 'firm' of hooligans, which existed purely as deadly rivals of one another. The head of one of the groups, the unfortunately named 'White Angels', kept a baseball bat behind the bar of his, well, bar, in case he spied any members of the enemy sect, the tragically named 'Insane Guys', trying to enter.
I took advantage of the conversational opportunities open to me by trying to 'teach myself Portuguese through football'; one of the first sentences I taught myself to say was 'A minha última ambição é falar melhor português que Bobby Robson' (My ultimate ambition is to speak better Portuguese than Bobby Robson, the English football manager who had trained two of the three big clubs in Portugal (inevitably someone, possibly hailing from Guimarães, is going to respond and claim that there are in fact four, which isn't true) and whose Portuguese was very limited and the source of much mirth).
And at the end of five years in Portugal I could accurately say that I, in all probability, sei mais do futebol do que ele – I know more than him about football, or at least as much. In Portugal it is inescapable: the two biggest selling and most widely-circulated newspapers are football ones, it takes up most of the news bulletins, and it seems to be the default theme for casual and not-so-casual conversation. Everybody knows which team the President and the Prime Minister support, and it tends to colour people's opinions of their politics. Everybody knows the affinities of each of their friends, families and workmates, and, oddly enough, in this women are not entirely excluded.
It's very easy to get caught up in the banter, the name-calling and the pre- and post-match analysis (mostly, it must be said, of the performance of the referee), partly because it tends to exclude and take the place of other topics of conversation – and in this, I would argue, football plays exactly the same role as it did before the Revolution, stifling proper political debate with a populist call for unity behind the largely fictional entity of a football club. But also because it's not in the end a very complicated thing to understand, and a small quantity of information combined with a large amount of irrelevant opinion added to a tiny amount of insight can lead to a very lengthy but inevitably boring conversation.
I must admit I got caught up in the swing of things. It provided a quick common denominator to start conversations with people – finding a Portuguese person who doesn't claim to have a team to support and an opinion on the footballing issues of the day is like finding a Chinese person with no interest in food. But when I did occasionally meet someone like this, I'd realise I had crossed a line and was in very dangerous and disturbing territory.
Sometimes, faced with a stranger or acquaintance, I'd ask them what they thought of the previous night's game (football in Portugal is often a seven-nights-a-week thing). And it was when they responded that they didn't much care for the sport, that it would hit me with shame and horror that, at the end of the day, Brian, neither did I.
Which led to a confused spell during which I was struck by the insight that nobody actually likes football, they're just pretending, because they think that everybody else does.
But that can't possibly be true, can it?!?
The F Word part 2