In 1990 something truly massive happened in England. Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne single-handedly raised a tactically stale England side to the status of World Cup entertainers while another fat genius piggy-backed on his success.
It was hard to imagine at the height of Gazza Mania that his impact on football would be so limited in the years ahead. Instead it was the piggy-backing Luciano Pavarotti who’s impact truly lasted as he became famous across the country.
In 1989 English football was a struggling working class game. It was rife with violent tendencies and racism. It was something looked down on by social betters. And fans were caged like the scum they appeared from outside to be.
By the time England valiantly lost their semi-final, all that had changed. Even the Square Mile succumbed. Men in expensive suits crowded the same pubs as the denim clad commoners to take in the action and to learn how best to shout at John Barnes and Terry Butcher from thousands of miles away.
And the new comers were hooked. A world they were previously barred from became welcoming. The foreign language was overcome, the cultural hostility grew weaker, and the confusing code of unwritten rules collapsed.
As a football fan from before 1990, I would love to claim that football’s inherent glory made this happen. But were that the case it would surely have happened sooner. Instead an opera singer deserves the credit, or at least some of it.
Pavarotti is undoubtedly one of the greatest opera performers of his generation. And pointing out his poor acting skill is akin to complaining that John Terry should score more goals.
As the brilliant voice that linked football with the most elite of arts, he flicked a switch in the hearts and minds of people that would not normally peer down their nose twice at football.
His voice conveyed the hope and optimism that Paul Gascoigne gave a depressed English game. It conveyed just as perfectly the despair and hurt of that second yellow card. And most importantly of all it mirrored all of the grace, beauty, intricacy and depth that football at its best, should embody, and that for the first time in a long time the English side had managed.
Opera can do that perhaps because it is much like football. To the uninitiated it is a bunch of fat people in silly outfits making a lot of indiscernible noise. But for those who ‘get it’ there is endless beauty and debate to be had.
While pundits on the BBC rush to worship Pavarotti as the ‘greatest ever’, I can’t help but think of all their claims that the latest player doing well is the best ever.
I always wonder at such claims whether some one has found previously lost footage of Alf Common and his contemporaries, which would enable a comparison to be made. And it struck me that to say this of Pavarotti was just as unfair to Adelina Patti, a 19th century star that no living person has ever heard sing.
I can’t make her case for her. But more of a shame for Pavarotti is that I can’t even make the case of Placido Domingo, another of the three tenors, and just as widely recorded as the man himself.
You see, I remain uninitiated. I like Pavarotti because he reminds me of football. But he never initiated me into his art. And needless to say the Royal Opera House is therefore still the hostile place with confusing rules and a foreign language that it was to me in 1989.
Some claim that the rise of piss poor pop groups like El Divo shows a widening of opera to new audiences. But that is a lie. They are the equivalent of a mobile phone clip of some pop star playing ‘keepy-uppy’ and should be treated as such.
In truth the English people don’t understand opera, they don’t take great interest in it, don’t attend it, and for the most part can’t name a great performer of it besides the Italian himself. (I’m reliably informed Leslie Garratt does not meet with that description.)
So thank you Pavarotti for the fond memories and your part in a revolutionary moment in English football. I hope one day your own medium will open up too.