Watching football without a drink was once unthinkable. Then again, there were all sorts of things I wouldn’t have countenanced without the benefit of alcohol: going to a wedding, say; or any party; or any kind of date. The list was long. The length of your list is as good a way as any of gauging your dependence on alcohol. I never got to the stage of needing a drink to go to the shops, but I was most definitely at the stage when an evening with a dear friend wouldn’t hold much appeal if there wasn’t going to be drink involved.
I’d go to all sorts of trouble to facilitate pre-match drinking. I’d always try to take the train rather than drive to matches, a case of doing the right thing environmentally, but for the wrong reasons. Good for the carbon footprint, bad for my liver. It became incredibly important to speed-drink a couple of quarts of beer in some pub or other, a pre-match ritual that wasn’t for tinkering around with.
Ahead of Croatia’s World Cup semi-final in 1998, I got an early Eurostar to Paris and ate and drank all day with Croatian friends. At the Stade de France, there was great joy for us when Croatia took the lead. I, however, missed the goal because, er, j’étais en train de pisser. There should be a special place in fools’ hell for people who spend so much time and money getting to a football match, only to miss their team’s only goal because their bladder is full. France won 2-1 – I saw both of their goals, by the way – and I went home miserable. Absurd, completely absurd.
In another case of the right thing happening for the wrong reasons, the alcohol intake of England fans in Qatar isn’t what they might want it to be. And if that curtails their enjoyment of it all, that gives me no pleasure. On the other hand, there is the delicious possibility of England winning this World Cup roared on by sober fans, whose delight will be diminished not a jot by the absence of alcohol. As they eventually file out of the stadium after the final, having watched Harry Kane lift the trophy, not one of them will say: “This is really great – one of the best days of my life – but it would have been so much better if I’d been drinking all day.” They may well lament what a crying shame it is that they can’t then go out and get smashed, but that, too, will pass as the party of parties will go on long into the night, with next to no booze passing anyone’s lips.
It could give the lie to the whole “necessity” of drinking. Consider the Saudi Arabian fans this week, beside themselves with astonished joy as their team beat Argentina. Poor souls. If only they were allowed to drink alcohol, they’d have been able to enjoy it properly, thought no one.
Rebecca West, of all people, wrote something that gets to the heart of this. In her doorstopper of a travelogue about her journeys around Yugoslavia on the eve of the second world war, her Islamophobia is never far from the surface, so I hesitate to quote her on related matters. However, in what reads to me as an unintentional compliment, she says of “the Turks” that their “reward for total abstinence from alcohol seems, illogically enough, to be the capacity for becoming intoxicated without it”.
The capacity to achieve intoxication without the benefit of alcohol is surely a life skill worth acquiring. I’m getting there. Whether I can achieve intoxication without the benefit of football is another matter.
• Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist